Wofford had talent for happiness

Former US senator was always himself

By Dennis Roddy

Harris Wofford, who died last week at 92, was so lacking in cynicism and guile that people today would scarce believe someone like him ever won a seat in the United States Senate.

Born into a well-to-do family, young Harris walked to church Sundays rather than ride in his Republican father’s car, which sported an Alf Landon for President sticker. Harris wanted FDR to win again and at 9 years of age, was voting with his feet.

It’s hard to imagine a 9-year-old New Dealer. It’s harder, still, to imagine a 23-year-old campaigning for a united world government, a 28-year-old white Howard Law School student, or a successful U.S. Senate candidate who won Pennsylvania on the issue of single-payer national health care.

Wofford was all of those things — most of them toxic for a candidate — and he not only overcame them; he used them as grappling hooks to scale the sheer walls of electoral politics.

Wofford won a Senate seat campaigning for socialized medicine, all the while telling stories about himself that would doom a contemporary candidate.

World government? United World Federalists? He would quote Gandhi not from the writings but from the meetings he had with his followers. Wofford’s own words turned up in the speeches of Martin Luther King.

He persuaded John F. Kennedy to place a phone call to King’s wife while her husband languished in an Alabama jail — something many thought a suicide mission for a presidential candidate seeking the southern vote in 1960.

Bob Casey Sr., the buttoned-down Democratic governor, appointed Wofford to the Senate in 1991, after Republican John Heinz died in a fiery, midair plane-helicopter collision.

Casey had cast about for someone to take the post. Lee Iacocca and a few others turned him down, knowing the Republicans would nominate superstar Dick Thornburgh. It was going to be a slaughter.

Wofford just went on being Wofford. He gave me an on-the-record interview in which he talked about the time he helped to loot a Chinese city that had just been captured by the Japanese.

Wofford told this story and countless others about himself. Republicans started the 1991 campaign by computerizing the paper trail Wofford had written or spoken for the record. He laughed. Plenty there, he told me. But he knew that being too careful risked being uninteresting, and Harris Wofford wasn’t born to be uninteresting.

Casey explained Wofford this way: “He’s very candid, and he’s not a politician in that sense. He’s not calculating. There’s a certain kind of innocence about him.”

When a political sponsor describes his man in the language a defense lawyer would use in front of a judge, the smart money isn’t going in that direction.

And Wofford turned around and won the contest, won it handily and sent Thornburgh into political retirement.

Three years later, Rick Santorum arrived. The new Democratic president, Bill Clinton, was in crash-and-burn mode, and much of it centered around his proposal for Wofford-style national health insurance.

Clinton, in a rare moment of political miscalculation, had handed leadership of the health reform task force to his spouse, tripping off a host of attacks from multiple angles.

Wofford went down with national health insurance. Santorum boldly turned Wofford’s idealism against him. Wofford’s only other major bill had been to pass a sort of domestic Peace Corps, called AmeriCorps, for young people to build projects and work in impoverished towns.

Santorum likened it to “a bunch of hippies sitting around a campfire singing ‘Kumbaya.'”

It was the dawn of a new and cynical age and Wofford had outlived his own.

Santorum’s crew sang “Kumbaya” on election night 1994, when they beat Wofford. Clinton appointed Wofford to head AmeriCorps, and Santorum became his biggest ally. It was hard not to fall for this guy, even after you’d beaten him.

In his final years, Harris remarried. His first wife, Clare, had died two years after Wofford left the Senate. In 2016, he published an op-ed in The New York Times with the headline, “Finding Love Again: This Time With a Man.”

At 90, Harris was announcing his impending marriage to a man. He rejected the label of “gay.”

Joy was something bigger than identity.

He had been extraordinarily happy with Clare. Now he was extraordinarily happy with a young man named Matthew.

Harris had a talent for happiness. That’s one hell of a political legacy.

Dennis Roddy spent 40 years covering politics for The Pittsburgh Press and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He is now senior adviser at ColdSpark, a Pittsburgh consulting firm.