An elegant man (and politician) passes

ASSOCIATED PRESS Scranton climbs atop a motorized "cable car" during an impromptu rally while in San Francisco for the 1964 GOP National Convention, where he challenged Barry Goldwater for the presidential nomination.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Scranton climbs atop a motorized "cable car" during an impromptu rally while in San Francisco for the 1964 GOP National Convention, where he challenged Barry Goldwater for the presidential nomination.
Posted: July 31, 2013

THE PASSING OF William Warren Scranton at age 96 on Sunday leaves me awash in memories and thoughts.

I met him many times, the last maybe 15 years ago, and always was struck by his graciousness, other-directedness and, that last time, his elegance even in his 80s.

I was in Scranton for lunch with his son, former Lt. Gov. William W. Scranton III, many years after I worked on the younger Scranton's 1986 campaign for governor.

"Young Bill" and I emerged from a downtown restaurant and saw the former governor walking toward us. As he drew closer he said, "I saw you two and wondered, 'Who's that guy with John Baer?' "

This was a WWII pilot, a congressman, a governor who ran for president. He made the cover of Time, chaired the Commission on Campus Unrest after the 1970 student slayings at Kent State, was U.S. ambassador to the U.N., served on the board of the New York Times - and much, much more.

Yet he always was deferential, always approachable, always generous with his time, always interested in making someone else feel important.

When he visited campaign events or the lieutenant governor's office during Young Bill's run, he would go to every person present, whether the campaign manager or an office messenger, extend his hand, inquire as to that person's well-being and engage in actual conversation.

He was not a grin-and-grip guy.

I know he was of a different era. I know it's common to enlarge politicians in death beyond what they were in life. But I also know that he was special, and that he would not recognize his party or what passes for public service today.

Like a Kennedy, he came from great wealth. His family built Scranton in the 1840s. They made rails for railroads. Some served in Congress. And they owned the local gas and water companies, which his father sold for $25 million in 1928.

Imagine what that was worth at a time when the average annual salary was $1,490.

Scranton's mother, Marion Margery Warren Scranton, traced her ancestry to the Mayflower. She was a Republican national committeewoman for nearly a quarter-century, affectionately known as "The Duchess" for her dress, jewels, hats and bearing.

It was said she'd routinely go into the mines of northeastern Pennsylvania and come out with all the votes.

She introduced her son to presidents and national GOP conventions. Although she discouraged him from entering politics, he was elected to Congress in 1960 at age 43; the same year JFK won the presidency at age 43.

Scranton was a moderate-to-liberal Republican, a "Kennedy Republican," who voted with the president in support of civil rights, aid to families with dependent children and increasing the minimum wage.

In 1962, he won 62 of 67 counties to beat Philly Mayor Richardson Dilworth for governor at a time when state law allowed only one four-year term.

He greatly increased education funding, started the community-college system and drew national attention.

In 1964, he made a last-minute bid to wrest the GOP presidential nomination from conservative Barry Goldwater. The effort proved too little too late, and, in November, Goldwater lost to LBJ in a landslide. The electoral vote count was 486 to 52.

Scranton's style and level of public service is rare. The small-ball pettiness of today's politics and politicians would be alien to him, as would the look-at-me branding of so many of our "leaders."

His son, the former lieutenant governor, used to tell a story. He said that while running in '86, people would say, "Bill, you seem like a nice guy, I like you, but you're not the man your father was."

When he told his father this, his father said, "Don't worry about it. When I was running, people would say, 'Bill, you seem like a nice guy, I like you, but you're not the man your mother was.' "

Self-deprecating but untrue; William Warren Scranton was the man far too many politicians can only hope to be.


Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

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