Richard Thornburgh, 88, an effective and respected two-term governor of Pennsylvania who later served a tumultuous three-year stint as U.S. attorney general under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, has died.

His death was confirmed by his son David Thornburgh, who said the former governor died Thursday morning at Longwood at Oakmont, a retirement community outside Pittsburgh. The family did not immediately note a cause.

Mr. Thornburgh was an able administrator whose priorities were as prosaic as fiscal restraint, political moderation, clean government, and, above all, efficiency.

“His calm, grounded leadership was a hallmark of his governorship, and was critical to guiding Pennsylvania through the tumultuous days following the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island,” Gov. Tom Wolf said in a statement, as he ordered U.S. and commonwealth flags flown at half-staff. “Governor Thornburgh dedicated his life to public service, and his contributions to our commonwealth will not be forgotten.”

Former Gov. Ed Rendell said Pennsylvania had “lost one of its finest sons,” noting that Mr. Thornburgh used his prestige and gravitas throughout his life to “improve public discourse on issues of great importance.”

In a tweet, former Gov. Tom Ridge said Mr. Thornburgh “led a life worth celebrating.”

“His public service was a model of integrity and character that anyone seeking office would be wise to follow,” Ridge continued.

Former Gov. Mark S. Schweiker called Mr. Thornburgh “a personal hero and a leader to emulate.”

Within weeks of taking office as governor, Mr. Thornburgh faced a crisis: the near-meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant. His handling of the emergency gained him wide praise, and he left office in 1987 with high approval ratings.

Still, his years as governor made him some enemies. He was criticized for cutting off welfare benefits for thousands, which detractors called “Thornfare.”

But during his tenure from 1979 to 1987, Mr. Thornburgh earned the respect of some high-powered Republicans. Reagan saw him as the perfect man to take charge of the Justice Department that had been demoralized under the leadership of Edwin Meese.

Mr. Thornburgh was not only interested in the office — one of the top jobs in Washington — he saw it, quite possibly, as the escalator to the White House.

Instead, it led to his political exit. Harris Wofford, who was politically unknown, beat Mr. Thornburgh in the 1991 race to fill John Heinz’s U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania.

The defeat, unthinkable in the weeks before the election, ended Mr. Thornburgh’s political career and his dreams of greater glory.

Former Govs. (from left) Tom Ridge, Ed Rendell, and Dick Thornburgh at a society event in 2010.
ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Former Govs. (from left) Tom Ridge, Ed Rendell, and Dick Thornburgh at a society event in 2010.

A political career rooted in family tragedy

Mr. Thornburgh grew up in Rosslyn Farms, an upper-middle-class village on a hill about 7 miles from Pittsburgh, much younger than his three siblings — Jinny, Ann, and Charles, 14, 13, and 11 years older, respectively.

He was the son, grandson, and great-grandson of civil engineers, and, like his forebears, he earned an engineering degree at Yale University. But engineering was not what he wanted to do — not after getting a taste for law in a business law course.

Returning to his hometown, he enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh Law School in 1955 and married his childhood sweetheart, Ginny Hooton, who worked two jobs to help pay his tuition.

After he graduated with highest honors in 1957, he spent two years as legal counsel to the Aluminum Company of America and then joined the prominent Pittsburgh law firm of Kirkpatrick & Lockhart.

In five years, he and his wife had three sons — John, Peter, and David — and moved out of their small apartment into their own home.

On July 1, 1960, tragedy ripped apart his world. After dropping him off at work, his wife was killed in a head-on car crash. Peter, then 4 months old, suffered permanent brain damage, and John and David were seriously injured.

“That was the most significant event in my life,” Thornburgh told a reporter in 1991.

The accident “challenged me to expand my horizon, to do more than just try to be a successful lawyer and have a plot of grass and a home and a family.”

It also led to his fierce advocacy and work decades later for the Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark civil rights law prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities. In a 2015 essay published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he said the day the act was signed into law was “glorious,” and resonated with him because of his son’s disability.

In 1963, he met another Ginny — Virginia Walton Judson, an elementary school teacher with a graduate degree from Harvard University. Six months later, they married and she adopted his children.

In 1966, they had another son, William.

Throughout his life, Mr. Thornburgh was a family man. His idea of relaxation was to take in a Pirates game at Three Rivers or gather the family for homemade pizza with double cheese and pepperoni, some red wine or Iron City beer, and a movie.

He was quick with a quip or pun, and loved to mimic Bela Lugosi doing Dracula, or imitate Rocky the Squirrel, Bullwinkle the Moose, Natasha, and Boris — which he described as “a family talent of zero worth.”

Mr. Thornburgh was a serious man and lived cautiously, meticulously, and methodically, even when he was not at work.

He was a voracious reader, marking his place in books by putting a date in the margin in red ink, and tracking his ever-growing reading list.

