Richard Thornburgh is running for a 7/8...


June 12, 1991|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

ATTORNEY GENERAL Richard Thornburgh is running for a 7/8 Senate seat in Pennsylvania but refuses to quit his job.

AHis critics say this compromises the non-political administration of justice. His defenders say, Robert Kennedy set the precedent in 1964.

Now there's an inspiring justification! Bobby Kennedy never, ever mixed politics with justice, right?

Some Kennedy defenders say it's different, that he, unlike Thornburgh, remained in the Justice Department only a few days after deciding to run for the Senate in New York. Thornburgh had planned to be attorney general and candidate for a couple of months.

(Now that a judge has ruled that the parties in Pennsylvania must have primaries rather than the planned conventions for the Senate nominations, his plans and timetable may change.)

Actually, Kennedy stayed at Justice for a couple of months after he had pretty much decided to run for the Senate and for a month after he had definitely decided. He really wanted the vice presidential nomination that year. A forlorn hope. But not till late July when President Lyndon Johnson told him "no soap" did he resign himself to the Senate race. In late August, with his nomination assured by covert campaigning among delegates to the Democratic state convention, he announced his candidacy and soon thereafter resigned as A.G. and began running against the Republican incumbent, Sen. Kenneth Keating.

Citing Kennedy as precedent ignores an interesting bit of political trivia. He is the only ex-U.S. attorney general ever elected to the Senate since senators became popularly elected.

Only two others even tried, and that was years after leaving office. Ramsey Clark, who was Lyndon Johnson's A.G., ran twice in New York, in 1974 and 1976, losing in the general election the first time, in the primary the second. Elliot Richardson, one of Richard Nixon's A.G., ran for the Republican senatorial nomination in Massachusetts in 1984 but lost.

Thornburgh has one advantage Kennedy didn't have. He is from Pennsylvania. Kennedy was attacked as a carpetbagger throughout his campaign. He shrugged it off with jokes. Novelist Richard Condon, recalling a memorable JFK moment, suggested RFK end all his speeches with "Ich bin ein New Yorker!"

But the issue hurt him. He almost lost. He needed Lyndon Johnson's coat-tails to win. RFK defeated Senator Keating by only 719,693 votes -- while LBJ was winning the state by 2,669,597 votes.

* * *

Going strictly by precedent, Thornburgh is more likely to be convicted of a crime than to be elected to the Senate. Two of Nixon's other A.G.s were convicted. John Mitchell was sent to prison for obstructing justice and lying under oath. Richard Kleindeinst got a suspended sentence after a plea bargain in which he admitted not telling the truth to a Senate committee.

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