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Nat Hentoff on Governor Bob Casey of Pennsylvania

Robert Casey, Democrat.

Life of the Party

By NAT HENTOFF, The New Republic, June 19, 2000

Robert Casey, who died on May 30 at age 68, was a Democrat fiercely committed to his party's tradition of protecting society's most vulnerable. And, for that, his party made him a pariah.

As governor of Pennsylvania from 1987 to 1994, Casey created model school-based child-care programs that offered infants and preschoolers--including poor children--full-day services and before- and after-school programs. That way, teenage parents could stay in school and poor adults could go to work knowing their children were safe. He lobbied unsuccessfully for universal health care in his state, but, failing that, as The New York Times reported in its May 31 obituary, "he did sign a bill providing health insurance for children whose families were too poor to pay for it but whose incomes were too high to be eligible for public assistance." Before breast cancer became a political cliche, Casey invested $1 million in awareness and screening for the disease and required HMOs to pay for annual mammograms for women over 40. Harvard University pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton described Casey's multidimensional health care programs for women and children as "a model for the rest of the country."

The son of a coal-miner-turned-lawyer, Casey believed in the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and he doggedly rebuilt it in Pennsylvania. In 1991, he personally raised more than $1 million to help underdog Harris Wofford defeat Dick Thornburgh, then-President Bush's former attorney general, for a United States Senate seat. At the time, Paul Begala, who worked for Casey and later for President Clinton, told Mary McGrory of The Washington Post: "Save for Bob Casey, Harris Wofford would have lost. Casey rebuilt the party from ashes, and made it a better organization than the Republicans'."

Nonetheless, Casey's party treated him with disdain. As the 1992 Democratic Convention in New York approached, Casey told me he expected, in light of his policy accomplishments and political loyalty, to be a speaker, maybe even the keynote speaker. But he wasn't the keynote speaker. The honor of nominating Clinton went to New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who ignited the crowd by declaring, "Bill Clinton believes, as we all here do, in the first principle of our Democratic commitment: the politics of inclusion."

Casey was not asked to speak. In fact, he and his Pennsylvania delegation were exiled to the farthest reaches of Madison Square Garden--because Casey was pro-life. It didn't matter that, under his leadership, state contracts to minority- and women-owned firms had increased more than 1,500 percent in five years, or that he had appointed more female Cabinet members than any Democratic governor in the country, or that he had appointed the first black woman ever to sit on a state Supreme Court. Ron Brown, chief convention organizer and the Democratic Party's symbol of minority inclusion, told Casey, "Your views are out of line with those of most Americans."

Casey had the misfortune of being present during a great shift in the Democratic Party. A mere six years earlier, on September 26, 1986, then-Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas had assured the head of his state's chapter of the National Right to Life Committee, "I am opposed to abortion and to government funding of abortion." But, by the early '90s, the Democrats, seeking the votes of upper-middle-class Republican women, were de-emphasizing economic protection and stressing cultural libertarianism. And, just to make sure everyone got the message, Democratic strategists invited Kathy Taylor, a pro-choice Pennsylvania Republican who had helped defeat Casey's progressive tax reforms, to the New York convention. She appeared onstage pledging the National Abortion Rights Action League's allegiance to the Clinton-Gore team. Then DNC officials sent Taylor, with a camera crew in tow, to find Casey in "Outer Mongolia," as he put it, to further humiliate him. Tipped off, he declined the national exposure. Shortly before Casey left the convention, Al Gore called him to apologize for any embarrassment. The governor told me dryly that he doubted Gore was speaking from the heart.

"What has become of the Democratic Party I once knew?" Casey asked when he returned home. But he didn't leave the party, even though, in his view, "it ha[d] become a wholly owned subsidiary of the National Abortion Rights Action League." The GOP would have been delighted to gather him in, but Casey said, "The pro-life Republicans drop the children at birth and do nothing for them after that." He added, in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette not long before he left office in 1994, that "as far as the Republican Party is concerned, the business of government is business." Casey's politics were simple, but they were so heretical that in the language of '90s American politics they quite literally didn't have a name. And so last week, in a final slap, the Washington Post, New York Times, and CNN obituaries identified the former governor as a "conservative Democrat."

James Carville worked on Casey's 1986 and 1990 reelection campaigns. In a June 1 interview with National Review Online, Carville said of his former boss: "You have no idea what a deep sense of probity he had.... He was just the kind of person that made the whole Washington establishment completely uncomfortable.... They could never understand him." Carville also called his former partner, Begala, was also "a Casey protégé." I wonder how they felt, and what they did, while Casey was being humiliated in 1992. As Bob Casey was being driven from the Democratic Party because he refused to sacrifice his beliefs, they ascended further up the party ladder, going to work for a politician who didn't have such problems. And, when Casey died, President Clinton said he admired the governor's "commitment to principle."