Former Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh, who made integrity and efficiency the hallmarks of his public service as a governor, U.S. attorney general and under-secretary-general of the United Nations, died peacefully of natural causes today in Pittsburgh, PA. He was 88. The governor’s public career spanned 25 years, and he retired earlier in 2020 as counsel to the international law firm of K&L Gates LLP.
His wife, Ginny Judson Thornburgh, said that he had endured declining health to the end with “characteristic determination, grace and humor.”
“Governor Thornburgh was the consummate public servant – honest, competent and caring,” said William W. Scranton III, who served from 1979-1986 as lieutenant governor in two terms of the Thornburgh-Scranton Administration. “I was proud to serve at his side. He loved politics but never let that stop him from doing the right thing. The nation could use more of his kind in elective office.”
Mr. Thornburgh brought lasting reforms to every office he held.
As the father of a son with significant disability, he was perhaps proudest of playing a leadership role as U.S. attorney general in enacting the Americans with Disabilities Act which provided sweeping provisions against discrimination based on a person’s disability. Washington Post columnist David Broder called the ADA “arguably the most significant civil rights and social policy legislation to become law in more than a decade.”
When signed into law on July 26, 1990, Mr. Thornburgh called the day “one of emancipation, not just for the millions of Americans with disabilities who will directly benefit from this Act, but even more so for the rest of us now free to benefit from the contributions which those with disability can make to our economy, our communities and our own well-being.”
“The day was a high point of my tenure as attorney general,” he wrote in his 2003 autobiography, “Where the Evidence Leads.”
But Mr. Thornburgh was perhaps best known for his masterful handling – just 72 days after assuming the governor’s office – of the March 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, the first such event of its kind in the history of commercial nuclear power. Over a 10-day period, the governor grappled with the potential for harm and panic to hundreds of thousands of residents as utility and federal officials sought to bring a damaged reactor under control. After a voluntary evacuation was recommended and the partial meltdown brought under control, the governor was widely praised for his cool and calm leadership.
“Governor Thornburgh has done a superlative job,” said President Jimmy Carter, when visiting the site. “Because of the trust of the American people in him, and particularly those who live in this region, potential panic and disturbance has been minimized.”
Ultimately, Mr. Thornburgh’s leadership would be felt far beyond Three Mile Island – to his service in the U.S. Department of Justice, at the United Nations in New York, and as a private counsel commissioned to unravel misconduct in the business and media worlds.
Mr. Thornburgh rode a reputation as a corruption-busting federal prosecutor into the Pennsylvania governor’s office in 1978, mounting a come-from-behind campaign to defeat a popular former Pittsburgh mayor, Pete Flaherty. Despite a severe recession, the governor won a tough reelection in 1982 against a little-known Central Pennsylvania congressman and became the first Republican governor to serve two consecutive terms.
Mr. Thornburgh was credited with cleaning up a state government left in disarray by numerous scandals and financial crises under his predecessor, Milton J. Shapp. Many of those scandals were surfaced by Mr. Thornburgh himself while serving from 1969-1975 as U.S. attorney for Western Pennsylvania. He had also served the U.S. Justice Department from 1975-77 as Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division in Washington, D.C., when President Gerald Ford sought to restore post-Watergate confidence in the Department. In both positions, Mr. Thornburgh led crackdowns on drug traffickers, organized crime and public corruption.
But it was Three Mile Island that brought him national visibility. With several hundred thousand residents in Central Pennsylvania facing terrifying uncertainties as nuclear fuel rods deteriorated in the reactor at the plant just 10 miles south of Harrisburg on the Susquehanna River, the new governor took charge, marshalling federal, state and local resources to manage the crisis.
An orderly, voluntary evacuation was carried out at his direction, and his frequent personal communications with the public helped to control rumors and assuage citizen concern. The Washington Star later described him as “one of the few authentic heroes of that episode as a calm voice against panic.”
Post-crisis, Mr. Thornburgh led public and private sector efforts to raise the necessary funds to clean up the contaminated site. His leadership is often cited in case studies of crisis management.
When Mr. Thornburgh left office in 1987, his overall performance had earned him unprecedented popularity in public opinion polls. He balanced state budgets for eight consecutive years, reduced personal and business tax rates, cut the state’s record-high indebtedness and left a surplus of $350 million. He dramatically reduced the swollen payroll, reformed welfare programs, rebuilt the state’s bridge and highway system, and implemented innovative economic development programs. Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate, among the 10 highest when he took office, was among the 10 lowest when he departed, with more than 50,000 new businesses and 500,000 private sector jobs created during his tenure.
In 1984 and 1985, Mr. Thornburgh served as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, and in 1986 he was named in a Newsweek survey of his peers as one of the nation’s most effective big-state governors.
After leaving office, Mr. Thornburgh was appointed director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. In short order, he was recalled to government when President Ronald Reagan appointed him to succeed Edwin Meese as U.S. attorney general.
Unanimously confirmed in the U.S. Senate, Mr. Thornburgh served from 1988 through 1991 under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. There he mounted a relentless crusade against white-collar crime, and the U.S. Department of Justice secured a record number of convictions of savings and loan and securities officials, defense contractors and corrupt public officials. Mr. Thornburgh forged strong ties with law enforcement agencies around the world to help combat global drug trafficking, money laundering and white-collar crime. He also took steps to combat racial, religious and ethnic “hate crimes” and strengthened enforcement of the nation’s antitrust and environmental laws.
