John L. OBrien
August 27, 2008 · Updated 8:34 PM
One of the most fascinating things about attending legislative sessions during the 30 plus years I did that as the first woman political reporter in Olympia, was watching John L. OBrien alternate between pussycat and saber-toothed tiger.
John, who died April 22 at the age of 95, was Speaker of the House in 1961, my first session. He was a tall, always impeccably and expensively dressed man with long expressive hands like an orchestra conductor. His facial expression was either a quizzical scowl or an Irish grin there was no in between.
No speaker since has had such power as this Certified Public Accountant from Seattle.
He appointed all the committees and their chairs himself. He alone decided what went and what didnt. He was the king and he behaved like one, never mingling with the members, declining to eat with them in their Cafeteria, seldom inviting them to his office.
He was great copy and I enjoyed writing about him and that enigmatic Mona Lisa smile of his and one day he summoned me to his office.
Adele, he said. Im not all bad. You always write that I am dictatorial and arrogant but Im really not. Speakers have to make decisions that frequently make enemies.
I promptly wrote another story headlined, John OBrien Not All Bad, and he gave up trying to convert me.
He was more tiger than pussycat in those days and one of the best scoops I ever had was on the Saturday before the opening of the 1963 session when I was the only one to report that four-term Speaker John L. OBrien was going to be dumped on Monday.
Were doing to dump him like so much garbage, I was told by then-Rep. Bob Perry, D-Seattle, who engineered the coalition with Republicans Dan Evans and Slade Gorton that did the trick. It happened. Democrat William Big Daddy Day of Spokane was the coalitions speaker. OBrien was too valuable a talent to discard so the Ds made him their floor leader and later Speaker Pro Tem. He held the pro tem job for 16 years.
But the ousting of OBrien was the humanizing of OBrien because he found out what it was like to be looking up at the rostrum after eight years of looking down from it. He also found that his fellow members were human beings whose company he could enjoy. He began a tradition of hosting Irish coffees on St. Patricks Day in his office.
I got under his skin again when I wrote he wanted the pro tem job for the perks that went with it and once again I was summoned into his presence. Why dont you write something nice about me for a change? he demanded. Why dont you write that they need a presiding officer in the House, or about my skills as a parliamentarian? Ive been teaching classes to the freshmen and theyre very pleased.
I will do it, John, I said, looking at him standing there in what had to be a $500 suit. I couldnt imagine him without a tie. Family friends told me his kids had to hire a gardener for the OBrien home because they didnt want their dad out there pulling weeds in his suit.
Tell me, John, I said, is it true youre a millionaire? He frowned and then said, Lets just say that God has been good to me.
He telephoned me one day to read something to me he found in a book that expressed the real John OBrien, he said. A leader must devote himself to making the dreams of others come true, he intoned, solemnly. Thats what I am dedicated to.
There was a pause. I laughed. He did too. We both knew whose dream came true when he wound up with the gavel again, even if it was only as pro tem.
Adele Ferguson can be reached at P.O. Box 69, Hansville, WA, 98340.