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1. Busted: Narcotics agent nabs Jerry Sandusky
2. 'JoePa' takes the fall: A slow Tom Corbett throws Joe Paterno under the bus
3. The Magic Moment: Six decades of Pennsylvania governors, AGs, and the state Republican Party
Part 1 The Appointed Years 1950 to 1980 >
Part 2 The Elective Years 1980 to 1995 >
The Magic Moment
Six decades of Pennsylvania
Governors, AGs, and the state
Part 1: The Appointed AG Years
1950 to 1980
Read Part 2: The Elective AG Years here >
'Joe Paterno was a Republican from another era, when to be a Republican in Pennsylvania meant something much different than it means today'
This Thanksgiving I arrived late for family dinner. It was dark by the time I got to my brother's house, cars filled the street and driveway, and everyone had already gathered inside.
In the family room several of my uncles and brothers-in-law sat around the TV, watching football. Kids ran around on the carpet.
The women -- my sisters, mother, aunts and sisters-in-law -- sat around the table chatting in the dining room.
The Magic Moment
1950 to 1980:
As always, with my family, it was a complicated meal. Over the years, many in my family have changed their eating preferences. Some had also changed their political parties, their religious affiliations, even their gender identification. There's a lot to keep straight. A holiday dinner with my once-traditional Catholic family today means traditional Thanksgiving food, as well as vegan, vegetarian, and even kosher dishes.
Our family dinner itself was quite and subdued. A pall had settled over our holiday. Everyone seemed to be in some state of subdued and shocked disbelief. Something seemed to have died. Pennsylvania? I thought.
It's another measure of the magnitude of everything that's terribly wrong in Pennsylvania that our state officials in late 2011 finally delivered a scandal that our families were unable to fully discuss around our holiday table, though it played so heavily on our minds.
In the weeks and days leading to the Thanksgiving holiday our public officials finally outdid themselves. They'd created a self-censoring scandal, a scandal so utterly contemptible and bad we couldn't talk about it at the table in mixed company, with children present.
Not that everyone didn't know the horrible specifics. Everyone seemed to know the intricacies of the case. My brothers, brothers-in-law and uncles seemed to know every sordid detail. But no one spoke about it at the table.
After dinner, in front of the TV set, the sports channel flickering in the background, some of the men emotionally spoke of the Penn State shower room specifics and executive office suite missteps like they were bad football plays. Flags were down all over the field, and each bad play was analyzed, play-by-play, with precision and emotion.
As the dishes were being cleared away, I followed my father and a brother-in-law or two out to the cold back porch to get some air.
Outside it was cold, damp and dark. The grass and the fallen leaves were brown and seemed smashed down into the ground. Everything was sullen, and had a dead feeling to it that seemed to go beyond ordinary winter.
My brother-in-law picked up where he'd left off inside, upset I could see about Joe Paterno's plight, gnashing teeth and waving arms.
"What do you think, Pop?" I asked my father.
Something unusual came from my father. He is a man who is usually fair to a fault, in an old-fashioned way.
My dad, Big Bill, says to me, "I think Tom Corbett has some 'splaining to do." He screwed up his face, trying to make sense of the news reports he'd obviously closely read. "He says he only put a single trooper on the case." I could see it didn't make sense to him. "I guess his excuse is that he was distracted by 'Bonusgate.'"
My father halted, waiting to hear what I might throw in. I held my tongue.
"Why did Tom Corbett have Joe Paterno fired when Corbett was every bit as complicit, if not more so, in the cover-up of all this?" my brother-in-law, from Philadelphia, wanted to know. It seemed to be the question of the moment on everyone's mind.
My Uncle Jim, a retired schoolteacher from Scranton, as always, had the simple explanation. In Scranton you don't spend much time wondering about delicacies. You don't see too many delicacies in Scranton. You do however know the pecking order.
"Because Corbett's the governor, that's why," Uncle Jim says.
To understand the demise of Coach Joe Paterno in 2011 at the hands of a Pennsylvania governor, an attorney general, and the Pennsylvania Republican Party, we have to go back decades, I submit. We must travel back in time as long as, if not longer, than Paterno had coached at Penn State, since 1950.
Joe Paterno spent his life a loyal Republican. Paterno was a Republican from another era, when to be a Republican in Pennsylvania meant something much different than it means today. In the mid-1960s, when Paterno started head coaching, to be a Republican here meant to be broad minded, fair, and progressive. It was a party of inclusive ideas, clean government, and homespun values. How had it come to represent the opposite? I wondered.
The Republican Party in Pennsylvania changed greatly over the coming decades. It would lose its moorings. It would somehow leave behind, in the dust, one of its most faithful, inspiring, competent and accomplished sons, Coach Joe Paterno.
Why was that?
It was with all this in mind that I began researching the history of the Pennsylvania governor's office and its close interactions with the Office of Attorney General for the past fifty or so years. For me, as you'll see, it was sometimes a very personal and even painful part of my own life that I had begun to research. The truth is, I've come to see, I'm sort of the Forrest Gump of Pennsylvania politics.
A few days after Thanksgiving 2011, I happened across, on the Internet, an old black and white photograph of a Pennsylvania Republican attorney general from the 1960s.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Walter Alessandroni (seated in center). The writer's father, Bill Keisling III, is on left, pointing. On the right, facing away from camera, is secretary Betty Aversa. Circa 1965. Photo at top of article is of the Pennsylvania Governor's Office as it more or less appears today.
His name was Walter Alessandroni. I'd actually met Attorney General Alessandroni on the steps of the state capitol building when I was a boy of no more than four or five. I remember being introduced to him as my father's little boy, and shaking his hand. That must've been the first I'd crossed paths with a state AG, but it would not be the last.
What I didn't know then was that the fate of my life, and that of my father, would be closely tied to the fate of Pennsylvania Attorney General Alessandroni, and state governor's office politics. So this particular photograph I discovered on the net opened a much wider window into my past, as well as Pennsylvania's past.
Much to my surprise, standing in the same photograph from 1964 with Attorney General Walter Alessandroni, was my father. In the photo my father was a young man in his 20s. What was the story behind the photograph? I naturally wanted to know.
I emailed a copy of the photo to my father.
"I was digging through the archives about past PA attorneys general and came across this photo of you with Walt Alessandroni," I wrote my dad. "Thought you'd be interested. What sort of guy was Alessandroni?"
A day went by, and I heard nothing. Then a reply email comes from my father.
He responds, "thanks, bill, for the walter Alessandroni picture... certainly kicks up some memories for me... when i see you, i'll be happy to tell you about walter...dad."
So that's how I soon found myself hearing these stories. I'd only known small parts of the story, mostly from first-hand experience.
When Brown University graduate Joe Paterno began his coaching career at PSU, in 1950, only a few years after the close of World Wart II, the fortunes of the state Republican Party were in steady decline.
Former Luzerne County Judge John S. Fine, a Republican, was elected governor in 1951, and remained in office until 1955. But after Fine, things were not so fine. Two Democrats -- George Leader, of York County, and David Lawrence, of Pittsburgh -- held the state house until 1963. Into the Kennedy years, the Pennsylvania Grand Old Party remained flat on its back, at war with itself. It was hobbled by a worn-out message and crippled political machines in Philadelphia and elsewhere that desperately needed retooling.
The story and dynamics of what happened over the coming years and decades of Paterno's career, and in Pennsylvania Republican politics, leading to the election of state attorney general Tom Corbett, is a fascinating one, worthy of examination and consideration.
Change came to the staid GOP of the 1950s with the election to U.S. Congress in 1960 of Bill Scranton. Scranton was the son of a wealthy family from the hard coal city that bears his name.
At the start of World War II Scranton left Yale Law School to enlist in the Army Air Corps. He was a pilot in the Air Transport Command, and discharged as a captain.
WWS: Bill Scranton
After the war Scranton finished his law degree at Yale. He got involved in local businesses and the politics of northeast Pennsylvania. It helped that his mother was a prominent national Republican Party committeewoman. Telegenic and smart, he was soon noticed by President Dwight Eisenhower. Ike appointed Scranton special assistant to U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. He'd trained as a lawyer, and now Bill Scranton was training as a statesman.
After about a year on the job at State, Scranton left to run for Congress in the city of Scranton's predominantly Democratic 10th Congressional District. He handily beat the Democratic incumbent, Con. Stan Prokop, by some 17,000 votes, and went to Washington.
With Bill Scranton's election to Congress, my own young life would become intimately and singularly entwined with not only the Pennsylvania's governor's office and the state's attorney general's office, but also the eclipse of moderate and progressive Republicanism at the hands of what we call today Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan conservatism.
In the late 1950s, while he was a young newspaperman in his early twenties, my father caught the eye of Bill Scranton, then running for Congress.
My father was asked to work on Scranton's campaign. When Scranton won, my dad, all of 24 years old, went with him to Washington as an assistant.
Republican Congressman Bill Scranton quickly became known as an outspoken centrist. Congressman Scranton supported much of President John Kennedy's social agenda, like the Peace Corp, and the belated push for civil rights. Scranton became known as a "Kennedy Republican," a term unimaginable today. Can you imagine a Clinton Republican, or an Obama Republican?
Though they were Republican, my father and his young friends admired John Kennedy. It wasn't only that Kennedy was Catholic, as were my father and many of his friends, though that certainly was a source of pride. Like others, my dad admired Kennedy's forward thinking optimism, his energy and speaking ability, his call for public involvement and sacrifice for our country, and certainly an elusive characteristic about JFK that used to be called "class."
In 1962 Congressman Bill Scranton was asked by party leaders back home to run for governor of Pennsylvania. Forward thinking state GOP leaders hoped Scranton's moderate and centrist politics would have broad appeal and help restore the party's faltering fortunes.
In Philadelphia the longstanding Republican political machine was in considerable disarray, decline and turmoil.
