William Scranton (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The dinosaurs are nearly extinct. One of the last of the liberal Republican giants, William Warren Scranton of Pennsylvania, died this week at the age of 96. Let us not so much eulogize the man. Let us eulogize the species.

His aristocratic identity was announced by his name. William Warren Scranton: his ancestors founded the Pennsylvania town. William Warren Scranton: his mother was from the Warren family that sailed over on the Mayflower. From that Mayflower side, the liberal convictions came at the knee of his mother, who began picketing for women’s suffrage at the age of 16; she had her son gathering precinct returns by telephone at the age of 9, and the next year took him to the 1928 Republican convention. Why the Republican convention? Well, for one thing, the Democrats were the party of low-bred louts: people like Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi who would go on to write the segregationist masterpiece Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization. And the bosses who gathered the teeming urban immigrant masses into a block vote that tried to turn the Democratic Party “wet.” So there was snobbishness. But there were also liberal heroes in the Republican Party of the early twentieth century—people like Robert La Follette Sr., who, before he founded his own Progressive Party in 1924, invented the direct primary, installed the first workers’ compensation legislation and championed the vote for women. That was part of the Republican living tradition in which Bill Scranton was born and bred to.

Another liberal tributary came from his father’s side: the biblical notion that to those whom much is given, much is expected. Taking care of people: dismiss it as noblesse oblige if you want, but at least rich people back then felt the obligation. Done right, it very well can become the seedbed of progressive change. As I wrote in Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus,

“A Pennsylvania squire who said that the free market brought only blessings would be run out of town on a rail. Scranton, the city, had been the anthracite coal capital of the world before the market for the fuel collapsed in mid-century, the nation’s industrial center began sliding southwest, and radical new automation technology began sluicing off some 40,000 industrial jobs a month nationwide. In Pennsylvania, unemployment was 50 percent above the national average and fifty-six of fifty-seven counties were federally designed as depressed areas; in the same years that Phoenix grew from 50,000 residents to 500,000, Scranton shrunk. It was a quiet, underlying dread in the 1960s that these economic forces, as Rhode Island’s liberal Republican governor John Chafee”—dad of Lincoln, who of course ran screaming from a Republican Party that no longer had a place for the likes of him in it—“put it, would ‘dump the unskilled and semi-skilled worker into the human slag heap.’”

And back in the day, there were crazy kooky Republicans who actually believed enlightened, activist government could do something about it.

Bill’s dad started something called the “Scranton Plan,” combining private and public resources to spur industrial redevelopment, helping lure fifty industries and 20,000 jobs back to Lackawanaa County. Upon his father’s death in 1955, Bill Scranton took it over. He was 37, an accomplished lawyer with a promising career still ahead of him (his Yale Law fraternity pledge class, which included two future Supreme Court Justices, a future secretary of state and some dude named Jerry Ford, was nicknamed “Destiny’s Men”). He surely could have done something else—and lived anywhere but in a stagnating old coal town. But: obligation. “By the time he was plucked to become a State Department briefing office in 1959”—more obligation: there was a cold war on—“the chamber of commerce’s executive secretary described him as ‘the best-informed man in the United States on how to bring jobs back to depressed areas.’ ” I wrote of how he “burned with one of the core convictions of managerial liberalism: In a complex modern economy, only ‘labor market coordination’ by centralized government could save the free market from bringing about waste, inefficiency, and ruin as a side effect of prosperity.’ ” This notion that something other than the “free market” could help realize human flourishing—that human beings might be masters of their economic fates rather than playthings of it: Republicans used to believe that. Pretty crazy, huh?

(I reached the president of the Scranton Chamber of Commerce, Austin Burke, who had worked with Governor Scranton since 1972. He reflected, “The governor was recognized as a world-figure, but we knew him as a person who was totally dedicated to the well-being of his hometown. And I think that that the economic troubles of Scranton over the decades that the governor witnessed made him sensitive to the needs of the guy in the street, the people who needed some help from the government. And so it allowed Governor Scranton to be a Republican with a social conscience.”)

The next year the best-informed man in the United States on how to bring jobs back to depressed areas won Lackawanna County’s seat in the US House of Representatives, where he was only one of twenty-one Republicans to vote in 1961 to expand the size of the Rules Committee—a procedural attempt, akin to today’s fight over filibuster reform, to break a crucial bottleneck blocking bills on matters like civil rights and raising the minimum wage. He wrote a depressed-areas bill far to the left of a Kennedy administration he voted with over half of the time.

The next duty to call him was the Pennsylvania Statehouse. He took office the same week in 1963 when another new governor, George Wallace, pronounced, “Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever.” The New Republic called him “the first of the Kennedy Republicans.”

In Pennsylvania, the unemployment rate started falling by percentage points. And soon duty called again. The wingnuts were taking over the Republican Party. Barry Goldwater rose; Nelson Rockefeller fell. After Rockefeller was crushed in the June, 1964 California primary, the party’s liberal aristocrats prevailed upon Scranton to take up the moderate standard in the Republican Party’s civil war at the convention that went on to nominate Barry Goldwater, and cement the party’s rightward turn. I tell that story in far too much detail in Before the Storm, and won’t rehearse it here. Except to make a single point: about the liberal Republicans’s tragic flaw.

It was their arrogance, their sense of entitlement. Perhaps that story is best told in an image: Henry Cabot Lodge, one of those Republican aristocrats whose statement to the platform committee was to the left of Barack Obama, or maybe even Bernie Sanders—he called for a “Republican-sponsored Marshall Plan for our cities and schools”—sat in his hotel room, leafed through the roll of delegates and cried, “What in God’s name has happened to the Republican Party! I hardly know any of these people!”

Scranton, entering the presidential race in the middle of June, actually imagined that “these people” would come to their senses at the convention, do the responsible thing, switch their allegiance from Barry Goldwater to him and save the Republican Party from insanity—for that is how one of “destiny’s men” saw the world. It did not, of course, work that way.

Following his resounding defeat, he pledged never to run for elected office again. Though when duty called, he still answered. As his New York Times obituary said, “Not yet 50, he became a youngish elder statesman. He served on government commissions, advised the White House on arms control and took on presidential missions—for Richard M. Nixon in the Middle East, for Gerald R. Ford at the United Nations, for Jimmy Carter on urban policy and intelligence oversight and for Ronald Reagan on Soviet-American relations.”

The most prominent of these was the commission charged with studying the May 1970 Kent State shootings, which Scranton chaired. Its report concluded, “Even if the guardsmen faced danger, it was not a danger that called for lethal force. The 61 shots by 28 guardsmen certainly cannot be justified…. The Kent State tragedy must mark the last time that, as a matter of course, loaded rifles are issued to guardsmen confronting student demonstrators.” It recommended that the best way to prevent such violence in the future was “ending the Vietnam war, reforming the universities, and a continuing commitment to social justice.” Fifty-four Republican congressmen (and four Democrats) immediately responded: their spokesman called that “weak-kneed” and “wishy-washy.”

Rest in peace, William Warren Scranton. Rest in peace, Republican Party with a social conscience.

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