George W. Bush returned to his ranch in Crawford to clear brush after finishing a bruising second term and a presidency marred by war. Jimmy Carter went back to Plains to lick his wounds. Richard Nixon flew west for solitary walks, feet encased in black wingtips, along the crystalline beaches of San Clemente.
Nixon’s banishment, of course, was the most memorable. On August 9, 1974, over Jefferson City, Missouri, clocks in the nation’s capital struck high noon and Nixon, disgraced by Watergate, ceased to be president. Silence enveloped Air Force One, save for an aide who muttered “Air Force Once.” Nixon sipped a martini in his cabin, press secretary Ron Ziegler beside him. In another cabin, Pat Nixon, solemn as a church, thought about writing thank-you notes. A few days earlier, she was overheard telling her husband, according to accounts in The Atlantic, “You’ve ruined my life.”
While political exile is exceedingly painful, one surely cannot compare the personal trauma a big-city mayor experiences when tossed from office to that of a U.S. president forced into an unceremonious, and humiliating, retirement. Still, electoral rejection at any level is often soul-crushing—even for a community activist turned Seattle mayor. It hurts. It gnaws. It steals sleep. It takes time for the wounds to heal.
“Yes, I wanted to win, and it is disappointing,” reflects Mike McGinn on a recent breezy, sunlit evening. “You know, the first time I won with only 51 percent, and this time I lost with 47.5 percent. So the difference between victory and defeat is very small. So I lost the mayor’s race. What else do I have to complain about?”
McGinn has mellowed since losing his bid for a second term four months ago. He’s 54 and looking good. He’s relaxed, his spirits are high, and he remains, as he’s prone to boast, an ever-present scoring threat on the basketball court. “I can still stick the open 15-footer,” the happy hoopster says with a wink.
At his invitation, I met with McGinn, who has studiously avoided the spotlight since leaving office, at a function of the Social Justice Fund. The organization promotes the creation of “a just society” through fundraising and enlisting “progressive” people to get involved in their community. McGinn, naturally, joined their Board of Directors. He’s here this night to champion another of his favorite causes, the Environmental Justice Giving Project.
At the Impact Hub building in Pioneer Square, across the street from the Union Gospel Mission, young white liberals, mostly, are drinking wine and munching hummus-slathered crackers and carrot sticks. Many of them come up to McGinn, clad in a blue shirt and gray cords, to extend their well-wishes.
Huddling in private before his brief speech to the Social Justice crowd, McGinn says with mock seriousness that he’s not used to talking with the media.“Come on, Mike, you don’t forget,” I joke. “It’s like riding a bicycle.” He laughs.
Asked what those first days out of office were like, McGinn seems unsure how to respond. For all his Irish gift of gab, the New York–raised former neighborhood and Sierra Club activist is more comfortable, and accustomed to, addressing policy questions.
“It was an opportunity to relax, to reconnect with old friends in a leisurely way,” he volunteers. “I have a great family, and I’ve had more time to spend with them, more time to see my kids’ games.” And more time to get his pictures up on Instagram, including shots of “squash ready for roasting,” a selfie with ex-Seattle Times reporter Emily Heffter, and a photo of a bouquet of flowers that someone placed on his bike.
“I’ve been staying busy,” he adds, noting that he’s helping the Sierra Club make political endorsements and has been tapped to be on the speaker’s bureau for 350.org, an international global-climate organization.
McGinn has no interest in returning to law. He says it is social activism and remaining integrally involved in the Seattle community that gets his juices flowing. For years he worked as a corporate litigator at Stokes Lawrence—a Seattle law firm where he eventually made partner in the early 1990s. But being mayor, he says, has created within him an appetite for things much larger than toiling in a law office.
“I grew as a person [as mayor], and it made me a better person for sure, so right now, I’m doing some fact-finding stuff. Talking, reaching out, reconnecting, and making new connections. I’m just getting the lay of the land. I’m not sure what’s next.”
McGinn concedes that there are many days when he can’t help but second-guess his second ill-fated campaign for mayor. “Yes, I revisit it, wondering what I might have done differently, but then you have to move on.”
As to whether he has any thoughts on Ed Murray’s first 100 days, McGinn shoots a flinty stare. Then he mellows and says with smile and a mischievous look, “During the campaign I always said, ‘There’s no such thing as mayor’s school.’ ”
I ask him whether he’ll run again. “I have not closed the door to run for political office,” he replies. “But to run, all the planets have to align—like they did in 2009. And if they do align again—well, awesome. If not, I’ll be doing something that I think is important, working with others to make our community better.”