The labels we use today of liberal and conservative don't apply. In 1951 and 1955, respectively, reform Democrats like Joe Clark and Richardson Dilworth were elected mayor of Philadelphia. Clark and Dilworth broke the stranglehold of the Philadelphia Republican machine that, until then, had controlled the Philadelphia mayor's office for an uninterrupted 67 years. Before Clark and Dilworth, the last Democrat elected mayor of Philadelphia had been Samuel George King, who left office in 1884, during the presidency of Chester A. Arthur. Other changes were afoot: post-war suburbanization (think Levittown, in Bucks County), and the 1951 passage of a Home Rule Charter in Philadelphia presaged drastic upheavals.
For most of the twentieth century the once-powerful Philly GOP machine had been run by the Meehan clan. For a quarter century, since the 1930s, Sheriff Austin "Aus" Meehan ruled the roost. In 1961 Aus Meehan, age 64, keeled over and died at a dinner held in his honor. His son, William "Billy" Meehan would succeed him as party boss.
The Philadelphia Inquirer's Thomas Ferrick, Jr., in 1994 wrote of Aus Meehan's 1961 funeral and its aftermath like this:
"They laid the sheriff (Aus) out at his big Victorian home on Rising Sun Avenue in Lawndale. The papers said that more than 50,000 people turned out for the viewing. His son (Billy) was 36 at the time.
"A few of us got together. We talked to Billy," recalled ward leader John Patrick Walsh in 1987. "He was kind of lost. And we were lost. We encouraged him to take over where his father left off."
This was precisely the magic moment when Bill Scranton emerged on the stage of statewide politics.
The problems in Philadelphia had to be straightened out, or no Republican could confidently hope to do well in a statewide election, which often turns on turnout in Philadelphia and, especially today, its suburbs. (By the end of the century, Philly city Democrats would outnumber Republicans by about 4 to 1.)
"It was fucked up," my dad bluntly recalls. A group of concerned and relatively young Philadelphia Republicans, including the newly elected U.S. Senator Hugh Scott, coalesced to try to reform the old Philly Meehan GOP machine. Sen. Scott even threatened to run for governor himself.
Instead, Hugh Scott backed Bill Scranton, and introduced Scranton to one of his group of young Philly reformers, an attorney with political aspirations of his own named Walter Alessandroni.
Alessandroni was small in stature. No more than maybe 5'4", my dad remembers. He was compactly and powerfully built, like a wrestler. He had been a Marine during the war. How driven a Marine was he? Alessandroni had joined the Marines Corp in 1943 as a sergeant and was discharged three years later as a major. He was a descendent of Philadelphia immigrants. His father and two uncles, like him, became lawyers. His wife was a "sweet" woman named Ethel.
President Eisenhower in 1959 appointed Alessandroni U.S. attorney for Philadelphia. Following John Kennedy's election as president, Alessandroni got elected chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, itself a full-time job. The bar association's chancellorship involved local politics, and also denotes that the Philadelphia bar considered Alessandroni a good lawyer.
Alessandroni himself considered running for governor in 1962. He let it be known to party leaders that he was interested in running in the primary, and that he would like the nomination. But he immediately supported Scranton once the congressman said he was willing to run.
He became a loyal Scranton supporter. Bill Scranton asked Alessandroni to manage his 1962 campaign for governor.
In the primary Scranton beat former state Attorney General Bob Woodside, a staid favorite of some old-line GOPers.
In the general election for governor Bill Scranton went on to face the now-entrenched mayor of Philadelphia (and Meehan up ender), Richardson Dilworth. (Dilworth Plaza in Philadelphia, next to city hall, was named for the former mayor. It was where Occupy protesters made camp in 2011. Today's unhappy and disenfranchised young protestors camped out in the shadows of our past, without much knowing its significance.)
The governor's race between Bill Scranton and Mayor Dilworth grew spirited and acrimonious.
His campaign fizzling, Dilworth asked Bill Scranton to debate. Scranton declined. Dilworth proceeded to buy time on a Scranton television station for a Saturday evening debate. Dilworth set an empty chair under the studio lights. It was to be another Dilworth "Empty Chair Debate." This tactic, debating an empty chair, had worked well for Dilworth in a past Philadelphia election with a Meehan empty suit.
Not this time. At the last minute Bill Scranton showed up at the studio, carrying in his hand a bucket of whitewash.
Under the glaring television lights Scranton held out the bucket of whitewash and told a surprised Dick Dilsworth, "You're all whitewash, Mayor Dilworth, all whitewash." It was a magic moment, one of many to come for Bill Scranton.
Dilworth appeared flustered, and never recovered. At one point in the debate Dilworth even insulted the voters' intelligence by saying that northern Pennsylvania consisted of "Nothing but bears."
Scranton countered that northern Pennsylvania was home to "educated bears, and they vote."
Dilworth had paid for the debate, and got his head handed to him.
Outside the studio, after the debate, an angry Dick Dilworth kept throwing personal insults at Bill Scranton. Vince Carocci tells the story in his book, A Capitol Journey:
"Dilworth got right in Scranton’s face, boiling mad. Scranton pointed a finger at him in rebuke.
"'Don’t you point your bony, effeminate finger at me!' Dilworth shouted at his opponent. ...(H)e appeared just inches away from getting physical. But Scranton refused to be baited.
"'You, sir, are a desperate man,' Scranton responded coolly as he turned and walked away.
This appeal to openness and honesty helped propel Bill Scranton to a landslide victory of almost a half a million votes.
Today's Republican leaders would do well to consider that bucket of whitewash, and what it represents to the Pennsylvania Republican Party, and the educated bears in the state who vote.
After his election, Gov. Bill Scranton and his wife Mary moved into the temporary governor's residence on the grounds of the Fort Indiantown Gap military reservation.
'Today's Republican leaders would do well to consider that bucket of whitewash, and what it represents'
The old governor's mansion on the river in downtown Harrisburg, Keystone Hall, had been falling apart for decades. Gov. Gifford Pinchot in his last address to the state legislature in the mid-1930s had strongly recommended the crumbling residence be torn down and replaced. Almost three decades later Keystone Hall was finally razed, but the future governor's residence in uptown Harrisburg had yet to be constructed. So the Scrantons lived in the Lt. Governor's residence at Fort Indiantown Gap.
Gov. Scranton appointed his loyal campaign manager and friend Walter Alessandroni state attorney general. Attorney General Alessandroni moved in with the Scrantons at the Fort Indiantown Gap governor's residence, and lived with the first family. He'd commute back and forth on weekends to his home in Philadelphia.
You'd be hard pressed today to imagine Attorney General Tom Corbett moving in and living with then-Gov. Ed Rendell and his wife, federal appellate court Judge Midge Rendell, though it conjures a funny mind picture, if not a plot for a television survival reality show, or a sitcom, like Three's Company.
The state attorney general in the 1960s was, in deed if not word, basically the governor's lawyer. It was nothing like the AG today. Attorney General Alessandroni's portfolio involved mundane state legal affairs. He was not looked upon as the state's ‘chief law enforcement officer,’or anything like it, as today. And the AG through the 1970s had no prosecutorial powers.
The AG's office itself, through the 1960s, was kept in the same suite of offices as the governor, in the main capitol building.
"My offices were across the hall from the governor's conference room," remembers William Sennett, who was appointed AG in the 1960s following Walter Alessandroni. Sennett, as I'll explain, today is the last living state AG from this 1960s Republican era.
Close proximity to the governor made it easy for the AG to spend much of his time with his boss, patron, and appointer -- the governor -- and the governor's staff.
"I was over there all the time (in the governor's office)," Sennett recalls. As was Alessandroni, when he was AG. "Sometimes I'd spend the whole day in the governor's office and then get back to the Department of Justice to see what was going on there."
"It was vastly different from today," Sennett tells me. "You were appointed attorney general to oversee the legal work of the executive branch of state government. If you gave an opinion to a cabinet officer, that opinion was binding. Sometimes the cabinet officers themselves would ask for an opinion."
Still the attorney general had an important job. Sennett recalls a state Supreme Court ruling that described the AG as the "second most important official in Pennsylvania, after the governor."
The AG's office in the 1960s had a very small staff, former AG Sennett remembers. It was nothing at all like the 750 or so staffers working in the office of attorney general in 2012.
"I had probably 20 or 30 deputy attorneys general working for me, and that was about it," Sennett says. Of these, a deputy AGs was assigned to supervise the legal work of each state department. "One was assigned to the Department of Revenue, the Department of Transportation, and so on."
In addition to the deputy AGs, Sennett says, "There were maybe more than 100 of what were called Assistant Attorneys General spread out in the other departments." This makes getting an exact head count of the AG's staff back then difficult. The assistant AGs, back then, were considered employees of the individual departments.
Though they were nominally under the command of the AG, the assistant AG's often had loyalty to the individual department heads, not the attorney general. "Some of them would be in cahoots with the department heads, and you had to watch them," Sennett says.
My father worked for Bill Scranton in the governor's office. At age 26 he became executive aide to the governor of Pennsylvania. He became friends and worked in trusted close proximity to AG Walter Alessandroni.
"Bill Scranton didn't have a hierarchical governor's office," my father remembers. He describes Scranton's organizational style as more like a wheel, with Scranton at the hub. "We'd all be in the room, Walter included, and go at it with the governor," he says.
At the heart of it was Bill Scranton. He sought other people's opinions, listened, but applied his own heart and conscience. He didn't need a pollster to tell him what was right, or what he should do.
The issue of capital punishment in the Scranton administration is telling.
"Scranton had moral reservations about capital punishment," my father remembers. "But he'd say, 'I come from the generation where the Lindbergh baby had a great impact.'"
Whenever it came time for the governor to consider a death warrant, "Walter would send this poor lawyer in to talk to Bill Scranton," my father smiles. "I mean, every time there was a death warrant to be signed, this same lawyer would show up in the governor's office to explain it. But Walter also would send me in to argue with the lawyer in front of Scranton. Of course I hated the death penalty. I'd tear into this poor lawyer. There never was a death warrant signed in the Scranton administration," he says proudly.
Attorney General Walter Alessandroni understood this: There may be a thousand ways to skin a cat, but there are 1,001 ways to protect a cat.
Gov. Bill Scranton had an almost magical ability to build bridges.
"He had Harv Taylor eating out of his hand, and Billy Meehan and the Philadelphia machine as well," my father remembers. "I mean, Harv Taylor was eating out of his hand," he emphasizes.
