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Vol. 3, Iss. 10
June 25, 2014



In one sentence Dick Thornburgh told me everything you need to know about how the public views its political leaders. In his autobiography, Where the Evidence Leads, the former two-term Pennsylvania Governor and United States Attorney General tells a story about the 1979 World Series between his beloved Pittsburgh Pirates and the Baltimore Orioles. At the Series opener in Baltimore, then Maryland Governor Harry Hughes threw out the first pitch. He was greeted with boos and catcalls. Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn was not happy about this and summarily banned politicians from throwing out first pitches in the future. So when the Series moved to Pittsburgh Thornburgh was denied the experience for which he had awaited a lifetime.

On a call a few weeks ago with Thornburgh, I brought up this story and told him that I thought Kuhn got it wrong in how he responded to the Hughes incident. Instead of painting with such a broad brush, he should have only banned politicians from throwing out a first pitch if they had below a certain approval rating. I threw out 65% as a proposed cut-off. Thornburgh laughed and said that it wouldn’t make a difference. Then he paused for a second and added: “Even 100% they would still boo you.”

The baseball fanatic Thornburgh did ultimately realize his dream of throwing out a first pitch courtesy of the Texas Rangers. To his credit he confessed that he dropped the ball. Speaking of baseball and dropped balls, that’s what Major League Baseball did when they overlooked Thornburgh for the Commissioner’s job in 1993. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

On one hand I was pretty nervous as I prepared for my interview with Thornburgh. Speaking to a former Governor and United States Attorney General is not exactly something I have a lot of experience with. On the other hand, I concluded from my preparation, which included watching some other Thornburgh interviews, that he had a real regular-guy sense about him. And I was completely right. Thornburgh was affable, funny, self-deprecating and revealing. And while I asked him several serious questions, he went along with the ones that were, well, on the sillier side. When I thanked him for taking the time to speak with me for my “little insurance newsletter,” which I pointed out was not exactly the Weekend Interview in The Wall Street Journal, he replied: “I’ve talked to smaller media outlets than yours my friend.”

A Distinguished Career

The best way to illustrate the vastness of Dick Thornburgh’s career is this: there is a Dick Thornburgh Room, at the University of Pittsburgh’s Hillman Library, where his papers are archived -- and the term “linear feet” is used on the library’s website to describe the volume associated with each subject. I mean no disrespect to Mr. Thornburgh that I am about to summarize a career, that has produced a library, in about a one page timeline. [Incidentally I mentioned to Thornburgh that it must be nice to have your own library. If his wife starts getting on his case for having too much clutter around the house he can just pack it up and send it off to the library.]


Thornburgh received an undergraduate engineering degree from Yale (proving with his performance why few lawyers major in engineering) and his law degree in 1957 from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. In 1959, after a stint at ALCOA, he became the nineteenth lawyer at then Kirkpatrick, Pomeroy, Lockhart & Johnson (now K&L Gates). The firm has done quite-well since Thornburgh came on board – growing today to over 2,000 lawyers. [That’s more than the total number of lawyers in each of North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming, according to the ABA’s numbers.]

Thornburgh was unsuccessful in a bid for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1966. In 1969 President Nixon appointed him as the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania and in 1975 President Ford named him an Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.

Thornburgh served as Pennsylvania’s Governor from 1979 to 1987. He left office with a 72% approval rating. [That’s staggering. These days a President’s dog doesn’t have a 72% approval rating when he leaves office.] Thornburgh then served as Director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government from 1987 to 1988.

Thornburgh was appointed as United States Attorney General in 1988 by President Reagan (unanimous confirmation by the United States Senate) and was retained in office after President Bush was elected. He served three years as Attorney General. While Attorney General he twice argued and won cases before the United States Supreme Court. He left as A.G. in 1991 to run (unsuccessfully) for the Pennsylvania Senate seat that was vacated when Senator John Heinz was killed in a plane crash. Thornburgh served a one-year appointment as Under-Secretary General at the United Nations from 1992 to 1993. He returned to private legal practice, at K&L Gates, after 25 years of public service.

Thornburgh has served on numerous boards, including Merrill Lynch, Rite-Aid and ARCO. He has been awarded honorary degrees by over 30 colleges and universities and lectured on over 125 campuses. Washingtonian magazine called Dick Thornburgh one of “ten legendary Washington lawyers who will forever leave their mark on the District’s legal landscape.”

