Posted: Dec. 15, 2003


William V. Roth Jr. was a colossus of Delaware politics, a dominating figure known equally for his sweeping grasp of such matters as world affairs and tax policy and for his diligent attention to the details of constituent work.

His unexpected death Saturday at the age of 82 left his state in mourning, reflecting on the man and his accomplishments.

What follows is an adaptation from Only in Delaware, an account written by Celia Cohen about state politics from the end of World War II to the 2000 election.

The country was having doubts about itself. As the 1970s unfolded -- or perhaps unraveled -- there was a fear that the American Century was coming to a premature close in the jungles of a bitterly cynical war in Southeast Asia, in an energy crisis and runaway inflation that were choking the economy, in the Watergate corruption scandal and in the paralyzing hostage crisis in Iran. 

The political leadership seemed to be timid, wrong-headed, scandal-ridden, just plain inadequate or all of the above. The country went through three presidents, including the only one in history who was never elected, and four vice presidents. Delaware discarded two single-term governors before trying one it decided to keep. 

"Everybody had turned sour," said Pierre S. du Pont, the governor who was kept. "Everybody was angry." 

Any politician who could emerge out of this morass and charm the electorate was necessarily going to be someone remarkable, someone with uncanny sticking power. Astonishingly the state found three of them -- William V. Roth Jr., Pete du Pont and Joseph R. Biden Jr. 

They made Delaware believe in itself again. 

The first to come along was Bill Roth. There is a saying in politics that timing is everything, but if there ever was a politician for whom timing meant nothing, it was Roth.

When Roth's contemporaries from the World War II generation departed from office through retirement or defeat, he soldiered ahead from victory to victory. When fellow Republican incumbents lost in Democratic years, he held on. He became a bridge in time, a constant and steady presence who was the only one to stand with all of the state's political giants in the second half of the 20th Century.  

He was there in the 1960s with Elbert N. Carvel, John J. Williams and J. Caleb Boggs. He was there in the 1970s and 1980s with du Pont and Biden. He was there in the 1990s with Biden and Michael N. Castle and Thomas R. Carper, who became his last and most formidable opponent in the 2000 election that finished his career. 

Roth, elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1966, holds the current record as the longest serving statewide elected official in Delaware history. Had it been up to him, his streak would have been even longer. He lost a race for lieutenant governor in 1960 and for the U.S. Senate 40 years later.

 Roth was an obvious choice in 1970 for U.S. senator, the office with which he became most closely identified. He was as near as the voters could get to John Williams, who was retiring then after four terms.

Like Williams, Roth was a conservative Republican but not doctrinaire about it. Like Williams, he made a name for himself in the Senate by ferreting out government mismanagement, whether it was Internal Revenue Service abuses or the Pentagon's over-priced spare parts. Like Williams, he found tax policy the issue dearest to his heart and served on the Senate Finance Committee, surpassing his mentor by becoming the chairman. 

Like Williams, Roth was never a darling of the television camera or a spellbinding speaker. 

If Roth meant continuity to the voters, he was also change. He was the first enduring statewide figure elected after the 1962 Supreme Court decision ending "malapportionment," the practice of using geography instead of population to allocate political representation. It made Roth, as a New Castle County suburbanite, the symbol of Delaware's transformation into a suburban-run state. 

Like many of the suburbanites, he was not from here. William Victor Roth Jr. was born in Great Falls, Montana, on July 22, 1921. After serving in the army during World War II, where he was a member of General Douglas MacArthur's staff in the Pacific theatre, he earned a master's of business administration and a law degree at Harvard University and landed a job with Hercules Inc., the chemical company. Hercules transferred him to Delaware from Virginia in 1956. 

Roth seemed patently unsenatorial. He possessed the most famous toupee in Delaware and all the ease of a stick figure. His labored speaking style obscured his considerable intelligence and occasional gems of wit. He seemed so unnatural on the campaign trail that he had to raise the comfort level -- his and the voters -- by bringing along a trusty Saint Bernard. 

Roth was the only politician whose longevity can be measured in dog years. Since he first campaigned with Ludwig for the House race in 1966, there was a succession of seven more, man and beast plodding along, each one suiting the other. After Ludwig came Wolfgang, Brunhilde, Sweet Pea, Tank, Hagar, Tsunami and Wilhelm IV, although if the truth be told, Hagar was too rambunctious to be around people and Roth had to borrow a stand-in Saint Bernard, something he never hid. 