State Senator Harvey Taylor of Harrisburg was the tough-minded and complex Republican majority leader of the state senate. By trade an insurance salesman, for decades Taylor was also political boss of mid-state Pennsylvania.
Before Gov. Scranton was finished with old Harv Taylor, the governor had passed sweeping reform legislation and initiatives, some of which had languished for years in the state legislature under Democratic administrations.
"When you look at the things we enacted -- community colleges; public television; schools; mental institution reforms; and unemployment compensation; a whole host of things -- most had been introduced by Gov. Leader in the 1950s, and Harv Taylor had shot them all down."
Now here was Harv Taylor helping Scranton push them into law.
"Years later I became friends with George Leader and laughed with him about it," my dad says.
My father, for his part, over the years shared with me a few of the more practical insights he learned as a young man serving the governor:
Rule # 1: Politicians in Pennsylvania can get away with just about anything so long as they do not raise taxes.
Rule # 2: You can couch all manner of regressive nonsense as reform and it will likely sail through the, ahem, cough, 'reform-minded' legislature.
To me the most interesting thing he had to say involved the important function of moderate Republicans in our body politic, and goes to the story about Sen. Harv Taylor:
Rule #3: Only a moderate, conscientious Republican can act as a bridge to bring the two parties together.
A moderate Republican, like Bill Scranton, can reach out to Democrats to do the right thing, and bring along his caucus. Moderate Republicans, when you think about, are the fulcrum upon which swings the progress of our country.
I submit that without that fulcrum, without that pivot, without those moderate Republicans, the lever cannot, and will not, move.
Today, that's why we're not moving.
The high water mark for moderate and progressive Republicans in Pennsylvania, and in the United States, came in 1964. Pennsylvania Gov. Bill Scranton was not only in the thick of it. He personified it.
John, Paul, George and the Commie Plot: None dare call it elitism, intolerance and incompetence
There were rumblings on the western horizon of a new brand of Republicanism, based unapologetically on extremism, zealotry, personal interest and greed, and intolerance of others and their views. Pluralism and diversity of ideas was, and remains, their enemy. They wrote and devoured hotheaded, intolerant books with titles like None Dare Call It Treason, and Communism, Hypnotism, and The Beatles. Red bating was a favorite scare tactic.
Their hotheaded ideologue and hero, Barry Goldwater, ran for president in 1964. Helping him at campaign appearances was a telegenic former actor named Ronald Reagan. This campaign, as has been remarked by many others, set the stage for more than just Ronald Reagan. Goldwater's 1964 campaign set the stage for the political world in which we in the United States find ourselves living today.
"In your heart, you know he's right," was Goldwater's slogan.
"In your guts you know he's nuts," was incumbent President Lyndon Johnson's damaging retort.
Not helping his narrow-minded politics, Goldwater was a walking, talking disaster. Goldwater infamously joked that the military "should lob one (an atom bomb) into the men's room of the Kremlin." He loudly railed about, and ultimately voted against, the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, saying he believed these matters should best be left to the states.
Earlier, Goldwater described the Eisenhower administration as "a dime store New Deal," a remark that angered Ike, who'd already harbored suspicions of Goldwater's brand of politics. In a 1961 news conference Goldwater said, "sometimes I think this country would be better off if we could just saw off the Eastern seaboard and let it float out to sea." So much for pluralism, and a diversity of views.
Needless to say, progressive East Coast Republicans saw all this as a threat. There was hope that Goldwater could be stopped by New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, champion of the progressive wing of the party. But Rockefeller's support eroded after it became apparent he'd left his wife the year before to marry Margaretta "Happy" Murphy, herself a divorcee with children.
A groundswell grew for Gov. Bill Scranton to enter the race for president.
Scranton to some appeared to vacillate, as if he could not decide whether to run. He was called in the press "The Hamlet of Harrisburg."
Truth is, Bill Scranton didn't want to run for president.
What finally pushed Scranton into the race was Sen. Goldwater's vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the weeks before the Republican National Convention.
"He ran because of the Civil Rights Act," my father candidly discloses.
'Gov. Bill Scranton ran for president to support the 1964 Civil Rights Act'
In the year leading up to the '64 convention, Goldwater's campaign staff had done a fantastic job crisscrossing the country sewing up support from potential delegates at the state and county level.
Bill Scranton feared that the Republican Party would be greatly wounded if Goldwater received unanimous acclamation at the convention following his loud vote against the historic Civil Rights Act.
So Scranton's belated candidacy was one of principle, plurality, and protest, to let Americans know that other Republicans favored and understood the importance of civil rights for all.
Bill Scranton never thought he could win.
With only weeks to go before the Republican National Convention, Scranton threw his hat into the ring. Gov. Scranton asked the state attorney general, Walter Alessandroni, to manage the campaign. A small contingent of staff, including my father, was dispatched to travel around the country with a million dollar war chest to scout out support.
At the time the million dollars seemed like a crazy amount of money, my father chuckles.
On a wing and a prayer, singing songs and with high hopes, everyone and their wives flew from Harrisburg to the convention at Cow Palace in San Francisco.
Some have called the 1964 presidential election "liberalism's last hurrah." In reality, it was the last stand of moderate and progressive Republicanism. In a very real sense, it was Teddy Roosevelt's last charge up the hill.
"The object of government is the welfare of the people," TR once wrote. "The material progress and prosperity of a nation are desirable chiefly so far as they lead to the moral and material welfare of all good citizens."
The Goldwaterites sought to turn the Republican Party, and the American people, away from some of these basic inclusive tenets advocated by great party leaders of the past, like TR and Lincoln.
In a 1910 speech delivered in Osawatomie, Kansas, Teddy Roosevelt summed up his vision for his party, and country. The Goldwaterites would be at war with almost everything in TR's Osawatomie Speech.
Teddy Roosevelt in Osawatamie, Kansas, on August 31, 1910. TR also helped dedicate the Pennsylvania state capitol building in 1906.
About one hundred years ago, before a crowd of 30,000, on a hot August day, Teddy Roosevelt climbed on to a table in Osawatomie and spoke for an hour and a half about what he would call his "Square Deal." Among other things, he spoke of the importance of a strong federal government.
"The American people," Roosevelt thundered, "is impatient of the utter confusion that results from local legislatures attempting to treat national issues as local issues. It is still more impatient of the impotence which springs from over-division of governmental powers, the impotence which makes it possible for local selfishness or for legal cunning, hired by wealthy special interests, to bring national activities to a deadlock."
Roosevelt told the people that it came down to a matter of priorities. Sometimes the Republican Party, and the American people, he pointed out, must choose between human rights, and property rights. On such occasions, TR told the crowd, Republicans should side with human rights, and human needs.
"I believe in shaping the ends of government to protect property as well as human welfare," Roosevelt declared. "Normally...the ends are the same, but whenever the alternative must be faced I am for men and not for property."
As TR saw things, it boiled down to this fundamental priority: People before things. Roosevelt pointed out that it would be necessary to realign and reprioritize all three branches of government -- the executive, legislative, and the judiciary -- to bring about these changes of priority.
This rethinking of national priorities, Roosevelt told the crowd, "regards the executive power as the steward of public welfare. It demands of the judiciary that it shall be interested primarily in human welfare rather than in property, just as it demands that the representative body shall represent all the people rather than any one class or section of the people."
It was this speech, and these mainstream, winning, progressive Republican ideas, that Barry Goldwater and his followers were at war with in 1964, and continue to be at war with today.
In your guts you know he's nuts: Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan
Barry Goldwater had always personally liked Bill Scranton. Both men were pilots in World War II. In Washington, while Scranton was in Congress, a group of former war pilots would get together. Scranton would socialize with Goldwater and reminisce about flying during the war. The two men got to know each other fairly well, and understood each other, as men in arms do, and liked and respected each other. They were on good personal terms.
The congressional pilots' club even included a lawmaker who openly supported the John Birch Society. Scranton even got along with him, and shared war stories with the John Bircher in the pilots' club. They all enjoyed talking piloting, even though Scranton didn't necessarily agree with their politics.
Bill Scranton had an impressive ability to get along with most everyone -- on a personal level. "But he never let personal issues interfere with politics," my father says.
Leading up to the convention, Goldwater considered naming Bill Scranton his running mate.
But now Scranton was running for president, and wanted a debate. He asked my father to write a letter to a party official asking for a debate with Goldwater. Like most frontrunners, Goldwater was elusive, and had no use for a debate.
My father sat down and composed a missive that to this day is infamously known in American political circles simply as 'The Letter.'
"It's your daddy who wrote The Letter," I still hear from smiling politicos and journalists alike.
There is some level of confusion in some circles about the process used to draft The Letter, and whether Gov. Scranton knew of the contents of it. The short story: the governor didn't know, but the state AG did. It's worthwhile to relate a story told to me by former AG Bill Sennett.
"The first time I met your dad," Sennett tells me, "I was a lawyer in Erie, and an assistant to Lt. Governor Ray Shafer. Your father came up to Erie for an event, and there was a PR person who had a question for the administration. Your father was standing there, so I referred her to him. And your Dad, without missing a beat, told her, 'Governor William Scranton said today...' That was the first time I heard anyone do that. I thought it was great. I didn't know we could do that!"
My father often spoke on behalf of the governor. Which was how he wrote The Letter.
But instead of sending The Letter to the party official, it was addressed directly to Sen. Goldwater himself.
"Scranton really didn't know about it," my father says.
In The Letter, Barry Goldwater was read the riot act. Maybe if my father had played the game, and climbed the ladder, I'd have grown up in Washington, and our lives would have turned out differently.
But what is it to gain the world if you suffer your soul? There were principles involved. This was a fight for the heart and soul of the Republican Party. It was a fight about the future of the United States. We see that more clearly today.
In The Letter, Dad wrote Goldwater, "you have too often casually prescribed nuclear war as a solution to a troubled world." Further, he wrote, "Goldwaterism has come to stand for a whole crazy-quilt collection of absurd and dangerous positions that would be soundly repudiated by the American people in November."
