The earth moves

November 07, 1991

If politics could be measured on a Richter scale, the election of Harris Wofford to the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania on Tuesday would register a 10.

Make no mistake that the earth-movement was felt all the way to the lawn of the White House. President Bush knew what was to come when he hurriedly announced on Tuesday afternoon, before the Pennsylvania polls had closed, that he was canceling his long-scheduled trip to Asia and Australia. Having read the exit polls, the president knew for all his spectacular success as a world-class leader, middle America was fed up with his standing in the receiving line for foreign dignitaries while one in 10 Americans was standing in the receiving line for food stamps.

But the Wofford election carries a symbolism that goes far beyond the anxieties of the moment. Here was a dignified, reassuring college president with no experience in elective politics, who was born in the roaring '20s which now so resemble the roaring '80s, who spent his childhood under FDR during the Depression of the '30s, who as a teen-ager saw "the Good War" won in the '40s, who got his education in the '50s, who bought into the idealism of John F. Kennedy in helping to found the Peace Corps in the '60s, who became the first male president of Bryn Mawr, a women's college, in the '70s.

When he was appointed to the Senate, Republicans reacted with undisguised glee: Wofford would be a patsy for an accomplished pro like Richard Thornburgh. But as Pennsylvanians got to know Wofford, they recognized a man who was like themselves -- culturally conservative, politically moderate and economically anxious. So he turned a 40-point deficit in the public opinion polls into a 10-point victory at the voting polls.

In his victory speech he said what the Democratic Party could adopt as its 1992 platform: "It's time to bring new life into the American dream . . . the dream of all Americans of being able to own your own home if you save, of helping your children go to college if they study, of moving to a better job if you work hard, of being able to see a doctor if you are sick."

That is not the speech of a "giveaway Democrat." Every "if" Wofford used added an important dimension to the promise. It is, in a sense, a promise conditioned on personal responsibility. Richard Thornburgh found that promise impossible to beat in 1991, and George Bush knows that it could be hard to beat in 1992.

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