Dick Thornburgh, a two-time Republican governor of Pennsylvania who coped with the worst American nuclear collapse on Three Mile Island in 1979 and later served as the United States attorney general under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, died Thursday in an Oakmont retirement home , Pa., Outside of Pittsburgh. He was 88 years old.
His son David confirmed the death.
For the millions of voters who voted for him, for five presidents for whom he worked in the Justice Department, and for the hundreds of organized crime, business criminals and corrupt officials he prosecuted, Mr. Thornburgh was an ambitious man with a formula for success: cleaning the house, restoring order and moving to a higher office.
It worked for more than two decades. He was Richard M. Nixon’s federal attorney in Pittsburgh (1969-1975) and Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter’s assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division (1975-1977). He was the only Republican to hold two consecutive terms as Governor of Pennsylvania (1979-1987). And he was the attorney general who bridged the Reagan and Bush justice departments (1988-1991).
However, there was no formula for dealing with a meltdown. Mr. Thornburgh was trained in civil engineering and law and was used to dealing with the cold, hard facts of science and law. After the partial collapse of a nuclear reactor at the Three Mile Island Power Plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on March 28, 1979, facts were hard to find in the maelstrom of chaos and fear.
It happened 10 weeks after he was appointed governor and 12 days after the release of The China Syndrome, a Jane Fonda-Jack Lemmon film about a runaway nuclear accident that talks about a reactor going all the way China or an explosion in Southern California is burning through the planet with a blanket of radioactivity that “would make an area the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable,” as one character put it.
Three Mile Island, 10 miles south of the State Capitol on the Susquehanna River, wasn’t China syndrome. Overheated nuclear fuel pellets melted, a containment was breached and escaping radiation contaminated the facility and escaped into the air. However, continued confusion about what had happened and the extent of the danger, compounded by dire warnings from anti-nuclear activists, left the public concerned.
Governor Thornburgh took over the crisis and was a calm voice against panic. He made decisions that turned out to be correct. He ordered a precautionary evacuation of pregnant women and small children within a five-mile radius of the plant. About 140,000 people left. And when a false report spread that the facility might explode, he consulted experts, called reporters, and announced that there was no such danger.
“You have to calm people down,” he said. “You have to go in front of the cameras and microphones and tell them what you know and what you don’t. They have to stop the rumors and of course make decisions. There is no Republican or Democratic way to deal with a nuclear crisis. Nobody has ever had one before.” Had to fight accidents. “
President Carter, who visited the crippled plant five days after the accident, praised the governor’s achievement of superlatives. “Because of the trust the American people have in him, and especially those who live in this region, potential panic and disruption has been minimized,” Carter said.
It was a formidable start on the national stage for Mr. Thornburgh, a moderate Rockefeller and rising Republican star who was elected with a promise to put Pennsylvania on a solid economic footing and fight the corruption that began under a Democratic predecessor, Gov. Milton J. Shapp. (He also offered voters a catchy slogan to help them remember his name: “Thornburgh as in Pittsburgh”.)
Mr. Thornburgh has balanced the budget for eight consecutive years, cutting 15,000 government jobs, tightening bureaucracy, cutting taxes and national debt, and stepping down with a $ 350 million surplus. He also reduced unemployment, carried out welfare reforms and accelerated economic development. The private sector added 50,000 companies and 500,000 jobs. At the end of his tenure, he had an approval rating of 72 percent.
He taught for a year at Harvard, and in 1988, towards the end of his second term, President Reagan appointed Mr. Thornburgh to replace Attorney General Edwin L. Meese 3rd, who had resigned amid a cloud of allegations of ethics and wrongdoing. Five months later, he was retained as attorney general by newly elected President Bush, and he became the chief government officer on criminal justice and civil rights issues.
Mr Thornburgh reduced organized crime strike forces across the country, arguing that federal prosecutors could do a better job. He attacked white-collar crime, won convictions in a savings and credit scandal and against defense companies, securities dealers and corrupt officials, and stepped up enforcement against drug trafficking, money laundering and terrorism.
He resigned as attorney general in 1991 to run a special election for the unexpired term of Senator John Heinz, a Pennsylvania Republican who was killed in a plane crash in the air. Harris Wofford, a Democrat and former Pennsylvania Secretary of Labor, had been appointed on a temporary basis, and Republican leaders were keen to see Mr. Thornburgh recapture the seat and perhaps use it as a stepping stone to the presidency.
Mr. Thornburgh was greatly favored. But after a sluggish campaign in which he continued to speak of being tough on crime, he lost to Mr. Wofford, a former college president and aide to John F. Kennedy, in that rarest political rarity, an angry landslide. Mr Wofford overcame a 47 percent lead in Thornburgh in the polls and won by a 56 to 44 lead.
Richard Lewis Thornburgh was born on July 16, 1932 in Pittsburgh to Charles and Alice (Sanborn) Thornburgh. His father was an engineer. After graduating from Mercersburg Academy, a prep school in Pennsylvania, he earned an engineering degree from Yale in 1954 in 1950 and a law degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1957.
In 1959 he joined the Pittsburgh-based law firm Kirkpatrick & Lockhart.
Mr. Thornburgh had married his childhood sweetheart, Virginia Hooten, in 1955 and had three sons with her, John, David and Peter. She was killed in a 1960 car accident that left Peter permanently brain damaged. In 1963, Mr. Thornburgh married Ginny Judson, with whom he had a fourth son, William.
Alongside his son David, Mr. Thornburgh is survived by Mrs. Judson; his other sons; six grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
For years, Mr. Thornburgh and his second wife campaigned for equality and opportunity for people with disabilities, a fight they originally took part in for Peter. As attorney general, Thornburgh led the Bush administration’s efforts in Congress to pass the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, which eliminated discrimination against people with physical, mental, and sensory disabilities.
He began his political career with an unsuccessful bid for a seat in Pittsburgh in the US House of Representatives in 1966 and ended 25 years later with his loss of the Senate in 1991 to Mr. Wofford.
He spent a year with the United Nations as Undersecretary of State for Human Resources, Budget and Finance, and then resumed the legal practice that started his career at what is now K&L Gates, one of the largest international law firms in the country.
He wrote many articles and reports on litigation and public order, and was the author of “Where the Evidence Leads: An Autobiography” (2003) and “Puerto Rico’s Future: A Time to Decide” (2007) calling for self-determination for the territory he described the United States as a holdover from colonialism.
Alex Traub contributed to the coverage.