My dad handed the draft of The Letter to state Attorney General and Campaign Manager Walter Alessandroni, who made suggestions and edited it. A secretary who usually signed for Scranton then signed it with Scranton's name. It was sent to Goldwater. And nothing happened.
"It sat there for a day or two," my father recounts. Goldwater either ignored it, or didn't know about it, which seems unlikely.
"People don't know the story behind it," my father says. "The Letter just sat there, and nobody knew about it. What happened was, at the convention I met Walter Cronkite. We wanted to kick it out there. So I said to Cronkite, 'There's an interesting story about this letter --.'"
Cronkite said, "That's very interesting. Let's see this letter."
And that's the way it was.
Exposed by TV anchorman Walter Cronkite, The Letter caused a national uproar. Everyone from Barry Goldwater to Time magazine and the Philadelphia Inquirer screamed for my old man's head. Scranton protected him.
Nelson Rockefeller addresses convention at Cow Palace in 1964: Rocky stirred his coffee with his eyeglasses stem ...
My father became the enfant terrible of the national Republican Party. With almost forty years' hindsight, though, The Letter today seems to me on the money, courageous, and prescient. Lincoln and TR, I'm sure, would be happy with it. It said what had to be said.
But The Letter was incendiary. At the volatile, unscripted convention it was a match thrown into a pool of gasoline. There was an explosion, and the wheels came off the Republican Party at the convention in the Cow Palace in San Francisco.
Pandemonium ensued. This was in the day when political conventions were real human affairs, not the pre-programmed, canned commercials they've become. When Nelson Rockefeller took the podium to address the convention, he was shouted down and drowned out by Goldwater partisans, who would not let him speak, and who choked the hall for sixteen minutes with boos and catcalls.
"The scene was set for the battle over the heart and soul of the Republican Party," is how the PBS show American Experience recounts it:
"'This is still a free country, ladies and gentlemen.' Standing before the hostile crowd at the 1964 GOP Convention in San Francisco, a defiant Nelson Rockefeller could barely make his words heard above the booing. The atmosphere at the Republican convention was heated as Nelson Rockefeller stepped up to the podium to address the belligerent crowd: 'During this year I have crisscrossed this nation, fighting … to keep the Republican party the party of all the people ... and warning of the extremist threat, its danger to the party, and danger to the nation,' he said, taking his time as the crowd cheered 'We want Barry!' 'These extremists feed on fear, hate and terror, [they have] no program for America and the Republican Party... [they] operate from dark shadows of secrecy. It is essential that this convention repudiate here and now any doctrinaire, militant minority whether Communist, Ku Klux Klan or Birchers.' It was, according to many, Nelson Rockefeller's finest moment -- but it did little to stop the conservative wave that was transforming the GOP."
The progressive wing of the Republican Party would never really recover, or be allowed to speak up again. It was hung out to dry, and left to wither and die. Pity. Our country's the worse for it. None dare call it intolerance, and elitism.
Bill Scranton refused to withdraw his name from nomination at the convention until the first roll call vote had been cast. The first round of balloting gave Goldwater 883 votes to Scranton's 214.
Following the first roll call vote, Bill Scranton entered the convention hall with his wife, Mary, and campaign manager and state Attorney General Walt Alessandroni at his side.
"Let it be clearly understood," Scranton told the convention, "that this great Republican party is our historic house. This is our home. We have no intention of deserting it. We are still Republicans -- and not very still ones either." He asked his supporters "not to desert our party but to strengthen it."
Perhaps, I suspect, at least partly goaded and angered by The Letter, Goldwater took the podium for his acceptance speech and delivered his cup of poison, a Kool-Aid elixir they're still drinking today:
"I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," Goldwater told the country. "And let me remind you that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."
At least the damn fool went down swinging.
As for my father, a few days later the phone rang. Nelson Rockefeller was on the other end.
"Are you the guy who wrote The Letter?" Rockefeller gushed. "I want you to work for me!" Rockefeller set up a meeting with my father.
"The funny thing about Rockefeller was," my dad says, "for all his millions, he would take off his eyeglasses and stir his coffee with his eyeglass stem."
What we do with our children, and what we expose them to, casts long and unexpected shadows. While I was still a tender preschooler in kindergarten pants, my father on weekends sometimes took me with him into the governor's office.
The place back then still had the drowsy feel of the early 20th century. The governor's office would be quiet and empty, except for us, and maybe a state trooper. (A trooper in those days ran the governor's office 24-hour telephone switchboard and WATS lines.)
Blue blood rebellion: President Teddy Roosevelt with his friend, Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot
On several occasions my father took me into the governor's conference room, across the hall from the attorney general's office. Or sometimes he'd have me sit at the governor's desk. He'd tell me, for reasons still unknown to me, to sit at the governor's place at the table and to practice writing my alphabet. With that, he'd close the door, and leave me alone in the still, august chamber.
A child of five, I found myself sitting at the governor's desk. An empty legal tablet sat before me. I clutched a pencil. I looked around. The office was opulent. The carpeting, thick. The doors and walls were of fine carved wood. Appointments of stone, marble, or heavy brass. It seemed to me like some sort of public sanctum. But what was this place for? I wondered.
And something else, by far the most striking thing to my young, impressionable mind: On the walls of the room, lining the great high-ceilinged chamber, staring down at me as I sat at the governor's desk, hung exquisite oil portraits of past governors of Pennsylvania. Some of the portraits were of great men. Most of them were long forgotten.
I can still see the faces of the great, gifted and inspired governors, like Gifford Pinchot. Pinchot was one of those rare and most dangerous of political animals: a blue blood who was considered by some to be "a traitor to his class." The aristocrats are not much afraid of you or me. But once or twice every hundred years or so there comes one of their own -- Thomas Jefferson, the Roosevelts, Gifford Pinchot -- who knows how to hit them where it hurts.
Pinchot, before he became governor, helped create the American parks system with his friend and ally, Teddy Roosevelt. “Among the many, many public officials who under my administration rendered literally invaluable service to the people of the United States, he, on the whole, stood first," Theodore Roosevelt wrote of Pinchot in his Autobiography.
Sometimes when Pinchot would visit his bully friend TR, they would strip down to their skivvies, Roosevelt would pull out a wrestling mat, and he and Pinchot would have a go wrestling on the office floor.
Pinchot served two terms as governor of Pennsylvania, from 1923-26 and 1931-34. Gov. Pinchot established state parks, built roads for farmers, and electrified rural Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin: Engaged in a great civil war ...
For the great ones, like Pinchot, to be governor is not a be-all, or end-all. Pinchot reflected that he was "a governor every now and then, but I am a forester all the time."
And there was a portrait of poor Andrew Curtin, from Bellefonte, Centre County. Curtin suffered severe physical and mental breakdowns from the strain of supplying men and materiel to Union forces during the Civil War at Gettysburg.
Most impressive of all to me was the portrait of Benjamin Franklin. (Franklin was actually the sixth President of Pennsylvania, serving before a new constitution in 1790 created the office of governor). For me Franklin stood out from all the rest.
Ben Franklin stared down at me as I sat at the governor's desk like he expected something good to come of me, but with a hint of a suspicion that I was, after all, goofing off. He seemed like a stern teacher, expecting me to do good work for Pennsylvania, and wondering if I was up to the task.
Something else about those portraits in the governor's office always stuck in my head. The likes of Governors Franklin, Pinchot, and Curtin were far outnumbered by the forgotten governors who were merely good, and of their own time. A friend of mine, Corey Stein, actually cared for a former governor who was at the end of his life. This former governor was left to die pretty much alone in a rest home outside Harrisburg, visited only by his daughter. The cheers from the crowds of decades past by now were only a faint, tinny memory. Stein would pick the former governor up out of his hospital bed, move him around, and talk to him. How did he get here? Where had all the crowds gone? Where was his constituency now? Where was the roar of the conventions?
The governor's quiet office is like a seashell. Listen carefully, and you can still here a whisper of the roar of the crowds from a century ago.
Most people imagine the governor's office as a whirling control room, at the center of events. In actuality, more often than not, the governor and his staff must respond to events beyond their control.
More often than not, it's the things you ignore, or take for granted, that bite you.
"Jim Reichley was Gov. Scranton's legislative secretary," former AG Bill Sennett recalls, "and he knew how bad the revenues were. Reichley used to say, 'We've got to watch the revenues.' We should have paid more attention to him, because that was the problem that hobbled us in the Shafer administration."
All around me at the governor's desk, as I sat as a boy, seemed quiet, serious, and solemn. A thoughtful place.
The Sixth President of Pennsylvania Benjamin Franklin at his desk in 1767: 'He snatched lightning from God, and scepters from kings.' What did you do today, fellow Pennsylvanian?
I was terrified. It seemed to me like the whole world had gone off and left me to do the thinking. It's a feeling I still carry with me today. I thought about what made the great governors different from the ones who weren't so great. The difference, I thought, was that the great ones always considered what was good for everybody in Pennsylvania. Ben Franklin didn't make his stove and his bifocals, nor fly his kite, for the elite. Franklin, in fact, never took out a patent for his inventions. He enjoyed, instead, seeing people use them. His reward was seeing the lives of everyday Pennsylvanians, and Americans, improved.
In my young mind I thought of the governor's desk as something like an altar, where good things can be summoned, and done. It should be approached with clean hands, I thought, like when you go to church. Sitting behind that desk you should look out for everyone's interests, and always think about, and weigh, the consequences of your actions and inactions, for the benefit of ourcommonwealth and its future. You should be honest with other people. Truth has power. Truth, in the end, is the biggest power there is. Truth is reality. Truth is God.
Sometimes you have to take a stand against things, even if it runs against the grain, and is counter to what everyone else is doing. What you tolerate is what you become.
Just as importantly, you should be honest with, and about, yourself. The words and deeds you use at that desk should be true and honest, like when you're talking to a girl you really like and you want her to see your true face, warts and all.
The Japanese have a saying: "A man is whatever room he is in." I guess that applies to boys (and girls) too, sitting in the governor's office. While I sat at that table I was the governor. I could look out the windows from the governor's desk and see, beyond in the capitol complex, all the departments and bureaus and offices of state government. I would measure them by the same simple criteria to which I held myself: Were they doing their best, and how well were they working for Pennsylvania? This government is all of ours to care for.
