“Goat Spit Gasoline”: Race for Kennedy seat recalls role of health care in election to replace John Heinz.
It was the special-election victory that launched the Clinton era.
And the issue that fueled that victory with what was called “goat spit gasoline” was: health care.
The year: 1991.
In a shocking tragedy, popular moderate Republican U.S. Senator John Heinz of Pennsylvania was killed in an April plane crash. The Governor of Pennsylvania, the famously pro-life Democrat Robert P. Casey (father of today’s junior U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania — and holder of the Heinz seat — Robert P. Casey, Jr.), would appoint Heinz’s successor. Under Pennsylvania law that appointed successor would have to run for election to the remainder of the Heinz term that November of 1991, the winner doubtless running for re-election to the full term in 1994.
After sounding out Heinz’s widow Teresa (now the wife of Massachusetts Senator John Kerry) and being turned down, Casey finally turned to his state secretary of Labor and Industry, former Pennsylvania Democratic Party chairman Harris Wofford.
Wofford was an unlikely choice. At 65, his role in American history had already been secured 31 years earlier as the man who convinced 1960 Democratic presidential nominee Senator John F. Kennedy to place a call of sympathy to Mrs. Martin Luther King Jr. when her husband was jailed on a trumped up traffic charge in Georgia. (King’s real crime had been having a family dinner guest, a white woman, in his car.) It was the last few days of the Kennedy-Nixon campaign. With the nation focused on the incident and the threat to King’s life at the hands of law enforcement officials feared to be Klan members, Wofford’s actions also helped set in motion a call from the candidate’s brother and campaign manager. Robert Kennedy called the Democratic judge in whose jail King was sitting, requesting bail. King was released, the nation breathed a sigh of relief, and the incident was said to have cemented the relationship between the blossoming civil rights community and Democrats. GOP nominee Richard Nixon, known in 1960 as a strong civil rights supporter, later wrote in his memoir Six Crises that he regretted he had taken the more lawyerly approach to not interfering with a local judge, admitting the Wofford effort had helped turn then Republican-leaning black voters to Kennedy. After Kennedy won the White House, Wofford was appointed JFK’s special assistant on civil rights. Wofford had also, with JFK brother-in-law Sargent Shriver, helped to found the Peace Corps. Yet while all of this relatively ancient history had made him a well-known figure among party elites, Wofford, who had also been president of Bryn Mawr College outside Philadelphia, was an unknown to the general public in Pennsylvania. For all of his extensive and historic background in Washington and later in state politics, he had never run for office.
The campaign for the fall began almost instantly, Wofford declaring for the fall election the moment his appointment to fill Heinz’s seat was announced. He was sworn in on May 9, just over a month after Heinz’s death.
Pennsylvania Republicans, while still in shock over Heinz’s death, regrouped immediately. They turned to the one Republican whom just about everyone felt was The Sure Thing to hold Heinz’s Senate seat: Former Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh, Casey’s popular predecessor and by 1991 then the sitting Attorney General of the United States for President George H.W. Bush, a position he had similarly held for the tail-end of Ronald Reagan’s second term.
And as Thornburgh’s media adviser? The firm of Roger Ailes, who would later emerge as the creator of Fox News.
So heavily favored was Thornburgh the polls were almost embarrassing to Wofford, the initial run of media attention even worse.
Stories leaked that Wofford had not only not been Casey’s first choice he hadn’t even been his second or third choice. Both former Philadelphia Mayor William J. Green (who had been defeated by Heinz for the Senate seat in 1976) and then-Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca, a native of Allentown who by 1991 was a Michigan resident, were offered the seat and turned it down. A prominent Pennsylvania pollster was quoted as saying that Wofford’s public name recognition was so low that Pennsylvanians’ main question would be asking “Harris Who?” On top of all this was the recognition that to tout Wofford’s accomplishments with JFK meant a necessary focus on his age, which even in the post-Reagan era (Reagan having been elected at 69) was said by no less than the New York Times as the age at which “most people think about retiring.”
As if all of this weren’t enough of a problem, Wofford himself was the very image of the tweedy academic he had once been, totally devoid of charisma while possessed in full of all the characteristics of what one prominent Pennsylvania Republican called “an egghead.” Said the State Senate GOP President with respectful glee: “I just don’t see Harris Wofford as having the personality to shake hands and rub elbows.”
If the Republicans were gleeful, Democrats could not have been gloomier. In the intra-state geographical rivalries between eastern Philadelphia and western Pittsburgh, the latter Heinz’s home base and Thornburgh’s as well, Pittsburgh Democrats bitterly noted Wofford’s 20-plus years as a Philadelphia area resident. Philadelphian Arlen Specter held the remaining Senate seat, and the idea that under the circumstances Western Pennsylvanians would vote to replace native son Heinz with anyone other than fellow Pittsburgher Thornburgh was scoffed at. “We really think we need someone from this area who is tuned to our concerns,” fumed the Democratic president of the Pittsburgh City Council.
Four days after being sworn-in, Wofford illustrated his presumed ineptness at his new job. Holding a press conference at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, perpetually threatened with closings by the Pentagon and repeatedly saved by fierce and well-publicized fights from Heinz, Wofford admitted to local reporters that essentially he had no news for them. The reporters, in turn, had to pull teeth from the professorial new senator to even get him to say that oh yes, and by the way, he was opposed to the closing of the Navy Yard.
Questioned later by phone about his Navy Yard appearance, Wofford blandly replied: “We have six months to get our message across.”
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?