Looking for the next Dick Thornburgh

“To take the measure of a governor, one must consider the public stage at that moment. When Dick Thornburgh came into office there was no honeymoon. He needed to burnish the executive branch starting on day-one. He was quickly hit with a nuclear crisis. He had to face-down a relentless and long-running recession. The task of governing at that moment was very tall. As I vividly recall, Thornburgh had the zest of a reformer. He thought like an engineer. He prosecuted his stout policy objectives like a nimble barrister. He had the vision of a good person who wanted government to be good. As a legislative leader at the time, I can attest Thornburgh had the good knack to work with an independent-minded legislature. The moment at that time had a critical mass of legislators who Thornburgh worked with to solve problems rather than make a carping career of them. And, outside of government, Thornburgh worked in partnership with private sector titans like Fred Anton of PMA who themselves wanted a productive and vibrant Pennsylvania. Fred Anton helped a well-intentioned governor achieve good things. The laudatory efforts of Thornburgh and Anton should not be forgotten. Instead, their efforts should be searched for leadership applications that can be used today. It wasn’t a fairytale moment. To the contrary, the public stage was fraught with many vexing issues. Nevertheless, the ‘Thornburgh Years’ reflect the sterling accomplishments of a superb governor, Dick Thornburgh; and too, those of a superb private sector captain, Fred Anton.” 

-Rep. Sam Hayes, Jr. (R-Blair/Huntingdon), Former Majority Leader and Whip, PA House of Representatives (1971-1992)

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The remarkable public life of former Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh, who passed away on December 31 at the age of 88, should be remembered with clarity, not the mere sentimentality of the “good old days.”

We really were better off when Dick Thornburgh managed the Commonwealth’s affairs from 1979 to 1987, and then during his equally distinguished career as U.S. Attorney General from 1988 to 1991. We remain better off to this day.

As governor, he cleaned up the tangle of corruption in Harrisburg left behind after the Milton Shapp administration. The number of private sector jobs bloomed during his tenure; the number of taxpayer-fund public jobs was reduced. He faced an emergency at the nuclear plant at Three Mile Island (TMI) with such intelligence and steadiness that then-President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, praised his leadership; the kind of cross-party compliment that seems to have vanished years ago. As United States Attorney General under the first President Bush, he spearheaded the internationally praised Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which opened up a world of opportunity for people with mental and physical disabilities.

None other than Fred Anton, the late PMA President & CEO, revered him. The mutual respect and friendship lasted long after Thornburgh left the governor’s office. He and his wife Ginny regularly attended the PMA Seminar and Luncheon at the Metropolitan Club, one of the most sought-after events during the Pennsylvania Society weekend in New York City. He also spoke at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference, the annual meeting of the state’s conservatives nurtured and supported over the years by Anton, and now under the leadership of PMA Chairman of the Board Lowman Henry.

“Governor Thornburgh ran things the way they are supposed to be run,” said David N. Taylor, Anton’s successor as President & CEO of the PMA. “Set clear goals, work to reach consensus, and get it done.”
In addition, Taylor said that Thornburgh shared Anton’s belief that government can’t be everything to all people.

“More and more people see government as The Great Benefactor,” Taylor said. “But it’s really just a machine that we have established to execute specific functions. The citizenry needs government to do those things it is supposed to do, do them well, and then STOP. The stopping part is important because where government expands, liberty contracts.”

Just twelve weeks after Dick Thornburgh took office, nuclear fuel pellets melted at the TMI Unit 2 and radioactivity breached a containment wall. A small amount of radiation leaked but the bigger challenge for the new governor was preventing a full panic stoked by the anti-nuclear activists and the media, and the recent release of the disaster movie the “China Syndrome,” which held out the possibility that a meltdown at a nuclear reactor could trigger a fission bomb with mass casualties.

“Thornburgh ordered a precautionary evacuation of pregnant women and young children in a five-mile radius around the plant,” a New York Times obituary noted. “About 140,000 people left. And when a false report spread that the plant might blow up, he consulted experts, called reporters in, and announced that no such danger existed.”

At the time, Thornburgh said that, “you have to reassure people. You have to go before the cameras and microphones and tell them what you know and what you don’t. You have to stop the rumors, and, of course, you have to make decisions. There isn’t any Republican or Democratic way to deal with a nuclear crisis. Nobody has ever had to deal with this kind of accident before.”

He excelled in the day-to-day governance as well. Working with the General Assembly, he balanced the budget (without gimmicks) for eight straight years, eliminated 15,000 state jobs, cut taxes and state indebtedness, and left office with a $350 million surplus ($800 million today). He also enacted welfare reforms and championed economic development. The private sector in Pennsylvania grew by 50,000 businesses and 500,000 workers. Perhaps most remarkably, his approval rating was still over 70 percent at the end of his second term.

Ronald Regan picked him near the end of his second term as president to become Attorney General, and he continued in that role under Bush 41. His proudest achievement there was winning passage of the ADA in 1990, which barred discrimination against those with disabilities. He and Ginny’s campaign for the rights of the disabled grew out of the 1960 car accident that killed his first wife, Virginia Hooton, and resulted in severe brain damage to his son, Peter.

He also advocated for civil justice reform and the related efforts to take politics out of the judiciary. As current events have shown, much work remains to limit lawsuit abuse and reform our courts.

In 2004, Thornburgh spoke before the Georgetown chapter of the Federalist Society after receiving its inaugural lifetime service award:
“Our tort system, in particular, has become something of a legal lottery, propelled by visions of huge damage awards and equally outsized legal fees. It imposes what amounts to a liability tax on all providers of goods and services and hampers innovation and scientific advance in many key areas. Mega-fees are recycled back into the political process to preserve the status quo and stifle attempts at even modest reform. A ‘victim syndrome’ eats away at the very concept of individual responsibility which has made this nation what it is.”

Dick Thornburgh was an extraordinary leader for our commonwealth and our country. We are grateful for his life and will always look to his honorable example for the very best of what Pennsylvania can be.