Sitting at the governor's table as a young boy, with Ben Franklin staring sternly over my shoulder, I buckled down and practiced my alphabet… one letter at a time.
In both a real and figurative sense, I started writing at the desk of the governor of Pennsylvania.
I've kept this singular perspective about the governor's office and state government in my head ever since, all my life.
So I know, like most of us do, that what we are exposed to as kids casts a long shadow across the rest of days of our lives.
There would be for decades bad blood between my father, his circle of friends, and the growing tide of ‘Goldwater Republicans.’ It's true, in my father's case, there was a certain amount of personal vitriol running through the veins of a young man whose nose got bent out of shape at his first and only national convention.
But, in essence, my father and his circle simply did not like the politics of this new breed of Republican. Goldwaterites were essentially small-minded, greedy, and spoke of their own self-interests as if they were doing everyone a favor by insisting on every scrap on the table for themselves.
This was not what my father and his friends had been taught by the Jesuits. It certainly was not the politics of Lincoln, a founder of the Republican Party, who spoke in a far more critical and dangerous time of binding up our wounds, of charity toward all and malice toward none, the dangers of a house divided, and who appealed, not to a partisan Supreme Court, but to the better angels of our nature.
The only thing that trickles down in the real world, Lincoln and TR knew, is blood, and piss.
In my mind's eye I still see my father and his friends as they were at their simple and modest little lawn parties in the 1960s, when they were young and hopeful men, with their lives in front of them. Their wives all wore simple Republican sundresses and cloth coats, as Nixon said in his Checker's speech.
The thing that strikes me, and my friends, today about our fathers is their great sense of fairness. They were all remarkably fair, and open-minded men. They would listen, hear what you had to say, and go away and think about it. They didn't presume to have all the answers. They seldom made snap judgments.
My father, the progressive Republican, has, and had, an amazing capacity to be fair. Dad would always tell me, "Well, the jury's still out about that. Don't rush to judgment. Keep an open mind." Dad had other friends, old hands around the governor's office, who had the same great natural inclination to be fair, and to ask for fairness for others. They are a dying breed in this age of snap judgment.
Once, when I was no more than ten or eleven, I foolishly spouted to one of my father's friends that every American was sitting at a table of plenty, so far as I could see. A few days later, he quietly mailed me a copy of The Other America, by Michael Harrington. The book, published in 1962, still speaks eloquently of Americans left behind, in grinding and unacceptable poverty. “Just something for you to think about," he inscribed the book for me.
What happened to these progressive Republicans? Where did they go? Most of them left politics.
"Please put out the light, James," were Teddy Roosevelt's last words, spoken to his valet.
In 1966 Bill Scranton could not run for reelection. At the time the state constitution permitted only a single four-year term.
Attorney General Walter Alessandroni still harbored ambitions to be governor.
"Walter was a great guy, and he was a really good politician," remembers former AG Sennett. "And he was Scranton's choice to be governor to succeed him."
But Scranton's lieutenant governor, Ray Shafer, of Meadville, wanted to be governor too.
"It was Shafer's turn," my father says bluntly. Alessandroni agreed to run for lieutenant governor on Shafer's ticket. Next time, in 1970, it would be Walter's turn.
My father left the governor's office to work on the Shafer/Alessandroni campaign. He got into advertising, and would later partner with his friend Bill Greenley, who recently passed away. Greenley and my father, back in the 60s, became Mad Men.
As the May '66 primary approached, polling data suggested some softness for the Shafer/Alessandroni ticket in the western part of the state. In retrospect, the polling should have been ignored, as a week later Shafer handily won the election, mostly due to Democratic infighting involving Philadelphia businessman Milton Shapp and a young Scrantonian named Bob Casey. Some of these names begin to reverberate later in our story.
Because of the weak polling data, a week before the '66 primary, Attorney General Walter Alessandroni decided he'd best travel to Uniontown, in the far west corner of the state. To help shore up support, he'd speak on a Sunday night before the Fayette County Tavern Association. Since this was a gathering of the Tavern Association, he'd bring along with him Jim Staudinger, a member of the state Liquor Control Board. Staudinger was also chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Committee, and at the time was himself one of the most influential Republicans in the state. Today Staudinger could be compared in stature in state politics to someone like Bob Asher, also a one-time Montgomery County GOP chairman, party stalwart, and close adviser to Gov. Tom Corbett.
Also planning to take the campaign trip with Attorney General Alessandroni and Staudinger were Alessandroni's wife, Ethel, and my father, who was working on the campaign. They planned to fly out that Sunday to Uniontown and spend the night.
But the Thursday before the flight, on May 5, fate intervened in both a cruel and amazing way. My father's mother -- my grandmother -- tumbled down a flight of stairs at home and died. Her funeral was set for that Saturday, May 7. My father was unable to make the flight he likely would have made with Alessandroni and the others to Uniontown.
Duel engine Piper Aztec: 'Conditions are not good'
The next afternoon, on Sunday, May 8, Walter and Ethel Alessandroni took off in a private twin-engine Piper Aztec from the Harrisburg-York state airport. It was a strangely serene yet snowy day in Harrisburg. As they were taking off an unusual spring snowstorm was whipping in from the west, blowing from Pittsburgh all the way up into Scranton.
It was to be a quick hop over the Allegheny Mountains to Fayette County. With the Alessandronis and Chairman Staudinger was their pilot, Melvin Ladin, A short time after takeoff, pilot Ladin radioed a Morgantown, West Virginia, airport for an instrument check.
"Conditions are not good and there is some icing," Laden told the control tower. Nothing was heard after that. The plane flew off into the snow.
The next day, Monday, no one in the governor's office heard anything from Attorney General Walter Alessandroni. At first they didn't much think of it, as he'd planned to stay over in Uniontown. His aides thought maybe he'd changed his plans. As the day wore on, his friends grew concerned. They learned the plane hadn't arrived in Uniontown the day before.
Bill Scranton declared the plane missing. He ordered the state police, the civil air patrol, game wardens and civil defense personnel to search for his friend Walter, the Pennsylvania attorney general.
The search was delayed by continued bad weather and snow. A search pilot flying out of Somerset finally spotted wreckage at nightfall. Ground crews then had to work their way through the snowy, mountainous terrain.
They found the plane smashed into the side of the mountain. All four were found dead in the wreckage.
In an odd twist of fate, by dying, my grandmother saved my father's life. My siblings and I would have been left fatherless by a state attorney general's campaign for the governor's office.
So I know something about the tragedy of the mix of politics with the Pennsylvania attorney general's office, and the governor's office. And I know something about the strange unseen and almighty hand that shadows our lives.
The other night, after Thanksgiving, I asked my father how he felt when he got the news that Walter Alessandroni had been killed in the plane crash.
"It wasn't a very good time for me," is all he had to say.
Following Ray Shafer's election as governor, Shafer appointed Bill Sennett attorney general. Still in his mid-thirties, he'd be the youngest AG in the state's history. Today, at 81, he says he's also the oldest surviving state attorney general.
AG Sennett's time in office was marked by the state's last constitutional convention, held in the late-1960s. As Scranton's Lt. governor, in 1963, Ray Shafer had chaired a bipartisan committee to explore constitutional reforms. Now governor, Shafer championed a constitutional convention to overhaul state government.
True to the warnings of Scranton legislative secretary Jim Reichley, Gov. Shafer would spend a considerable amount of time fretting over lack of revenues, and considerable political capital addressing badly needed revenue and tax solutions. He'd proposed the state first income tax, which made him unpopular with voters, and paved the way for Democrats to retake the governor's office in 1970.
Interestingly, former Attorney General Sennett says he himself never had much involvement with the constitutional convention in his official duties as AG.
"The constitutional convention ran pretty independent of the governor's office," he recalls. "That was a legislative function. The speaker of the house, the president pro tem, all appointed their own delegates to the convention." The legislative leaders, after all, only agreed to a constitutional overhaul if they could control it.
In this period, into the early 1970s, my father would leave government and daily political work to help redevelop downtrodden center-city Harrisburg. He'd found the Harristown Development Corporation, and build Strawberry Square, across Walnut Street from the capitol, where the attorney general and his staff find their offices today.
As for me, my next personal brush with dark shadows, higher religious powers, and a Pennsylvania attorney general happened around this time. In 1970, when I was 12, I received the Sacrament of Confirmation at my Catholic parish, St. Theresa's, in New Cumberland, outside of Harrisburg.
The sacrament required me to pick a sponsor. My confirmation sponsor was required to be a practicing Catholic of good moral standing who would then be like a godparent to me. I would also have to pick a name. The confirmation name I chose was an unusual one: Barnabas. The other kids seemed to have picked more standard names, like John, Paul, Peter, Matthew or Luke.
I chose for my confirmation sponsor one of my father's closest friends from his days in the governor's office, Fred Speaker. As it happened, Speaker was appointed state attorney general in 1970 by Republican Gov. Ray Shafer, to succeed AG Bill Sennett.
My friend Fred Speaker would turn out to be one of the more notable and memorable attorneys general in our state's history.
Attorney General Fred Speaker was one hell of a guy, one of the finest men I've ever known, as I'll get to shortly. He had a big happy open-mouthed smile, and quick, knowing eyes that always seemed to hone in on whatever the problem was. He was a very moral man. He would go away on Catholic retreats. He'd also spend a lot of his spare time attending Penn State football games. AG Speaker was friends with coach Joe Paterno.
On the night of my Catholic confirmation, Fred Speaker shows up at my parents' house. We're getting ready to go over to the church with the family.
"Barnabas?" he says to me. I can still see him screwing up his face with that big smile. "Why'd you pick that name, Bill?"
"After Barnabas Collins, in Dark Shadows," I tell the attorney general.
There were some lapses in my formal religious training.
"Huh?" AG Speaker says to me.
"You know, Barnabas Collins, the vampire in Dark Shadows. It's a TV show. He's really cool," I tell the AG.
He appeared horrified.
