Posted: Dec. 16, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

When the candidate went campaigning, he wore a nerdy, oversized button that said, "I Am Bill Roth." What it should have said was, "I Am Delaware."

William Victor Roth Jr. was chemical companies and corporate lawyering. He was Chateau Country tax cutting and middle-class savings. He was the political rise of suburbia and the fierce, rural loyalty of downstate, which stuck with him to the end. He was an out-of-state transplant and a member by marriage of one of Delaware's foremost families going back to colonial times.

Bill Roth was Reaganomics, and he was bipartisanship, most notably with his friend Joseph R. Biden Jr., his fellow senator who adored him. He was the heyday of the Delaware Republican Party and the sad sign of slippage. He was the plotline of state politics for the last decades of the 20th Century.

Bill Roth was so much like this state. It is known for its sweep because of the corporate law of the Court of Chancery, the chemical industry, the credit card companies and all those chickens downstate . . . and yet. What matters most to those who live in this tiny jewel along the Atlantic is the way everyone seems to know everybody else -- the anticipation that when you go out, you will certainly run into people you know.

Bill Roth was like that. He was grand policy-making, a co-author of the Roth-Kemp tax cuts that became signature legislation for President Ronald Reagan, an architect with Joe Biden of NATO expansion, and the father of the Roth IRA, the individual retirement account so universally known that it became a dictionary entry . . . and yet. He was diligent about the constituent work that touched people personally, taking care of the people everyone knows.

Somehow he still felt compelled to wear that silly campaign button proclaiming, "I Am Bill Roth." As if anybody would mistake him with that toupee and that gawky style and that cloud-of-hair Saint Bernard that he always had with him. As if.

That was Bill Roth, though. Unassuming. Not taking the chance someone would not recognize him and feel uncomfortable. As Verna W. Hensley, one of his chief aides, explained, "He was almost embarrassed sometimes about a fuss being made over him."

Roth avoided one last fuss when he died Saturday night at the age of 82 while visiting with family in Washington, D.C., his home away from home, quickly and unexpectedly passing from mortality to immortality as one of the quintessential figures in Delaware politics for the last half of the 20th Century.

His final family visit included time with a three-week-old grandson, named William after him by his daughter Katharine and her husband. Even though Roth's own son "Bud" is William III, he so wanted a new namesake that in a broad hint he gave his latest Saint Bernard the name of Wilhelm IV. Now in his last days, there was a new William for the 21st Century.

It was not Bill Roth's century. His own was over.

Roth's public life stretched from a loss for lieutenant governor in 1960, to an upset of a Democratic congressman in 1966 in a huge Republican year, to a waltz into a Senate seat in 1970 and the post for which he became known during five terms, to one race too many and defeat in 2000.

His tenure of 34 years in office made him the longest-serving statewide elected official in Delaware history. U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, a Democrat who beat him, has more statewide victories. U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Democrat, has won one more Senate term. U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, a Republican, routinely turns in the top winning percentages.

Still, it is Roth against whom the rest are measured. Maybe there is something to his middle name -- "Victor."

Like so many Delawareans of the day, Roth was a transplant, a Montana native working as a corporate lawyer for Hercules Inc., the chemical company based here. With his Harvard law degree and MBA, Roth was transferred from Virginia to Delaware in 1956 in a professional wave that transformed New Castle County and gave rise to suburban political influence.

Roth's marriage in 1965 to Jane Richards made him part of a distinguished Delaware family that had lived here since about 1675 and founded Richards Layton & Finger, a prime corporate law firm in Wilmington. Jane Roth was a rarity in those days -- a woman practicing law after earning a Harvard law degree herself, even if she did have to fight her way into her own family's firm to do it.

Before Bob and Elizabeth Dole, before Bill and Hillary Clinton, there was the power couple of Bill and Jane Roth -- particularly after Jane Roth became a U.S. District judge in 1985 and a 3rd Circuit U.S. Appeals Court judge in 1991.

The power couple did not necessarily share power easily, instead needling each other amicably in a teasing one-upmanship,  or perhaps one-upwomanship. She chose Tsunami as the name of one of their Saint Bernards, but he insisted upon calling it Thor. With their joint worth in the millions, he peached about the pedestrian origins of her tableware, revealing in a stage whisper, "It's from Acme."

Bill Roth was not expected to win his first congressional race in 1966, but he did it with a Republican tide and a modernized campaign. He employed what is now a standard political tool of "opposition research" -- checking out an opponent's record and exploiting it. Roth made inroads by hammering Harris B. McDowell Jr., the Democratic incumbent, for missing votes.

