Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Harris Wofford: Pennsylvania's 1st gay senator

I was surprised to learn on election day I’d voted for Pennsylvania’s first gay U.S. Senator.

In 1991!

Yes, one of my favorite senators, Harris Wofford, 90, is marrying Matthew Charlton, 40.

Talk about switching parties.

Even for a romantic like me, it’s all a bit confusing.

See, back in 1991 Harris Wofford had been happily married for 43 years to his wife Clare (she died in ’96) and they together had three children.

Some would mistakenly surmise, I guess, that means Wofford was in the closet.

If he was then the closet was in a different house in another state because Wofford was a life-long happy hetero.

It was an interesting time for me. I was doing general assignment features for the local paper that often brought me into frequent face time with Pennsylvania’s senators.

They were at the time Arlen Specter and John Heinz III, both moderate Republicans.

In this divisive era, many people are quick to label me a raging liberal — and I’m fine with that. But it wasn’t always so and the reasons have to do with Harris Wofford and my political coming of age.

See, one of the politicians I most admire was Heinz, a classic Pennsylvania Republican.

He was fiscally conservative and socially moderate. To give youngsters some idea of his political pedigree he was married to Teresa Heinz who is now married to Secretary of State John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee.

And Heinz was brilliant.

That was my conclusion after an impromptu interview/bull session outside a ’91 memorial service for local Gulf War victims.

I found Heinz and an aide just hanging out behind the church. I approached and asked if he had time to answer some questions.

He did.

About 30 minutes, as it turned out.

I was very professional and concise at the beginning. I asked relevant policy questions about global hot spots and federal budgetary matters. Having exhausted the issues, I felt him out about insider politics and in no time we’d begun to banter.

We talked baseball, music, history, books, the arts and the best places to get a great local pizza.

It was wonderful. He was so warm and engaging. I remember thinking, wow, this man will one day be president.

Had I enjoyed the true gift of prophesy, I would have said, “Senator, for God’s sake, don’t get on any helicopters in the next month!”

Because just three weeks later, Heinz was dead, killed in an aviation accident over Philadelphia. He was 52. With him died, I believe, a political civility that’s never been recovered as the GOP began its historic rightward lurch.

Given there wasn’t enough time to hold primaries, Gov. Robert Casey appointed Wofford, who won the general election handily, mostly on the strength of his remarkable history and evident dignity.

He’d helped found the Peace Corp and was pals with Martin Luther King. A Civil Rights icon, he’d been rumored to be on Bill Clinton’s VP shortlist in ’92.

I was proud to have such a man represent me and the Keystone State.

So I was pissed in ’94 when this man who cared so much about equal rights for all was driven from office by a man who seemed to care exclusively about the rights of straight whites like himself.

He was Rick Santorum, maybe my least favorite politician in my lifetime.

Because Santorum was the tip of the spear in the culture wars that have dominated and divided us lo these 25 years.

He was opposed to teaching about sex in schools, opposed to pre-marital sex, wanted to ban pornography, found homosexuality icky and thought any sexual dabbling outside the marriage would lead to perdition.

I remember marveling how such a man so opposed to sex could have had any intimate role in the conception of eight children.

So, of course, when President Clinton got busted screwing an intern Santorum immediately mounted his white horse — and please get that bestial image out of your head.

He was adamant. He wanted Clinton impeached. He joined with self-righteous GOP stalwarts Newt Gingrich (three marriages), Bob Livingston (multiple affairs), Henry Hyde (adulterous homewrecker), and Dennis Hastert (this very day being sentenced for molesting young boys) in — hallelujah — protecting the sanctimony of marriage.

The Clinton impeachment trials turned me from a moderate into a knee-jerk liberal  whose knee jerks most liberally when it’s near a conservative’s crotch.

I thought of Santorum, run out of office in 2006, when I read Wofford’s announcement about finding love at the age of 90 with a man 50 years his junior.

I’m sure he’s appalled.

Wofford said the unlikely love caught him completely by surprise.

Only twice in his long life, he said, has he felt such a passionate pull. The first time was when he met his wife; the second was Matthew.

“At age 90, I’m lucky,” he said, “to be in an era where the Supreme Court has strengthened what President Obama calls ‘the dignity of marriage’ by recognizing that matrimony is not based on anyone’s sexual nature, choices or dreams. It is based on love.”
Good for him.

Me, I feel lucky to be in an era where voters are becoming less concerned about who’s screwing who as long as our politicians stop screwing us.

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Holly Bush said...

There is no one quite so low on my meter as Santorum. And he has, sadly enough, formed my opinions of Evangelicals. Not that there's not 4 or 5 of them that are not judgmental but on the whole he represents in my mind those folks I avoid like the plague.

Chris Rodell said...

I think we cultivated our disdain for Santorum at the same time, Holly. Really, he changed the whole atmosphere. Very divisive. And, yes, he's very representative of the ones I can't stand. And now he's a joke. Yippee!