Fred Speaker corrected me in the errors of my religious thinking. The name I chose was meant to be that of a holy saint to whom I could appeal for help in my time of spiritual needs and tribulations, he explained. In the eyes of the Vatican, it seemed, a television vampire didn't fit the bill. Even this Bill.
"Look," he says to me. "If anyone asks, St. Barnabas of Antioch brought Paul into the church. He traveled with Paul to teach the gentiles. He's called the son of encouragement, and the son of prophecy."
Today the Office of the Pennsylvania Attorney General is headquartered across the street from the state capitol building in Strawberry Square, which was built by the writer's father.
We went over to the church. St. Theresa's parish had just built a nice new church. The sacrament that night turned out to be a very big deal. The Bishop of Harrisburg himself officiated.
His Eminence the Bishop, dressed in a formal cassock and high bishop's hat, said mass and gave communion.
When came time for me to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation, Fred Speaker and I stood with the other boys and girls and their sponsors at the front, by the altar.
The Bishop -- preceded by a gaggle of nervous altar boys swinging cans of incense, and followed by the entire retinue of dour parish priests draped in their finest white vestments, one splashing holy water, surrounding our kindly old Monsignor Keffer, their hands folded and eyes darting at us, warning against misbehavior -- The bishop dutifully made his way in turn to each boy and girl. They'd kiss his ring, and he'd bless and anoint them each with oil. I was relieved to see that His Eminence didn't seem to spend much time or speak much with any of us.
The Bishop gets to me. I kiss his ring, as I'd been taught by the sisters to do. The Bishop blesses and anoints me. He then stops. He looks at me, head on, and says, with a kindly smile, "Young man. Barnabas. You have chosen a very wonderful name. Tell me, why did you choose Barnabas as your patron?"
I could feel the elbow of the attorney general of Pennsylvania digging into my back.
The parish priests sternly gazed in a ring down at me.
I stood there, my small trembling body the only thing separating church and state.
"St. Barnabas of Antioch," I whimpered. "He brought Paul into the church. He traveled with Paul to teach the gentiles. He's called the son of encouragement, and the son of prophecy."
"Excellent!" the Bishop beamed. He started off to the next boy, then turned. "Very studious, young man," he winks at me.
The priests gave me the fish eye. One of them treated my face to a good splash of holy water.
AG Fred Speaker was a man of real gusto, heart, thoughtfulness, and nerve. As a young lawyer he worked in the governor's office with my father.
Fred Speaker had a shock of unruly black hair, and a quick, warm laugh. He seemed to take a particular shine to me. We'd talk about this and that. Politics, social issues, books, music, and Penn State football. One day, shortly after my confirmation, out of the blue, Fred came over to the house and gave me an album of the Broadway musical Hair. The record mortified my father, who threw a fit and hid it from me. I started to grow my hair long. As long as I could grow it, my hair. A part of me, you see, was encouraged by a Pennsylvania attorney general to grow my hair long, and to listen to The Beatles.
I don't know what, in retaliation, my father may have given Fred's six kids.
My father called Speaker simply, "Freddie.” They always lit up around each other. Fred Speaker and my dad at times played intricate jokes on each other, which might often backfire.
In the Scranton governor's office days, when they were young men, they would work long hours, for days in a row, and then come home and collapse all the next day exhausted in bed. At such times Speaker and my dad would each tell their wives not to disturb their sleep for any one, under any circumstances. This was before the advent of answering machines. The phone would ring, and someone would have to answer it.
If my dad had to reach Fred, he might disguise his voice and tell Fred's wife, JoAnn, that he was the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, and that he must speak to Mr. Speaker concerning a most urgent matter involving life and death. Speaker would drag himself out of bed to find my dad laughing on the phone.
Fred Speaker, to return the favor, when he knew my father might be found particularly exhausted in slumber land, might call my mother, his voice disguised, and say that he was the governor, a senator, or some other important personage who must immediately speak with my father.
One day my dad was snoring in bed when the phone rings. A strange voice on the other end of the line says to my mother, "This is General Eisenhower, can I please speak with Bill?"
So my mom goes to the door of their darkened bedroom. She shields the mouthpiece of the phone. She whispers somewhat urgently in to my father that President Eisenhower is on the line and wants to speak with him.
A few are called: Ike sometimes made his own phone calls ...
My father was wise to Fred's little game. His head was still under the pillow.
"Bill," my mom tells him again. "It's General Eisenhower. He says he has to speak with you. He says it's important."
My father lifted his head, very annoyed.
"Why don't you tell ‘General Eisenhower' to go fuck himself," my father tells her.
"Because dear I think you should tell him that yourself."
My father, by this time quite annoyed at Fred, clamored out of bed, took the phone, and, without mincing words, repeated his instructions.
"Why don't you go fuck yourself, General Eisenhower?"
Unfortunately, Dwight Eisenhower was on the phone.
I mean, the liberator of Europe, the five-star general, the former President of the United States, really was on the phone. And my father had just given him rather caustic instructions.
It turned out that Eisenhower was calling from his retirement farm in Gettysburg, and had some business with the governor's office that he wished to discuss with my father.
My father and others I've spoken with over the years remember Eisenhower as someone with whom you didn't joke around. Fortunately for my dad, in this instance, Eisenhower took the call in stride. It seems the general was in the habit of picking up the phone and making his own calls, and had grown used to, and perhaps was even amused by, all kinds of interesting surprised reactions when he rang you up.
So that's my dad and his good friend, Fred Speaker.
Fred, as I said, was also into football. Penn State football, to be more precise. Joe Paterno football, to be exact.
How much of a Penn State football fan was he? AG Fred Speaker missed only four Nittany Lions home games in thirty years. He was nuts about the Nittany Lions, and Coach Paterno. He was there for long practices on the loamy fields with Joe barking at the boys to dig in deeper, and harder. The snap of the ball and the clash of the helmets. The smack of the shoulder pads and the zip of the ball through the air. The backfield in motion. The sure-handed Paterno run up the middle. And always, always, defense, defense. All these things were in his blood. The grassy excited games under lights were in his blood too.
They were all building Beaver Stadium. While the rest of America was going to hell, Fred was with them in State College while they were all building the house that JoePa built. It was a big part of Fred Speaker's life. How could any of this be bad?
Beaver Stadium: They were all building the house that JoePa built
AG Speaker went to most of the Penn State away games too. Only thing was, Fred Speaker was afraid to fly. (I do not know but suspect that the death of AG Walter Alessandroni must certainly have played into Fred's dread of flying.) So he'd drive not only up to State College, but also to most nearly all of the Penn State away games. He'd take off in his car to crazy places like Nebraska and Michigan to root for his Nittany Lions.
Speaker's intimate familiarity with the countryside around State College, I suspect, played an important role in his defining moment as Pennsylvania attorney general.
In 1970 Gov. Ray Shafer, of Meadville, was a lame duck, and was leaving office.
In the last year of Gov. Shafer's term, AG Sennett quit to manage the reelection campaign of Senator High Scott. (As you no doubt begin to see, the state attorney general, for much of the twentieth century, and before, has been intimately entwined in the politics of winning the governor's office and the state's other high offices.)
Looking around for someone to fill out the last of Sennett's term in the AG's office, Gov. Shafer picked Fred Speaker. In 1970 Speaker was himself just 40 years old.
"He is an outstanding Pennsylvanian," Gov. Shafer said when he announced that Speaker would be his new attorney general. The governor said Speaker "has shown deep concern for the problems of Pennsylvania and he has the energies and devotion to meet those problems."
Attorney General Fred Speaker's deepest concern was the death penalty. Like my father, he simply didn't like it, on human, moral and legal principle. He felt it barbaric, and not in keeping with the state and federal constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Trouble was, it was nearly impossible to get the voters, the courts, and the cumbersome political parties and government apparatus to do anything about it.
As attorney general, Fred Speaker came in to office with his head and heart set on doing everything in his power to effectively strike a blow against the death penalty in Pennsylvania. Above board, he could write an official opinion as AG declaring the death penalty unconstitutional. He knew the new governor's AG would in all likelihood quickly rescind his opinion. He felt he must do more, but what?
Time didn't appear to be in his favor. Gov. Shafer's term in office was quickly running out. In November 1970, Democrat Milton Shapp, a businessman from Philadelphia, was elected to succeed Shafer. That's when AG Speaker's carefully considered, premeditated, and sub rosa plan of action swung into play. He would use Gov. Shafer's expiring term, and Gov.-elect Shapp's incoming new term, to his advantage.
Kurt Vonnegut astutely observes in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater:
"In every big transaction… there is a magic moment during which a man has surrendered a treasure, and during which the man who is due to receive it has not yet done so. An alert lawyer will make that moment his own."
And so, between two governors' terms in Pennsylvania, Attorney General Fred Speaker decided to make that magic moment his own.
Writing in The New York Times, Robert McG. Thomas, Jr., offers a lively account that doesn't quite jibe with everything that I know. He writes that Fred Speaker "never doubted for a moment that his greatest achievement was a stunning, quixotic gesture he made in January 1971, on his last day as state Attorney General, when he single-handedly abolished the death penalty in Pennsylvania." Thomas continues with his story:
"Mr. Speaker, a Republican who had been appointed Attorney General by Gov. Raymond P. Shafer six months earlier, had been planning the move ever since he paid a chance visit to Rockview Penitentiary at Bellefonte and had been taken to the state's death chamber, where he saw the big wooden electric chair sitting starkly in a room with an overhead exhaust fan to remove the stench of death and holes in the floor so the official witnesses to an execution could have a place to throw up.
"As Mr. Speaker later recalled, it was all he could do to keep from throwing up himself, as he suddenly realized that for all the legal trappings and statutory authority, executions, which he had previously supported, were no more than premeditated, cold-blooded 'administrative murder.'
" 'All I had to do was see that electric chair,' he said. 'I looked at the place where somebody pulls the switch and burns somebody to death. That just wiped out all the great philosophical views that I had.'"