Roth also turned to broadcast media, taping one-minute radio spots to highlight issues when radio was having its day. He worked with Donald R. Kirtley, a young public relations man who had been part of an early version of "Good Morning, Vietnam," the radio show featured in a film with Robin Williams as a manic disc jockey.

Roth was hardly known for being telegenic, but radio was a different story. "Bill Roth's got this fabulous voice absolutely made for radio, a deep baritone," said Kirtley, now a retired Hercules vice president as well as Roth's first congressional chief of staff.

Roth also leashed a secret weapon -- Ludwig, the first campaigning Saint Bernard. The innovations paid off, and he won. It was such a surprise that it even disarmed his formidable father-in-law, Robert H. Richards Jr., a Republican powerhouse and lawyer who had been one of the reasons Jane Roth had such a hard time joining the family firm.

"It was the only time he gave me a kiss," Roth once recalled.

Roth moved to the Senate four years later when John J. Williams, a Republican icon, stepped aside after four terms. Williams was 66 years old, and he believed a senator should not run for re-election if it meant serving beyond the age of 70. At the time, Roth agreed with him.

The Delaware Republican Party was enjoying some of its best years ever. When Roth went to the U.S. House of Representatives, he was part of a three-member state delegation that also included Williams and J. Caleb Boggs in the Senate. When Roth joined Boggs as a senator in 1970, the House seat went to Pierre S. du Pont, later the Republican governor. With the 1968 election, the Republicans also held the governorship.

A crack in the Republican front appeared in 1972, when Joe Biden beat Boggs in one of the most stunning upsets in Delaware politics, ending Boggs' 26 years as a popular congressman, governor and senator. The politicians said the aging Boggs had tried for one term too long.

Roth and Biden became friends. As they rose in seniority and became committee chairmen, they brought untold influence to Delaware. One or the other was always in the Senate majority. One or the other always had ties to the White House.

When Roth's memorial service is held Sunday, it says something that the only politician invited by the family to speak is that Democrat Joe Biden.

Roth flourished in the Senate and cultivated a staff remarkable for its loyalty and accomplishment. "We all joked about how there was no such thing as a former Bill Roth staffer -- even when we moved on to other jobs, even after he no longer served in the Senate," said Jo Anne B. Barnhart, currently the Social Security commissioner for President George W. Bush.

Like Barnhart, other staffers have made their mark. James Brady became President Reagan's spokesman until he was disabled during the 1981 assassination attempt. Alan B. Levin runs Happy Harry's. Pierre du Pont Hayward is a vice president and university secretary at the University of Delaware. William C. Wyer manages the Wilmington Renaissance Corp., the downtown development authority. Kirtley rose through the Hercules ranks, and there are many more.

While most senators burn through staff, Roth did not. "If you were to go to any one of those people, they would all say he was a caring employer, a patient teacher, a supportive mentor and a trusted friend," Hayward said.

Roth tallied election victory after victory, resilient enough to win even in years that favored the Democrats. He became a cornerstone of an age of incumbency in Delaware, a time between 1984 and 1998 when no statewide officeholder lost.

He was famous for forgiving and forgetting, once even getting tickets to President Bill Clinton's inauguration for Thomas C. Maloney, the late Wilmington mayor who was Roth's Democratic challenger in 1976.

"He believed and he taught us, once an election was over, it was over. Sometimes he had to teach it to us a couple of times," said Marlene B. Elliott, a Roth staffer who is now the state director for the U.S. Agriculture Department.

By the 2000 election, Roth was 79 years old -- going for a second term past the retirement age John Williams had set down. Nervous Republicans were having thoughts that Roth should do what Williams had done for him and step aside for Mike Castle, but Roth was coming off one of his best terms ever.

He was the chairman of the vastly influential Senate Finance Committee. He worked on NATO expansion and trade relations with China. He held bold hearings into the Internal Revenue Service. There was also the Roth IRA.

Harry G. "Hal" Haskell Jr., a Republican ex-congressman and ex-mayor who knew Roth for 45 years, tried to talk to him about retirement, but Roth was one of those Republicans who actually liked government and was having none of it.

"It wasn't the glory. He liked the work. He didn't work politically, he worked on the work of government," Haskell said.

Delaware had changed, though. The Republican heyday was over. The age of incumbency was over. The suburbanites who had carried Roth to power were developing Democratic tendencies, even as downstate grew more conservative. His opponent was a two-term governor and tireless campaigner. Roth was faltering, and there was a new century coming. The voters brought Roth home.

"I told Bill it was better to get a lifetime appointment," said Jane Roth, who had one.

Politicians, like athletes, almost always leave the field only after they are no longer at the top of their game. It does not detract from what they have done. Roth was one of the best there ever was.

He was Bill Roth. He was Delaware.