[With attribution to Wikipedia and the Thornburgh Papers’s website]

Still Practicing Law – But Not Insurance Coverage

The 81 year old Thornburgh is Counsel at K&L Gates in the firm’s Washington, D.C. office, practicing in the area of government affairs. I asked Thornburgh about his current practice. He told me that these days he doesn’t pull down books from the shelf. Rather, his role is one of a “troubleshooter,” helping out it various areas. He also serves to vouch for the firm with potential new clients, he told me. But he still considers himself a lawyer – “and a pretty good one.”

I asked him if clients have thought that by hiring the former Attorney General their problems can be solved by Thornburgh just picking up the phone. Well that is obviously not the case he assured me. You need to be realistic and truthful in what you can accomplish.

Thornburgh and I spoke a week before the interview to set it up. He wanted to be sure that I understood that, while his firm has a substantial coverage practice, he personally has no experience in the area. I assured him that that was fine -- but that I would still manage to find a way to ask him an insurance question. I can usually find an insurance angle in anything. Well, one week later our call took place and I told Thornburgh that he stumped me. For the first time ever I couldn’t think of anything insurance-related to ask someone. “Good!” he replied.


Dick Thornburgh And The Giant Spoon

In 1966 Dick Thornburgh ran for Congress – seeking to represent a Pennsylvania district that covered various parts of Pittsburgh. As part of the campaign he produced a billboard featuring himself holding an enormous wooden spoon – bigger than him -- with the accompanying message: “Dick Thornburgh will stir things up in Congress.”

I asked Thornburgh where one gets a spoon that large and does he still have it – perhaps in his library at the University of Pittsburgh. He said that there is only one way to get a spoon that large: “photographic trickery.” Pure and simple it was photo shopped and he provided the precise details on how it was done. Even 50 years ago nothing was what it seemed.


When Major League Baseball Dropped The Ball

Thornburgh recounts in his autobiography that in 1993 the Major League Baseball Commission’s job was vacant. He was contacted by the search firm, met with the owner’s committee and was told that he had survived several cuts. But in the end – which took several years -- the job went to Milwaukee Brewers’s owner Bud Selig. Thornburgh was told that the owners wanted someone more “media-oriented.”

Ironically, Thornburgh’s final contribution to the matter turned out to be an August 1994 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in which he called for a return to a Judge Landis-type commissioner to help solve the game’s problems. Major League Baseball didn’t go that route. Instead they chose Selig, whose background was in the automobile business.

What happened next? Baseball went through a two-decade disgrace by many players’ use of performance enhancing drugs. Somehow I can’t help but think that the steroid and related-PED situation would have turned out differently if the guy sitting in the chair in the Commissioner’s office had once been the Attorney General. Baseball could have had its drug problems handled by the former highest law enforcement officer in the country -- who called drug abuse “Public Enemy Number One” when he took the oath of office. Instead it was tackled by someone whose background was the car business.

Pete Rose And The Hall Of Fame

Bud Selig – for fifteen years -- has declined to act on Pete Rose’s application to have his lifetime ban from baseball overturned. This would enable Rose to be eligible for Baseball’s Hall of Fame. Would the outcome have been the same for Rose if Thornburgh had gotten the Commissioner’s job? I asked Thornburgh this question. More specifically, my question was whether Rose should be in the Hall of Fame. No, Thornburgh replied without hesitation. “His records should be recognized,” Thornburgh said, but for behaving as he did (betting on baseball games in which he was acting as a team manager), he does not belong in the Hall of Fame.

Lessons From Three Mile Island And Term Limits

Thornburgh was sworn in as Pennsylvania’s 41st Governor in January 1979. Just two months later he was faced with a crisis of epic proportions – an accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg. Thornburgh was widely praised for his role in overseeing the emergency response efforts as well as coordinating funding for the clean-up.

In Where the Evidence Leads, Thornburgh sets out ten lessons from TMI. Number 8 – “Forget partisanship, for there is no Republican or Democratic way to manage a real emergency. In our stewardship of this most basic of public trusts, leaders inevitably survive or suffer together, and so do the people they are elected to serve.”

