Faith, politics and partisanship: Former congressman’s memoir recounts pursuit of ‘A Higher Calling’

Former congressman Don Bonker is looking back to look ahead.

The Bainbridge Island resident’s new memoir, “A Higher Calling,” is a reflection on the man’s own time in government, a demand for “moral leadership and decency” in Washington, D.C., and a challenge to the next generation of political leaders.

He will visit Eagle Harbor Book Company at 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 26 to discuss the book, his career, and the state of government today. The event is free and open to all; visit for more information.

Bonker, a Washington Democrat, served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1975 to 1989, representing Washington’s 3rd Congressional district.

During his time in the House, Bonker was a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and chairman of the Subcommittee on International Economic Policy and Trade. He also served on the President’s Export Council and headed former House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s Trade Task Force, which led to passage of the 1988 Omnibus Trade Act. Also, he helped establish the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge and the Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument, added Protection Island to the National Wildlife Refuge system, preserved the Point of Arches in the Olympic National Park, added some 250,000 acres to the 1984 Washington Wilderness Act and banned the export of Western red cedar.

Recently, Bonker, 82, chatted with the Review about writing, the role of faith in public service, climate change, impeachment, and the upcoming election.

* This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

BIR: Do you have an ideal reader in mind for this book? You mentioned it began as something through which your younger relatives and descendants could know you, but did that change as it grew in scope?

DB: It started as a memoir of sorts, a family legacy with great-great grandchildren one day asking, “He was a congressman, what was that all about?” It took on more meaning as I dug through the stacks of files and news clips covering my 22 years in public service. Along the way plenty of serendipity that shaped my career, way beyond expectations at the outset yet with notable accomplishments that made writing this book more all the more gratifying.

BIR: You’ve said that the act of re-living one’s past is revealing, but, more than a memoir about yourself, the book ultimately became a call to action to be shared. What do you intend for readers take away from “A Higher Calling” and what action do you hope to inspire?

DB: The act of re-living one’s past actually helped me to understand who I was and to solidify the ultimate golden question: Why am I here? That line of inquiry led me to a rather creative epiphany: It wasn’t so much a memoir but a clarion call for others seeking moral leadership to restore trust and confidence in today’s public square. Also, I began to realize how the national leaders I worked closely with had a profound effect on my personal and public life — it was their character, integrity, and how they put the best interest above their self interest.

BIR: A major topic in the book are the conflicts that often arose for you being a Democrat and openly a person of faith, specifically Christian. According to a 2016 National Geographic feature, more people than ever are identifying as atheist, agnostic or “otherwise nonreligious.” What role should personal belief play in a public servant’s performance of their duty in an increasingly secular world?

DB: Religion and politics are worthy of a good conversation, but to combine them can prove contentious. That’s why our founding fathers wisely put the Separation Clause in the U. S. Constitution. To be both a Christian and Democrat put me in a quandary, for sure. My support base included some who were very skeptical, saying, “Is he part of the Moral Majority movement, does he embrace their social agenda?” On the flip side, the Evangelical Right seldom supports a Democrat, even if he or she has a deep personal faith.

It comes down to how we define who we are. It is either a set of principles, a moral compass that guides our actions or it may be the powerful political forces that will shape who we are, how we are perceived and will be remembered. My book is revealing of how faith has made a big difference in both my personal life and public service.

BIR: I know you’re especially proud of your work in the field of environmentalism, addressed most prominently in the book in the “Nature’s Cathedral” section. What was it like compiling that part of your memoir even as the effects of climate change are being felt?

DB: I represented a district in Southwest Washington that had the state’s most pristine national resources. It was also a time when the timber and lumber mills were vital to the area’s economy. So protection [of] an area for future generations could also shut down mills and damage local economies. That was another dilemma for me. Yet I had to do what was right and took the lead on legislation to establish the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Act, the Mount Saint Helens Volcanic Area, Protection Island, Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge, and more.

I led the effort in the on the House side but the true hero was Dan Evans, former governor and senator. His Republican base, as well as the Senate and White House leadership, were skeptical and generally opposed, but Sen. Evans made it happen. It was evidence of how bipartisanship and doing what’s right can make the difference, get things accomplished.

BIR: You talk expressly in the book about the corrosion of political discourse in America, saying that in “my 14 years in Congress, I witnessed first-hand the civility and trust among the leadership of both political parties that trickled down to the committee rooms and in the House Chamber that lead to notable accomplishments.” From the vantage point of 2020, that sounds like pure fantasy. How do we get back to some semblance of the Washington you remember?

DB: When I served in Congress in the mid-1970s–1980s, it was a different environment. Civility and trust were in evidence at the leadership level, both Republicans and Democrats, and trickled down to the committee rooms and was the norm in both the Senate and House. Regrettably, civility has been replaced by combativeness. Politics reigns over trust. The Senate and House chambers now have become a political battlefield. What makes it worse is the digital culture that’s fueling the flow of false and misleading information, replacing the more traditional independent press that is devoted to facts and truthful reporting

Is this the new reality or do we return to how it was like when I served? It can only happen at the ballot box, electing new leaders who will rise to the higher level, placing the national interest and common good over political ambition and self interest.

BIR: When you became Clark County Auditor in 1966, you were the youngest elected official in Washington state. Having recently reflected on how you came to public service through the writing of this book, do you think “younger-you” would be so eager to wade into politics in the world of today?

DB: My first election to public office was in 1966, about 18 months out of college. I was naïve and inexperienced, yet made notable accomplishments early on, including being the first in the country to use punch-card voting. For local officials, not much has changed but at the federal and state levels it is more difficult. When I served, the Democratic Party chairman was the political godfather, but not so today. Now it’s the relentless political forces and special interests with their respective agendas, applying charm or pressure or whatever it takes to win you over. Yet we are seeing the newly elected who bring a fresh face and hopefully a commitment to restoring dignity in the public square. My book will serve as an inspiration to those who are seeking a higher calling.

BIR: You came of age politically in the immediate wake of the Watergate scandal. With the current president being impeached, some comparisons are inevitable. What are your thoughts on the differences between the state of government then and now, concerning the handling of those proceedings specifically?

DB: Both comparisons and distinctions. In 1974, Watergate scandal sparked public outrage that ushered in 80 newly elected congressmen, including myself, committed to changing things in the nation’s capitol, and we did.

Any forecast of the 2020 election is riddled with unknowns, especially the impeachment. The 2018 Congressional elections may be an early sign. The one difference is the country is far more polarized with the so-called red state and blue state unwavering, leaving the outcome to a few states in the middle.

BIR: Care to make a prediction? Who would you like to see on the Democratic ticket?

DB: I would favor a Joe Biden-Derek Kilmer ticket.