Mr. Thornburgh twice argued and won cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Legal Times noted as Attorney General “he built a reputation as one of the most effective champions that prosecutors have ever had.” An honorary Special Agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, he chaired a panel of the National Academy of Public Administration examining the FBI’s post-9/11 structural needs. He also served as on the FBI Director’s Advisory Board. All told, Mr. Thornburgh served in the Justice Department under five Presidents.
The death of U.S. Sen. John Heinz in an April 1991 plane crash set the stage for one of Mr. Thornburgh’s few political setbacks. In a November special election, Mr. Thornburgh squared off as his party’s nominee against a little-known Democrat, former U.S. Peace Corps Director and former college president Harris Wofford. Despite his name-recognition advantage, the former governor was defeated as an anti-Washington mood swept the nation.
Paul Critchlow, who served as the governor’s press secretary, recalled a warning relayed by Thornburgh to his former boss, George H.W. Bush: “Mr. President, the miners in Pennsylvania used to take canaries into a mine to see if the air was safe. I’m your canary in the coal mine. Be careful.” Prophetically, Mr. Thornburgh’s loss foreshadowed that of President Bush a year later.
The following year, Mr. Thornburgh was appointed Under-Secretary-General for Administration at the United Nations, where he had responsibility for personnel, budget and financial matters. A report he produced for the Secretary General – proposing significant reforms to the UN’s peacekeeping, humanitarian and development programs – was widely praised.
After leaving the UN in 1993, Mr. Thornburgh returned to private practice with K&L Gates LLC. In 2002, he was appointed Examiner in the WorldCom bankruptcy proceedings, then the largest ever filed, to report on wrongdoing that led to the company’s downfall. In 2004, he was commissioned by CBS to lead an independent investigation into the “60 Minutes Wednesday” segment on President George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard.
Throughout his career, Mr. Thornburgh championed “the rule of law” in visits to more than 40 countries. He was an observer to the Russian Federation’s first legislative (1993) and presidential (1996) elections. In 2007, he authored “The Future of Puerto Rico: A Time to Decide,” for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He received 32 honorary degrees, lectured on more than 125 campuses, debated at the Oxford Union and appeared often as a guest commentator on network news and talk shows.
Mr. Thornburgh also garnered accolades while out of the public eye. In 2006, he received a “Lifetime Achievement Award” from The American Lawyer for “important contributions to public life while building an outstanding private practice.” He was similarly honored in 2013 by The Legal Intelligencer, the nation’s oldest law journal, as among those who “represent the best the Pennsylvania legal community has to offer.”
Indeed, Mr. Thornburgh never forgot his roots in Western Pennsylvania, where he was born and lived for decades. When he became governor, global economic forces were already taking a toll on the steel industry and thousands of jobs that defined Pittsburgh. His economic development programs laid the groundwork for Pittsburgh’s transition from a center for the steel industry to the hub for health care, education and technology it is today. He championed large regional investments in transportation, technology, industrial site redevelopment, mortgage relief and community development.
“Dick came from a region dominated by public officials from another party,” said Richard A. Stafford, who served as his Secretary of Legislative Affairs and later Executive Assistant. “But he knew that to address his hometown challenges, he would have to build partnerships with political leaders from across the aisle. And he did, paving the way for the economic revitalization of Pittsburgh and environs.”
Mr. Thornburgh was a man of great personal faith and a member of Trinity Cathedral Pittsburgh. He was a Trustee Emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh, the Gettysburg Foundation and the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh. He was also a Life Trustee of the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.
In 2007, The Thornburgh Forum on Law & Public Policy at the University of Pittsburgh was established to continue his unique tradition of promoting principled governance while educating and inspiring young people about the values of bipartisan public service. Separately, The Thornburgh Papers are housed in the University Library’s Archives.
Born July 16, 1932, in Rosslyn Farms, a Pittsburgh suburb, Mr. Thornburgh graduated in 1954 from Yale University with an engineering degree and from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 1957, where he was an editor of the Law Review. After joining the predecessor firm of K&L Gates LLC in 1959, his first taste of public service was as an elected delegate to Pennsylvania’s historic Constitutional Convention (1967-68), spearheading efforts at judicial and local government reform. In 1966, he was an unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives.
In 1960, a tragic automobile accident took the life of his first wife, Ginny Hooton Thornburgh, and severely injured one of their three sons. In a 1979 interview with The New York Times, Mr. Thornburgh recalled the event’s lasting impact: “Then one day in 1960, my wife was killed in a car crash and I was left with three little children, including Peter, who suffered brain injury in the wreck. That’s a jolt. It made me think about what I wanted to do with my life, what I can do to contribute to the world.”
Three years later, at a wedding in Pittsburgh, he met “the woman who would restore meaning to my life and provide our family once again with the love and care that only a mother can give.” Within the year, Ginny Judson, a schoolteacher from Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, became his wife. She adopted John, David and Peter and the couple had a fourth son, William. Mrs. Thornburgh would become a prominent and tireless advocate for children and adults with physical or intellectual disabilities, focusing on improving the accessibility of places of worship. In 2005, she received the Hubert H. Humphrey Civil Rights Award from the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
In addition to his wife, Ginny, Mr. Thornburgh is survived by four sons and their families: John and his wife, Sharon; David and his wife, Rebecca; Peter and William; six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
A private service will be held by the family. A memorial service for the public will be scheduled at a later date. In lieu of flowers, donations are welcomed at the Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh or the Dick Thornburgh Forum for Law & Public Policy.