Booth Gardner says he no longer dwells on death. He’s got a lot going on in his life.
But he’s adamant that terminally ill people should be able to choose how and when they die.
On the first anniversary of the state Death with Dignity law he championed, the 73-year-old former Washington governor is headed to Hollywood.
The story of his personal struggle with Parkinson’s disease and his very public battle to pass the law in 2008 will be on a much larger stage this weekend.
“The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner,” a 37-minute film, is one of five Academy Award nominees in the short documentary category.
Gardner, accompanied by daughter Gail Gant, plans to be at the Kodak Theater on Sunday evening for that classic “And-the-Oscar-goes-to” moment.
During an interview at his Tacoma home Wednesday evening, he said he’s “glad that people are getting a refresher course” in the right-to-die movement that drew his passion, part of his fortune and much of his energy two years ago.
On Thursday, the state released its first annual report on the Death With Dignity Act. Thirty-six people are known to have ended their lives with lethal doses of physician-prescribed medication between March 5 and Dec. 31, 2009, the document says.
The law does not benefit Gardner, the once robust politician who was Pierce County’s first executive in the 1980s and a popular governor who defeated incumbent John Spellman in 1984 and garnered 62 percent of the vote in 1988.
There is no time clock on death from Parkinson’s, and the act requires a patient have six months or less to live.
Still, the disease chews at his central nervous system, robbing his motor functions, making it difficult to walk, slowing and slurring his speech. He tires quickly, and he does not live the free-to-do-anything life he envisioned when he left the governor’s mansion in 1993.
Eventually, he says in the documentary, the illness steals a person’s ability to eat, leaving them to starve.
“It’s not a pretty picture,” he tells the cameras of director Daniel Junge.
Gardner, diagnosed with the illness shortly after he left the governor’s office, moves slowly around his Stadium District condo these days. He uses a walker, for the moment mostly free of the wheelchair he used last summer.
He speaks softly, and his daughter must interpret some words. But his thoughts seem clear, even when memory fails. He says he’s doing well, though the disease requires “a lot of rest, a lot of sleep.”
He exercises three times a week with a trainer, and he paints simple watercolors in an art therapy program. He brings friends in for lunch weekly.
When he’s up to it, he gets out to concerts, recitals and his grandchildren’s athletic events, Gant said.
Though perhaps an unlikely film “star,” Gardner looks forward to the trip to Hollywood, the screening of the nominated documentaries on Saturday, the Red Carpet and ceremony on Sunday.
“I wasn’t going to go,” he said, “but I got to thinking life’s getting shorter for me.” The documentary is not easy to watch. It’s an unvarnished view of Gardner’s struggle with his illness, even as he fights to get the Death with Dignity law passed. It was directed by Junge, produced by Henry Ansbacher and Davis Coombe and backed by HBO.
Duane French, a quadriplegic who argued opposite Gardner in the campaign and in the film, worries the documentary’s rising profile could glorify what he calls “sanctioned suicide.”
Neither French nor Gardner has seen the completed film. French, a state employee who lives in Olympia, says he hopes it isn’t a “pity fest that robs Booth of his dignity … because he deserves better than that for a life well-lived and leadership well-contributed.”
Gardner, who did see an early version, says simply: “I don’t like the way I look.”
The film aired briefly in New York and Los Angeles last year to make it Oscar-eligible, but it hasn’t been shown in Washington. There are plans to screen it at the Seattle Film Festival; an HBO airing isn’t scheduled, but a publicist said it will be shown later this year.
At the film’s core, its Denver-based director said, “was this intimate story of this incredibly popular governor of Washington, fighting his own mortality.”
Junge described French as “a powerful presence who provides a strong counterbalance to Booth in the film and who has a very salient argument and is a very compassionate figure in his own right.”
Junge hopes viewers will walk away from his film believing both sides were presented with humanity so they can judge for themselves.
Asked this week the difficult question about whether he will end his own life, Gardner said, “I don’t think about dying anymore.”
Then he adds, “But I always go to the base, that people ought to have the right to choose.”
His last campaign undoubtedly will be part of his legacy, but he wants you to think of him not for his political clout, nor for his struggles with Parkinson’s nor for his brush with Hollywood stardom. He wants to be known this way:
“He’s the kindest person you’ll ever meet.”