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William Scranton: A Man for Another Age

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One of the last remaining dinosaurs to roam our political terrain perished Sunday, July 28th. He had lived to the ripe old age of 96 but unfortunately spent at least half of his life on the endangered species list before the gods of extinction claimed his soul. His name was William Scranton. And he belonged to that vanishing sub-classification known as Moderate Republican.

At 43 in 1960 he won a seat in the U.S. Congress, representing Pennsylvania. From 1963 to 1967, he served as governor of that state. And in 1964 he made a credible run for the GOP's Presidential nomination, only to lose to Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. And so the Messyzoic Era began -- and the life began oozing out of the Party.

At the 1964 GOP convention in San Francisco, the moderate or liberal wing lost most of its flapping power. As their numbers started to dwindle, they felt the starboard tug and shuddered over Goldwater's polarizing messages. Scranton damned the frontrunner as an agent of fear and swooped up the support of 10 state delegations. But that wasn't enough to stop the rightwing victory over the Republican Party. LBJ's landslide take-out of Goldwater in the election, however, just encouraged the rightwing to flap harder.

I still have my Scranton lapel button from that campaign. Back in 1964 I wore it with pride and idiosyncrasy. Living in a college nest of Democrats, I tried to stand out by supporting a Republican with smarts, class and heart, a Republican who really was a political descendent of Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican who shared most of the values ascribed to President Johnson.

My lapel button achieved instant relic status. A few years later, it seemed more an evolutionary symbol, a vestigial element like a dog's dew claw. Recently, my grand niece found the button and asked me if it was some kind of token to get in and out of Scranton, PA.

After the '64 convention, Bill Scranton retreated to his governor's mansion in Harrisburg, PA. There he showed his conservative side primarily in fiscal issues. However, he championed social justice and supported civil rights and educational reform. He even achieved footnote status by creating and building Pennsylvania's community college system. He worked well with others. He was a beloved governor. At the end of his term-limited stay, he retired from electoral politics, just as he was turning 50.

In the obituary in the July 30th New York Times, Robert McFadden wrote: "Mr. Scranton abruptly announced that he would not run 'ever again for any public office under any circumstances.' His decision to abandon an obviously promising political career was greeted with derision and skepticism. But it turned out that he meant what he said."

The man must have had a crystal ball.

Scranton assumed the role of an elder statesman, however, and took on other jobs working for various administrations doing good deeds. In 1976, President Ford named him to be U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. "Unlike his blunt predecessor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Mr. Scranton made few memorable speeches and aroused little controversy," the New York Times obituary noted. "But delegates said that he brought quiet maturity to diplomacy that had swung from bombast to tirade, and that his finesse made him the most respected United States delegate in years."

Now there are some words you no longer hear when speaking about our politicians -- "quite maturity" and "finesse." Elsewhere in that obituary, "soft-spoken" and "amiable patrician style" pop up. In short, Scranton exhibited characteristics that have disappeared in the New Era of Bombast and Tirade. The man had integrity by the case load.

We may never see his kind again -- not in the skin or plumage of a Republican, that is. He could trace his lineage (on his mother's side) back to the Mayflower, while many Republicans today -- including Michele Bachmann, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin, Christine O'Donnell, Herman Cain, Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock -- can trace their lines to relatives who came from another planet.

Thanks to the new blood in the GOP, we have gone from the Messyzoic to the Jackassic Era. Keep it up, folks. Next stop -- Stone Age.

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