The toupee, the dogs, the wooden style, tax policy as an issue only an accountant could love, all of it turned out to be just what the voters longed for. In an age of political turmoil they craved someone solid. When leadership is wanting, glitz is not a priority. 

"You take Bill Roth -- who is not a great speaker, whose favorite campaign companion is a Saint Bernard, who wears casual clothes that look like they went out in the '70s, who wears a hairpiece -- but what works for him, works. He is a throwback to what Delaware has always been," said Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman, as Roth's tenure bore in on 30 years. 

Not surprisingly, Roth spent much of his career being underestimated, both in the Senate and at home, yet he was the one Delaware politician whose name became a household word. He entered the political lexicon in 1981 by teaming up with Jack F. Kemp, the Buffalo quarterback-turned-congressman. 

They sponsored the Kemp-Roth tax cut -- only in Delaware is it known as Roth-Kemp -- which became the centerpiece of President Ronald Reagan's economic policy. Nearly 20 years later Roth actually made it into the dictionary with the Roth IRA, a new version of individual retirement accounts he wrote into law. 

Members of Congress come and go without one memorable achievement, let alone two, that have the far-reaching impact of Roth-Kemp and the Roth IRA. "That's two political victories in a lifetime. That's very unusual," Pete du Pont said. 

Roth's wallflower style fooled even his Senate colleagues. When he became the Finance Committee chairman in 1995, it was widely assumed he would be little more than a mouthpiece for the Republican leadership. He took over from Sen. Bob Packwood, an Oregon Republican who resigned amid a sex scandal. Once again, Roth stepped in when order was needed out of chaos. The Washington establishment was caught off guard by the new chairman it got. 

"Taciturn to the point of seeming detached, the aging Roth was tagged as something of a caretaker chairman when he took over the Senate Finance Committee in 1995. Instead, he has upset expectations by playing a central role in shaping GOP tax policy while steering benefits to his Delaware constituents," observed Congressional Quarterly's respected Politics in America

At home there was that same tendency to take Roth lightly. Democrat after Democrat lined up to take a shot at unseating him. It was the opposite experience from Biden, who rarely drew a serious opponent. Roth inevitably seemed to have the toughest race on the ballot. Although he did waltz into the Senate on John Williams' say-so in 1970, he was challenged in succession by a charismatic Wilmington mayor in 1976, a wealthy ex-developer with money to burn in 1982, an incumbent lieutenant governor in 1988, a three-term attorney general in 1994 and finally Tom Carper in one of Delaware's showcase races of all time. 

Roth persevered not only because of the electorate's preference for incumbents, but also because of a fanatical campaign staff that was not known as "The Thrasher" for nothing. Its devotion to Roth's cause was legendary. 

In 1988 Jo Anne B. Barnhart, the perennial campaign manager, had a baby on Tuesday, Oct. 11, exactly four weeks before the election. She worked up until the Friday before the delivery and was back on the job a week after. Her newborn son was photographed in a miniature Roth T-shirt two hours after he was born, and a press release announced, "It's a Republican." 

Two Senate elections later, the heroics were turned in by Ian S. Weinschel, Roth's media consultant, who had surgery on his appendix one Friday in July 2000 at two in the afternoon and was back at work by 5:30 p.m. That year, running against Carper, Roth's troops had a public headquarters, located on Lancaster Avenue in Wilmington, but they also set up a secret location nearby. It had sleeping arrangements so they could, like a crime family at war, "go to the mattresses." 

"Every six years people say Bill Roth is vulnerable," said Michael Ratchford, a former Republican secretary of state from the Castle administration, "and every six years people walk into that buzz saw." 

It says something that only a two-term governor, the winningest politician in Delaware history, walked out of it, serene and alive. 

It was a momentous changing of the guard that unsettled voters, forcing them to choose sides between two longtime favorites, and it tested traditional alliances to the breaking point and beyond. Biden himself confessed as much. At a sold-out tribute to Roth after the election, Biden left little question that he and his family had voted for his departed colleague. It was not much of a secret, anyway, not after all the long years they had worked together. 

"I could not bring myself to campaign against Bill Roth. Every year Bill Roth was up, I was out of state campaigning for other people," Biden said. Speaking to Roth directly, Biden said, "I don't think there was a single Biden that voted a straight ticket the last time you ran."