The enemy of clutter, he kept his desktop as well-ordered as a geometry lesson. Pens and pencils, pink and white memos, newspaper clippings, his daily briefing book — all were neatly arranged.

“The more you establish methods and procedures, the less you have to worry about how to do something and the more you can focus on what to do,” he said in 1991. “Maybe some of that is a little bit excessive, but you can’t change your instincts.”

An efficient governor with an eye on the bottom line

He first ran for public office in 1966, vying for Congress as a moderate Republican. He supported extending civil and voting rights, favored better relations with China, and criticized the U.S. role in Vietnam.

He lost badly, but remained active in the party and in local organizations, including the ACLU and NAACP, advocated for legal aid and increased assistance for people with disabilities, and was a delegate to the 1967-68 convention that rewrote the Pennsylvania state constitution.

In 1969, President Richard Nixon named him U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh, where he gained a reputation for being tough on racketeers and corrupt government officials. In 1975, President Gerald Ford called him to Washington to run the Justice Department’s criminal division.

Dick Thornburgh
File photo
Dick Thornburgh

He returned to Pennsylvania as a candidate in 1978, defeating seven others to win the GOP nomination for governor. He followed up by upsetting the favorite, Democrat Pete Flaherty, the popular mayor of Pittsburgh.

His eight years as governor were not especially troubled times in Pennsylvania. He was praised for his handling of the near-meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, a crisis that began only 72 days after he took office, and criticized for cutting off welfare benefits for thousands.

He was sometimes seen as arrogant — such as when he told a young single woman on welfare “Things are tough all over,” after she told him how hard it was to find work.

But in general, the U.S. economy was healthy and state government sailed smoothly under Mr. Thornburgh’s hand. His administration reflected his personality. No innovator, he was content to run things efficiently, with a keen eye on the bottom line.

“He will be perceived as a good governor by the people,” said then Senate Democratic leader Edward Zemprelli of Allegheny County. “My own perception is that he had the opportunity for a great deal of accomplishment but was reluctant to do anything for fear of making a mistake.”

Mr. Thornburgh was credited with improving the state’s roads and ending the corruption and sloth that characterized the Transportation Department before him.

On welfare, he drafted legislation that lopped 60,000 people from the public assistance rolls and “created a whole new class of poor people — the homeless,” according to Democratic Sen. Roxanne Jones, who was on welfare when the law passed in 1982.

“He has created a climate against poor people and made it difficult to get any programs to help them. I’m very bitter about it,” Jones said then.

His legislation limited public assistance to three months a year for certain able-bodied people. He later vetoed a bipartisan effort to restore benefits to pregnant women and people with mental or physical disabilities.

Asked to pinpoint his biggest accomplishment as governor, Mr. Thornburgh said the state’s economy “is the one that’s key to me.”

“When we took office, this was a state that was overcommitted to declining smokestack industries and with no strategy whatsoever to develop a more future-oriented economic base,” he said then. “We’ve seen, by every indicator and every assessment, a truly dramatic turnaround.”

He took credit for the lowered unemployment rate — then 5.1%, its lowest in 14 years, the budget surplus of $200 million, and state leadership in the start-up of new businesses.

But his critics said his economic gains were nothing more than public relations.

“It has been government by news manipulation, with as much depth as a piece of tissue paper, and as much substance,” said former Sen. Vincent J. Fumo of Philadelphia, then the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

But when he left office to become director of Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, he was seen as a successful and popular governor, and a good candidate for a role on the national stage.

The call from Washington

The call came in 1988, when Reagan summoned him to Washington to straighten out the Justice Department, which had been criticized under Meese.

Mr. Thornburgh could do nothing right in Washington.

In three years, he spent most of his political capital.

He caused resentment by taking to Washington three former aides from Harrisburg, who limited access to the attorney general and to information.

He battled independent counsel Lawrence Walsh over the release of classified documents in the Iran-contra trials and so was seen more as a defender of the White House than a probing federal prosecutor.

Though he was credited with sending boardrooms full of white-collar criminals to jail, he was criticized for failing to aggressively investigate two major scandals — the Bank of Commerce and Credit International and the massive bank fraud that brought about the failure of the savings-and-loan industry.

“… We wish he had left a truer stamp of himself on the office, and persist in thinking that Dick Thornburgh had much more to offer in government than he gave,’' the Washington Post editorialized on Aug. 13, 1991.

Mr. Thornburgh appeared to move from the center to the right on the GOP political spectrum, was criticized as partisan, secretive, and high-handed, and failed to recognize political decorum in dealing with Congress.

In defending his three-year term, he said any attorney general who remains popular failed to carry out the office’s duties in a responsible fashion.

“Probably for better or worse, I do pass that test of responsibility in office,” he said. “I have more than once been a popular target for popular commentators, but I can abide by that distinction, secure in the knowledge that we have done our level best to call ‘em as we see ‘em, without fear or favor from any quarter, and to follow the evidence wherever and to whomever it might lead.”