This is certainly true when life and limb are involved. Such bipartisanship was clearly on display in the aftermath of September 11th. So why can’t this lesson apply to other “real emergencies” such as the federal debt or other problems that have proven impossible to solve on account of partisan gridlock in Washington? “Politics is the art of compromise,” Thornburgh said, and the rigidity in both parties makes that hard to come by. Even though we may be in for a “rough patch” ahead, he is an “optimist” and tends to think that the democratic process works. When I asked if term limits were the solution he said that he did not favor them (and was quick to point out that it wasn’t because he was personally impacted by them as Pennsylvania’s two-term Governor). Besides, Thornburgh said, we have terms limits. “It’s called the voting booth.”

Legalizing Marijuana

I was pretty sure that I knew what Thornburgh’s answer was going to be to my question whether marijuana should be legalized. In his autobiography he describes his tough as nails war on drugs during his time as Attorney General. But that was a long time ago. Since then marijuana for recreational use has been legalized in two states and more than half the states now have laws that in some way permit medical marijuana (which is surely a wink and a nod to the medical part in some cases). And Thornburgh has spoken out against “absurd” federal over-criminalization of trivial wrongs. So with the country perhaps moving in the direction to decriminalize marijuana, and Thornburgh speaking out against ticky-tack crimes, might the former top law enforcement officer in the country now favor legalization of pot – or least be willing to consider it?

That would be a big N-O. The former Attorney General responded in no uncertain terms: “Until you can show me a civilization in the history of mankind that has profited from the legalization of drugs, I’m not for it.” He acknowledged that some states will decide that it’s right for them, but it’s “not smart.”

The Governor’s Favorite Letter

In 1981 I was fifteen years old, going to high school in Philadelphia, and sent a letter to the Governor. I asked him something about initiatives being taken by then President Reagan. Thornburgh responded and I still have his June 16, 1981 letter. In it he praised Reagan and said that the President was “moving quickly and effectively to set basic directions that are the right ones for the country.” [cuts in taxes, spending and reform of federal regulations] Thornburgh also stated in his letter that, because I was concerned about these issues, he was enclosing a copy of his budget address and his “directive to eliminate unnecessary regulations that are unduly burdensome on citizens and businesses in the Commonwealth.” Given my social life at the time I probably read these things.

I asked Thornburgh if he remembered my letter. “Wish I could say I did,” Thornburgh answered. He said that he received a lot of letters and others were assigned to address them. However, he was sure that mine was so interesting and outstanding that it was no doubt sent right up to him.

The Law School Problem And Summer Vacation

Also on my call with Thornburgh was Lauren Kelly, who is spending this summer working with me as a Research Assistant in the preparation of a new edition of “General Liability Insurance Coverage: Key Issues in Every State.” [Thornburgh will presumably not be buying a copy.] Lauren just completed her first year at Villanova Law School. I asked Thornburgh if Lauren could ask him a question – explaining that it would make for a great story, in her “What I did for summer vacation” report, to say that she spoke to the United States Attorney General. Thornburgh, showing his typical modesty, laughed and wondered why that was such a big deal.

Of course he didn’t mind taking a question from Lauren and she hit him with “the law school problem.” She listed all of the commonly discussed flaws -- tuition is very high, you leave school with a lot of debt, jobs are scarce and even if you get a job you are unprepared for actual practice – and asked Thornburgh for his solution.

Thornburgh said that he gets this question a lot. He acknowledged that jobs are down and there are too many lawyers – “but never enough good ones,” he stressed. But unlike some, his response was not that the system needed to be changed. Thornburgh’s answer seemed to be that the system is what it is and students just need to work hard to be one of those good lawyers for whom the profession will always be able to accommodate.

Who Killed John F. Kennedy?

My interview with Thornburgh was coming to an end. It was time to go big. I explained to him that it would be a huge boost for my insurance newsletter if he gave me a scoop – something that I could tout and which would draw a lot of attention to Coverage Opinions. I could sense him waiting for what I was about to unleash. “Who killed JFK?,” I asked. Thornburgh laughed. I thought I knew what his answer was going to be. But I was wrong. “Can’t help,” he replied. “Haven’t the slightest idea. Go ask Kevin Costner,” Thornburgh suggested. Interesting answer, I thought. The Attorney General pointed me in the direction of Kevin Costner. He didn’t point me in the direction of the Warren Commission Report.

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