This is the Fred Speaker that I knew acting at his Socratic best. When I was young Speaker might discuss some moral subject with us kids Socratically, with questions, as if needing himself to be convinced by our arguments. He'd play the devil's advocate. I think we must even have discussed the Sophists, those morally bankrupt proto-lawyers who would argue anything -- for a fee.
I have reason to believe that AG Speaker had been planning his move long before he first visited Rockview Penitentiary. I also don't think Fred paid a "chance visit" to Rockview, as the Times recounts. I think he was there for a purpose, quite literally casing the joint. I also suspect that Fred's familiarity with Rockview came from his continual visits to Happy Valley to watch Nittany Lions and Joe Paterno football. As any Lions fan will tell you, Rockview Penitentiary, where the state's death chamber is kept, hulks darkly over what in those days was a main road out of town to Bellefonte and Route 80 beyond.
And so it has been for millennia. The Romans too would crucify on the road into town. The occupied crosses served as a stern warning.
Old Sparky and AG Fred Speaker: 'The Death Room is an obscenity'
I also don't think Fred, while visiting the death chamber and seeing Old Sparky, suddenly had some epiphany that caused him to see through all his "great philosophical views." Seeing the bullshit in another lawyer's self-serving and immoral sophistry was precisely Fred Speaker's bailiwick.
Immoral bullshit, hiding behind any guise, is what Pennsylvania Attorney General Fred Speaker chiefly taught me to be on the lookout for, and to oppose.
If it walked like a duck, talked like a duck, and acted like a duck, Fred believed, chances are, it probably was a duck. Those vomit holes punched in the floor of the Rockview death chamber were not there because witnesses were unaware of the finer points of the legal arguments in the court papers that had led the condemned to be executed. The vomit holes were in the floor because the witnesses were reacting to the violent death of another human being, restrained, put down and killed in an organized fashion, like an animal.
And sometimes, like the man from the Galilee put to death on the cross of Tiberius, they are innocent.
My father explains to me that AG Speaker had his move well planned out. On the last day of Gov. Shafer's administration, on January 19, 1971, Gov. Milton Shapp was sworn in.
Gov. Shapp appointed J. Shane Creamer, of Philadelphia, to be his attorney general. But the appointment would have no legal effect until the state senate confirmed Creamer more than a week later, and he was sworn in. Like that alert lawyer of Kurt Vonnegut's description, Fred Speaker realized that in this transaction between two governors' administrations, Speaker would still be attorney general with all the powers of the office -- though neither Governor Shafer nor Shapp could control him or would have to take political responsibility for his actions.
So on the day of Gov. Shapp's inauguration, my father got into a car to take a ride with Attorney General Fred Speaker. The New York Times later recounted it like this:
“Biding his time until the day in January 1971 when Governor Shafer was replaced by a Democrat, Milton J. Shapp, Mr. Speaker, who was planning to drive to Washington with a friend (my father), listened on the car radio until the new Governor had been sworn in.
“Then, mindful that he would be Attorney General until his successor had been approved by the State Senate and sworn in, he got out of the car and mailed an official letter to the Rockville prison warden, ordering him to dismantle the electric chair and citing an accompanying legal opinion he had signed declaring the death penalty unconstitutional as ‘cruel and inhuman punishment.’"
Fred Speaker didn't stop there. What really screwed up the works was that he ordered the prison warden to convert the death chamber to office space. AG Speaker's Opinion and directive to Warden Joseph Mazurkiewicz read, in part:
"You are directed to remove the Electric Chair from the Execution Room at Rockview State Correctional Institution and begin conversion of the room into an office.
"This is another step toward a more rational and humane correctional policy and is intended to build upon the verbal instructions previously given you not to hire a new Public Executioner.
"These steps can be justified purely on the basis of economy. There have been no executions during the past two Administrations, and public pronouncements by Governor Shapp indicate that no electrocutions will be permitted in the foreseeable future. Because of the critical need for additional office space and because of the continued irrational expense of paying an inactive Executioner, sound management principles would indicate the wisdom of this decision."
AG Speaker continued to the warden,
"But I am not content to base this directive on economics alone. I am convinced that the imposition of the death penalty constitutes ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ prohibited by the Eighth and Fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution and perhaps is one of the ‘cruel punishments’ proscribed by Section 13 of the Pennsylvania Declaration of Rights."
AG Speaker cited the legal grounds for his opinion, but then provided an eyewitness account of an execution from no less a witness than a state Supreme Court Justice:
"Can anyone read the description of an electrocution by former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Curtis Bok and believe that savagely inflicted lingering death not to be 'inhuman and barbarous'?
"'He started, painfully and uncertainly, to lower himself into the chair, but now the guards were swift. They lifted him deep into the seat and adjusted the electrodes at calves and wrists.
"'Then they fastened a thick belt across his chest and lowered over his head the heavy wired leather mask.
"'It hid all but the tip of his nose and his lips. He was making efforts to quiet them by biting his tongue, the best that he could do, against his racing mind and heart, to keep control and to sit erect . . .
"The guards stepped back. The Warden, who had stood by with arm raised, lowered his hand. It had taken a minute and thirty-seven seconds.
"'There was a low whine and a short loud snap, as of huge teeth closing.
"'Roger's head flew back and his body leaped forward against the confining straps. Almost at once smoke arose from his head and left wrist and was sucked up into the ventilator overhead. The body churned against the bonds, the lips ceased trembling and turned red, then slowly changed to blue. Moisture appeared on the skin and a sizzling noise was audible. The smell of burning flesh grew heavy in the air.
"'Roger was being broiled.
"'The current went off with a distinct clap after about two minutes and Roger slumped back into his seat, his head hanging. No one moved. Then came the second jolt and again the body surged against the restraining straps and smoke rose from it. The visible flesh was turkey red.
"'Again the current slammed off and this time the doctor stepped forward to listen, but he moved back again and shook his head. Apparently Roger still clung faintly to life.
"'The third charge struck him, and again the smoking and sizzling and broiling. His flesh was swelling around the straps.
"'The doctor listened carefully and raised his head.
"'"I pronounce this man dead," he said, folding up his stethoscope. It was seven minutes after Roger had been seated in the chair." (Bok, Star Wormwood, 114-15 (1959).)
AG Speaker concluded by stating his honest intent and conscience to the warden,
"This directive is intended to constitute both an administrative order to you as an employee of the Justice Department and a formal opinion of the Attorney General. It is intentionally issued during that brief period after the termination of Governor Shafer's incumbency but before I leave office as Attorney General. The Administrative Code of April 9, 1929, P. L. 177, gives the Attorney General the power to furnish legal advice, imposes the duty to comply upon Commonwealth departments and officers, and provides that he remains in office until a successor is 'appointed and qualified.' It is, openly and candidly, an attempt on my part to reach into the future.
"I believe deeply that our practice of killing criminals is both a disgusting indecency and demeaning to the society that tolerates it. In conscience I am compelled to speak out and to do what I can to stop it.
"The Death Room is an obscenity. Hopefully legislation to abolish the death penalty will be enacted this year. In the meantime I am unwilling to leave intact, as I depart my office, a cruel instrument of public vengeance.
As I was myself the occasional object of Fred Speaker's good-natured elbow into my ever-slouching young back, I have some idea what he meant when he writes that he often attempted to "reach into the future." I'm trying to give you a sense of the man.
AG Speaker's Opinion rendering the death penalty unconstitutional would be rescinded just eight days later by his newly confirmed successor, state Attorney General J. Shane Creamer, in his Official Opinion No. 1, signed on January 28, 1971. Creamer was a former federal attorney with Robert Kennedy and then worked in the Nixon administration under John Mitchell.
"Although philosophically I agree with Mr. Speaker's position on capital punishment, this remains with me a personal view and one which cannot influence my judgment," Creamer interestingly says in his own opinion. "If the death penalty in Pennsylvania is to be abolished at this time, such action should be taken, either by the Legislature by repeal or by a court of competent jurisdiction declaring the death penalty unconstitutional."
Legal briefs are easy enough to write, taking only a few hours or days, if that, to type out and file. A man's life can be ended in a quick pen stroke. The real kibosh to the death system in Pennsylvania came because AG Speaker thought to order the death chamber converted into prison office space.
The old death room in Rockview already had been remade into the new offices of the prison psychologist. A bureaucrat is a lot harder to kill than a condemned man. As Fred Speaker and my father knew all too well, once you move those bureaucrats into a space with their filing cabinets, where all those legal papers are stored, they are mighty damn hard to displace. The paperwork is harder to kill than a man. Even the new AG had to admit in his opinion, "no useful purpose would be served by reinstalling the (electric) chair." While the political and court arguments over capital punishment would drag on for years, Pennsylvania would accordingly have no working death chamber again for the rest of the decade, if not longer.
All this is to again point out something that every state attorney general knows: There may be a thousand ways to skin a cat, but there are a 1,001 ways to protect a cat. It all depends on where your heart is, and what you want to do with the office and its powers. It depends mightily on priorities.
In his account, Mr. Thomas, The New York Times reporter, points out, "Partly because there had been no executions in Pennsylvania since 1962, it was a largely symbolic gesture. Indeed, his ruling that the death penalty was unconstitutional was quickly rescinded by the new Governor, but by then the electric chair had in fact been dismantled and the death chamber converted to an office for prison psychologists."
What Thomas doesn't realize is that one of the reasons there had been no executions in Pennsylvania since 1962 was that my father had made it his mission to demolish the arguments of the lawyer sent to brief Gov. Bill Scranton about pending death warrants. And it was my father in the car with AG Speaker the day they, as still-young men, mailed off the letter to disassemble the chair. Draw your own conclusions.
AG Speaker thought about his plan and carried it out very carefully, my father recently told me. He did it between the administrations as he thought it would have been wrong of him to saddle the problem or his own convictions on either of the two governors.
After Fred Speaker's tenure, a true calamity would befall the appointed office of Pennsylvania Attorney General. The calamity was arguably a man named Milton Shapp.
Milton Shapp served two terms as governor of Pennsylvania from 1971 to 1979. He was a self-made millionaire who made his money as a pioneer in the cable television business. Cutting corners in the cable business in Philadelphia made Shapp his fortune, but it turned out to be a bad idea for government. Shapp was a bright man whose heart was in the right place. But he was a terrible judge of horse flesh. Many of his appointments were bad. Some were outright criminals. His administration would be riddled with corruption.
