Posted: Dec. 21, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

The obituary from the family of former U.S. Sen. William V. Roth Jr. had a touch of political brochure to it, noting in its first lines that he was "a Republican . . . known nationally as the taxpayer's best friend."

Then at a memorial service Sunday, there were political-type buttons in Stars-and-Stripes red with white lettering so the mourners could pin on the words of that familiar campaign slogan, "I am a Bill Roth fan." The program carried the seal of the Senate and the inscription, "To Delawareans, he will always be remembered as Our Senator."

It seems that Bill Roth, who died Dec. 13 at the age of 82, had one more campaign in him for his ultimate standing in the hearts and history of Delaware.

Bill Roth won that last election.

The final victory speeches at the memorial service recalled his mountain of achievements -- the Roth-Kemp tax cut, NATO expansion, and the Roth IRA prime among them -- but also the kindness, the dignity, the humor and the decency that shined in him and secured his special place in Delaware lore.

Family and friends spoke, as did John M. Duncan, a former chief of staff now a Treasury Department assistant secretary, and U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Democratic colleague for more than a quarter-century.

"Everything about Bill's life was about excellence," Biden said. "All of Delaware will miss him."

The memorial service, attended by about 500 people, was held at the University of Delaware in Newark in a masterpiece of timing. On this weekend, the university celebrated a national championship in football and laid to rest a national champion in politics.

The service had the sense of a state funeral to it. In the coming together that is the pride of this small state, U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, the Democrat who ended Roth's congressional tenure in 2000 after 34 years, was there, as were U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, a Republican, and Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a Democrat.

So it went in a mosaic of bipartisanship -- Democratic Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., Republican Attorney General M. Jane Brady and Democratic Treasurer Jack A. Markell, as well as former U.S. Rep. Thomas B. Evans Jr., a Republican.

Judicial colleagues of U.S. Circuit Judge Jane R. Roth, married to the senator for 38 years, came, too -- Delaware Chief Justice E. Norman Veasey, Superior Court President Judge Henry duPont Ridgely and U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas L. Ambro.

U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, was there, and so was U.S. Sen. James M. Jeffords, the Vermont independent whose party switching in 2001 cost Roth a chairmanship but apparently not a friendship. Also attending was former Rep. Jack F. Kemp, a Republican vice presidential candidate described by UD President David P. Roselle as "joined by a hyphen to Bill Roth."

The crowd was full of those contradictory stories so common here. Gregory B. Patterson, communications director to the Democratic governor, had a 1982 black-and-white photograph showing himself as a 10-year-old with Roth. It was a picture taken for campaign advertising when Patterson's father was an aide to the Republican senator.

Similarly, David S. Swayze, who was one of Roth's last law partners after the 2000 election, remembered handing out campaign literature in 1976 for Wilmington Mayor Thomas C. Maloney, Roth's Democratic opponent.

It simply proved what John Duncan said in his eulogy. Duncan learned from Roth that beyond Republicans, beyond Democrats, there was a third party because Roth did not see the world in partisan terms. It was, Duncan said, "the Delaware Party."

It was this third party for which Roth reserved his highest loyalty. While Duncan remembered his boss as someone who preferred persuasion over shows of power, there was also the time Roth thought the state was being short-changed in legislation dealing with unemployment benefits. He called Duncan "with fire in his voice," which Duncan never heard before or since, to request a multi-volume history of Delaware be brought to the Senate floor, where Roth and Biden were threatening to filibuster until Delaware got its due, and so it did.

"I developed a new appreciation for history in the development of public policy," Duncan quipped.

Biden was the final speaker. He acknowledged it might seem a little strange for a Democrat to be standing there, but he explained, "The only time [Roth] liked to hear me talk is when I was talking about him."

Biden showered accolades on Roth, calling him honorable, noble, a gentle man, a skilled senator and a champion of tax cuts and civil liberties -- "a complex man, a practical man, a man who knew what he believed."

Also, Roth was funny. Biden remembered sharing a taxi in Washington with Roth, who leaned in for a word with the cabbie after the ride. Biden asked Roth what he was doing, and Roth said, "I gave him a quarter tip and told him to vote Democratic."

After an hour and a half, it was time for the last good-bye. There were two renditions of "Amazing Grace," first by the amazing voice of Marie Robinson, a university professor, and then by the sorrowful keening of the bagpipes of the Delaware State Police Pipes & Drums.

It was a reminder to the heart of all the years that Delaware was cradled in Bill Roth's own amazing grace.