Posted: Dec. 15, 2003
ONLY IN DELAWARE:
WILLIAM V. ROTH JR.
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.
unexpected death Saturday at the age of 82 left his state in
mourning, reflecting on the man and his accomplishments.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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