The columns of power

Paul Constant

March 26, 2019

"What is happening in Seattle today affects the world tomorrow," former Seattle Times columnist and city councilmember Jean Godden writes in the preface of her memoir, Citizen Jean. It's true. In recent years, Seattle has led the way on the $15 minimum wage and secure scheduling laws and a wide array of other policies that cities around the country have only just begun to debate. And Godden has been a major player in the city's transition from, in her own words, "a remote waystation, little known on the world stage, to a leader in civic and national affairs."

So of course Godden should publish her memoirs; she's been writing about Seattle, and guiding Seattle, and gossiping about Seattle for almost her entire life. Early in Citizen Jean, though, she explains the urgency behind the book. Right after leaving the Council in late 2015, Godden nearly dies of a one-two punch of a clogged artery and blood clots in her lungs:

Tucked into a hospital room, plugged into monitors and IVs, lying awake to the clatter of hospital noises that long night, it strikes me that it is late, much later than I had thought. It's not just Christmas shopping that I have not completed. It is writing down the stories, the ones I always meant to tell. I had planned to tell those stories but haven't gotten around to it.

The subtitle of Citizen Jean, Riots, Rogues, Rumors, and Other Inside Seattle Stories, promises the kind of book that someone writes when they're finally writing for themselves — a tell-all, a collection of after-hours stories that people share when they know they're not on the record. And in the beginning of the book, at least, Godden certainly delivers.

Citizen Jean isn't so much a memoir as a collection of anecdotes, told in rough chronological order. And the early parts of the book, which chronicle the seedy side of the Seattle World's Fair (involving a controversial show called "Girls of the Galaxy," which "encouraged patrons to take photos of unclad young women") and multiple plans to further divide Seattle with a criss-crossing network of freeways, certainly do deliver.

Her account of working at a newspaper in the height of the tumultuous 1960s is bracing:

On one of those violent days, a woman walked into the Post-Intelligencer lobby carrying a bottle of vodka and a gun. She managed to get off five shots before being subdued. One shot flew into the elevator just as the doors opened and the three occupants watched in open-mouthed horror...The newspaper was fielding at least one bomb threat a week.

These are the passages that readers hope will never end: whole early chapters of Citizen Jean depict Seattle as an eccentric city full of cranks and geniuses, fighting over the future. But the book lacks any kind of structure; too much of Citizen Jean feels like a wobbly tower of anecdotes, stacked with little regard for how the book reads as a whole.

It's worth sifting through Citizen Jean for the passages where Godden names names and airs grievances. (Yes, there is an index, and it's very well-documented.) She reports that at the Seattle PI, she was paid less than five other male columnists, with seemingly no regard given to her seniority or popularity as a columnist. Godden relates tons of great details about Washington state's many civic personalities from years past — her portraits of the mayors and governors who have long since left office feel candid and clear-eyed.

But the closer the book gets to the present day — and Godden's time on the Seattle City Council — the less gossipy it becomes. By the time Councilmember Godden takes her oath of office, Citizen Jean loses its teeth entirely. Instead, we get a fairly standard account of recent political history, told by someone who seems to be most interested in protecting her legacy.

The axe-grinding you'll find in the later portion of the book is about as predictable as you could imagine: Godden repeatedly refers to Mayor Mike McGinn's bicycle-riding with derision, and she casts him relentlessly as an obstructionist. She snipes at The Stranger for "its 'gotcha' approach," and she burnishes her own record as councilmember. She barely mentions that she lost her last election to City Council, and she offers no meaningful insight into that loss or how it affected her.

That's all to be expected, of course, but a few curveballs would be nice. Godden seems afraid to make any enemies, and she has no desire to get in the way of conventional wisdom. Perhaps the biggest — and maybe only — surprise in the latter half of the book is that Godden has some positive things to say about socialist Councilmember Kshama Sawant.

But it would be nice if the second half of the book had the same devil-may-care excitement of the first half. Godden even carries the water for disgraced Mayor Ed Murray, downplaying his legendary bad temper and glossing over the fact that he left office in a cloud of shame after a series of sexual abuse and molestation allegations. ("Whatever one may think of his later highlighted troubles, Murray was the minimum wage champ," Godden enthuses.) Surely one of the snarky comments about McGinn's pro-bike agenda could have been cut to make room for a mention of Murray's fate?

Ultimately, Citizen Jean contextualizes Seattle's journey though the 20th century in Godden's lively first-person accounts. It explains in anecdotes how we developed from a sleepy town to an international city, with plenty of missteps along the way. And while the portion of the book devoted to the 21st century is less than satisfying, maybe that's an honest portrait, too? Godden's failure of introspection as a city councilmember and her lack of curiosity about the mechanics of power does reflect a certain unfortunate modern Seattle sensibility, after all.

Books in this review:
  • Citizen Jean: Riots, Rogues, Rumors, and Other Inside Seattle Stories
    by Jean Godden
    WSU Press (Washington State University Press)
    208 pages
    Provided by the publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston’s grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle’s own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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