October 13, 2001 - Pittsburg Post-Gazette: Harris Wofford: A fall guy whose spirit never tumbled

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Harris Wofford: A fall guy whose spirit never tumbled

Read and comment on this story from the Pittsburg Post-Gazette about Harris Wofford, Peace Corps staffer and first Country Director for Ethiopia at:

Harris Wofford: A fall guy whose spirit never tumbled *

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Harris Wofford: A fall guy whose spirit never tumbled

Saturday, October 13, 2001

Among the stately ruins of American politics, Harris Wofford stands like an Acropolis -- a fixed point on a crumbling horizon, hinting at past glories and lost time, drawing an endless stream of explorers.

He spoke in Pittsburgh on Tuesday to a group of lawyers who were receiving awards for pro bono work. Harris Llewellyn Wofford, graduate of Howard Law School, was in town to share his story with lawyers who help strangers for free because generosity is appropriate.

Wofford, alternately introduced as Harris Woo-ford, Harris Woe-ford and Harris Waff-erd, spoke about the need to "split the civic atom" and create a better nation out of the one still smoldering with rage after Sept. 11. Wofford is not a famous speaker, but no one leaves his presence uninformed.

It was 10 years ago that John Heinz died and Gov. Bob Casey appointed Wofford, a remnant from the Kennedy White House, to fill the seat. He then faced former governor and Attorney General Dick Thornburgh in a special election few expected Wofford to win.

After a summertime contest in which Thornburgh pronounced his name "Wooford," the bookish, sometimes dithery Kennedy apparatchik upended everything. Within a year, the Republican president who had induced Thornburgh to run was himself defeated.

Wofford's political demise was as sudden as his ascendancy. When national health insurance tanked in Congress, Wofford had nothing to show for his three years except Americorps, a latter-day Peace Corps doing volunteer work. Casey, an ardent pro-lifer, had cooled to his chosen senator because, prior to Wofford's appointment, he told the governor he supported the Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act. But Wofford meant that he favored controlling abortions, not banning them.

In an era of partisan vitriol and niche politics, the center was not going to hold, and the center was Wofford's political residence.

After his speech this week, Wofford joined friends for a drink and told an amazing story. When Casey, a lifelong advocate for the pro-life cause, was recovering from a heart-liver transplant, Wofford flew to Pittsburgh to visit his old patron.

Casey told Wofford a relative had dreamed about the mother of God. "She said she saw Mary saying that Bob Casey's life would be saved and because of it, millions of children's lives would be saved," Wofford said. Casey added, "How do you argue with that?"

Casey finally cut Wofford loose when Wofford refused to back an amendment to the national health insurance bill that would have precluded abortion services. Casey closed his fund-raising Rolodex and refused to again open it to the junior senator from Pennsylvania.

Wofford's Republican challenger, Rick Santorum, then derided Americorps as a 1960s idea for "a bunch of hippie kids to sit around the campfire, holding hands and singing 'Kumbaya.' " Santorum's youthful supporters sang that song on election night as Harris Wofford was retired.

Bill Clinton put Wofford in charge of Americorps and his primary sponsor became -- a fitting irony -- Rick Santorum. It is Santorum who now backs his old rival in an idea he once derided. Santorum has asked him to iron out the fine points of President Bush's faith-based initiatives, in search of a way to keep it free of doctrine beyond the theology of hammers and saws building houses for the needy.

When Casey died, Wofford attended the funeral. He was warmly received and betrayed no hint of injury, either political or the very physical one that had befallen him a few days before.

Wofford was at his summer place on Nantucket when, after an exhilaratingly hard ocean swim, he climbed the steps to a little room at the top of the house and threw himself into a chair which promptly tipped over and rolled down a flight of stairs. At 74, Wofford expected to reach the bottom as a corpse.

"I kept saying to myself, 'I hope I don't die. I hope I don't die,'" Wofford said. His housemates ran to the spot. Wofford tested his hands, his toes, his extremities. They were puzzled. He kept saying, "I'm so happy. I'm so happy."

They rounded up a snifter of brandy and took Wofford to a doctor when he noticed he'd broken several ribs. Harris Wofford went on with his role in the world as a living reminder that doing good is not always rewarded the way we would like, but, on reaching the bottom of the stairs backwards, a little hurt but still alive, we can all cry out, "I'm so happy."

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