'Different sort of relationship': Gov. Milton Shapp (top) and AG J. Shane Creamer, one of the last of Pennsylvania's appointed attorneys general.
Read the collected opinions of AG Creamer by clicking here >
Right from the gate, as he was sworn into office, Shapp sought major changes in the role of the state office of attorney general. Gov. Shapp's appointment of J. Shane Creamer as his attorney general, Shapp wrote, was meant to change the sleepy and amiable state Justice Department into a "Public Interest Law Firm." The state AG would no longer be just "The Governor's Lawyer."
"We will be aggressive in our attempts to move constructive forces for positive social change," AG Creamer announced at his appointment in 1971.
One of the biggest yet not-so-noticed changes under AG Creamer would be that the attorney general's office would physically relocate from its close proximity to the governor in the governor's suite in the main capitol building to a separate building next to the rotunda on the capitol grounds.
The AG no longer would be close to the governor's side, hour-by-hour, day-by-day.
Former AG Sennett recalls that he ran into AG Creamer shortly after the latter moved his office and staff to their own building outside the governor's office.
"I asked Shane why he'd moved the office," Sennett recounts, "and didn't he miss no longer being in the thick of things?"
"I have a different sort of relationship to this guy," he says AG Creamer said of Gov. Shapp.
AG Creamer, in fact, wouldn't last long.
Despite Shapp's good intentions, under his administration the state attorney general's office quickly got bigger and, by most accounts, far worse, and far more political.
Ever-growing and outrageous corruption, and what was increasingly seen as Gov. Shapp's blatant political misuse of the office of attorney general to cover up these misdeeds, would by the end of his terms spell the demise of the appointed state attorney general, and would directly lead to the elective office of AG that plagues Pennsylvania today.
The exact amount of corruption in the administration of Gov. Milton Shapp remains a matter of controversy. It depends on who is counting, and what they're counting.
In their book A History of Pennsylvania, Philip S. Klein and Ari Hoogenboom write, "Corruption penetrated all levels of government in Pennsylvania. David Runkle of the Philadelphia Bulletin calculated 238 Pennsylvania public officials from 1970 to May 1978 were convicted of, admitted to, or pleaded no contest to charges of corruption."
Paul Beers, in his book Pennsylvania Politics Today and Yesterday, counts it this way: "In eight Shapp years, seven lawmakers and 11 high party officials were convicted." Beers writes, "The dismal facts could not be ignored."
Most prominent to fall, in Shapp's own cabinet, was Frank Hilton, secretary of property and supplies. Hilton would be convicted of extorting $74,000 from a New York insurance company. Sec. Hilton was also reputed to pocket payoffs in a parking garage near the state capitol. Under Gov. Shapp, even the state's top cops were drawn into the politics of corruption. Several of Shapp's state police commissioners went down in clouds of suspicion.
Charges of internal corruption involving a state police commissioner quickly cost Shapp's AG Creamer his job. Attorney General Creamer in late 1972 accused state troopers working under State Police Commissioner Rocco Urella of tapping the telephones of investigators working for the state's independent Crime Commission.
The state Crime Commission has a pertinent yet short-lived role in our story. Gov. Ray Shafer and the legislature created the Crime Commission in October 1968. The Crime Commission, Gov. Shafer said, "should function as an independent, non-partisan watchdog empowered to investigate serious crime wherever it exists in Pennsylvania." Organized crime would be a subject of its investigations, but any systemic crime, including political corruption, fell within its portfolio.
The Crime Commission was hobbled from the start. It would have subpoena power, but no ability to file charges. It would inform, not indict. Still, corrupt elements in the state police and the AG's office were never happy with the existence of this third, independent law enforcement body. The AG and the state police commissioner would have a seat on its board, but neither would control it. It was a loose spanner in a broken political machine.
When the Crime Commission was only four years old, in November 1972, AG Creamer accused State Police Commissioner Urella of ordering state troopers to tap the phones of Crime Commission investigators. Commissioner Urella denied the accusations. The controversy spilled into the newspapers.
Gov. Shapp characteristically responded to the flap in one fell swoop over the New Year's holiday of 1973 by forcing AG Creamer to resign and firing State Police Commissioner Urella. AG Creamer had also been chairman of the Crime Commission's five-member panel, while Urella had been one of the other five members.
To protest AG Creamer's sacking, the three remaining members of the Crime Commission board, including former AG William Sennett, resigned. The three resigning members sent Gov. Shapp a telegram stating they'd quit "in view of the circumstances surrounding the resignation of Atty. Gen. J. Shane Creamer." They wrote the governor, "in good conscience we believe we can no longer continue to serve on the Pennsylvania Crime Commission and do hereby submit our resignations."
They as much accused the governor of misusing the office of state attorney general for political ends. But Shapp didn't blink.
To replace the resigning members of the Crime Commission, Gov. Shapp appointed three new, usual suspects, including former Philadelphia Mayor Richardson Dilsworth -- Bill Scranton's old opponent. "It's all whitewash, Mayor Dillworth, all whitewash."
This New Year's Day massacre set the dynamic for much of what was to come in the remaining six years of the Shapp administration.
State Police Commissioner Urella's replacement, James Barger, would himself before long be forced out in a scandal involving the falsification of drunk driving records of state troopers.
We begin to discern a pattern: If you can't eliminate the corruption, it's important to make the reports of the corruption go away.
Back in the 1970s, as corruption grew around Gov. Milton Shapp, his office of attorney general became a revolving door. One AG appointee and special prosecutor after another would be seen as a political operative meant to either protect the governor or to do the governor's political dirty work.
Soon growing numbers of the governor's staff and his prominent friends in the leadership of the legislature -- including the Speaker of the House, and the Senate Finance Committee Chairman -- were ensnared in charges of corruption. In response, the state AG's office became a tool used to prevent investigations.
Everyone knew it was pointless to expect a Shapp-appointed attorney general to investigate anything.
It became an open butt of jokes. The story goes that Gov. Shapp himself had a punch line so good that he could tell it at press conferences and shake the room with laughter.
"I'm turning this matter over to my attorney general," Shapp would say, deadpan.
"Though personally honest, Shapp must be held responsible for the rampant corruption during his administration," Klein and Hoogenboom sum up in A History of Pennsylvania. "He both tolerated misdeeds and failed to set a good example. Placing friends and relations on the public payroll, he demanded neither efficiency nor high ethical standards, nor was he outraged by those betraying his trust."
His cronies increasingly tied to allegations of corruption, Gov. Shapp sought to quell complaints of conflict of interest involving his appointed attorneys general by appointing special prosecutors.
One 1976 appointment was a deputy special prosecutor to investigate police and government corruption in Philadelphia. This appointment went to an up-and-coming young lawyer in the Philly DA's office named Ed Rendell. No politics there.
Soon there were cries that these special prosecutors themselves were hired for political ends. Soon Shapp was even accused of firing special prosecutors to conceal political corruption.
"Shapp actually appeared more willing to dismiss investigators than to fire corruptionists," write Klein and Hoogenboom. "The Shapp administration, for example, dismissed Walter M. Phillips, Jr., the special state prosecutor in Philadelphia -- despite his two year record of fifty-nine indictments and twenty-one convictions -- ostensibly because he netted small fish but apparently because Phillips was investigating a connection between Speaker of the House Herbert Fineman (both a big fish and a Shapp ally) and the award of architectural contracts for the Philadelphia school system."
By the sunset of his term, in June 1977, Gov. Shapp had lost the ability to lead or to command respect from the legislature. When he vetoed budget items, the legislature not only overrode him, but did so nearly unanimously.
By the end of Milton Shapp's final term, most everyone in the legislature and the public had had enough. Milton Shapp had almost single handedly destroyed the Office of Pennsylvania Attorney General.
They blamed much of Gov. Shapp's problems on his misuse of the attorney general's office. Over Shapp's objections, the legislature introduced a proposed constitutional amendment providing for an independently elected state attorney general.
"There was too much corruption in state government," remembers Democratic state representative Mark Cohen, of Philadelphia. Today Cohen is the longest-serving member in the General Assembly. The proposed constitutional amendment, he recalls, "sailed through the legislature. There wasn't much opposition."
State voters approved the constitutional amendment in the primary election of 1978. The newly elected attorney general of Pennsylvania would be given both far-reaching, and concentrated powers. Most important, the AG would now for the first time have the power to prosecute crimes.
Prior to this, the state AG would refer criminal matters to local district attorneys. This system had worked for a century and more. Now it would be the other way around. Independently elected local DAs would now refer matters to the state AG, or see important matters ceded to a powerful elected AG.
This would create the top-heavy, politicized bottleneck that we see today in the elective AG's office under Tom Corbett.
Just as bad, the office of attorney general, always a viper wrapped around the staff of the governor's office, now became a full-fledged power base and financial player of its own in Pennsylvania politics.
It's easy to think of these offices, with their thousands of employees and imposing edifices, as concrete and steel structures. The point of this essay though is to remind you and to give you a sense, as I have had a sense in my life, that these offices are actually flesh and blood people, with beating hearts, jealousies, ambitions, strengths and faults.
What corrupted the Pennsylvania attorney general's office in the 1970s? It's tempting to explain it away and say that this was mostly big city Philadelphia politics infecting itself on what for decades had been sleepy rural Pennsylvania governors' offices. But big city Mayor David Laurence of Pittsburgh had been governor in the late 50s and early 60s without any of this sort of massive, wholesale abuse of our justice system.
It would be fair and accurate to say that what happened under Gov. Shapp with the state attorney general's office was a result of Shapp's own personality flaws and his runaway political concerns and ambitions.
From here out, the personality flaws and the political concerns and ambitions of a succession of elected attorneys general, each with his eye on the governor's office, would take an equally heavy toll on the commonwealth.
In each case, political calculation and partisan crony machinations would be the very nature of the beast.
Continue reading Part 2 here >
-- Bill Keisling IV
posted on Presidents Day, February 20, 2012
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