Sunday, 9 August 2015


Last week I couldn't get any papers here to take an obituary of Richard Schweiker, best-known as a liberal Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, but his career is fascinating for two reasons.First, he represents the last-gasp of the now virtually extinct 'liberal' wing of the Republican party. That wing, which was largely eastern, and which you might argue represented old Yankee money, was dominant in the party up until after the JFK assassination. They were the ones Time magazine idolised, and hence got a lot of respect in the household where I grew up, even though my parents were strict FDR Democrats.
Even the Republican rabid right, represented by Robert Taft of Ohio, was relatively moderate on social issues despite being vehemently anti-union and pro-business, while always pushing a militaristic foreign policy. The Republicans could occupy this political middle ground because the Dixiecrats, southern Democrats, were the far-right on social issues, specifically civil rights.

Goldwater's nomination in 1964 was the first break-through of the 'Cowboy', new-money: a more triumphalist greedy, defense-industry-dominated turn right. He lost heavily to LBJ, but Richard Nixon, basically an older-style Republican at heart, was brought along by that very new breed from California, and realised the southern states were there for the taking after LBJ got the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts passed. He approached this 'southern strategy' with coded reference to states rights, and by the time Reagan sought a second term, the 'solid south' was solidly GOP.
Schweiker was the prototype liberal Republican swimming against this flow. Although he inherited his family wealth (oddly, his liberal Republican counterpart in the state house in Pennsylvania, William Scranton, was also a child of inherited privilege) he possessed a keen social conscience, what the British might think of as noblesse oblige. The Republicans were full of them: Rockefellers, Chaffees, Cabots and Lodges, even Bushes. Representing some very wealthy Philadelphia suburbs as a congressman, then out-polling his party to win a Senate seat, he supported civil rights and Medicare, opposed Vietnam, and voted against Nixon's Supreme Court nominations of Haynesworth and Carswell, the Alito and Thomas of the 60s.
In 1976 Reagan, looking to balance the prospective Republican presidential ticket, announced Schweiker as his potential running mate. In this too-long running age of Don Ron's hagiography we forget Reagan started out as a 'liberal' and went with the flow of money and power to the right. Looking at Schweiker and the Great Prevaricator exchanging a reverse Republican high-five makes me think Richard Dreyfuss would play Schweiker in a bio-pic (with Will Ferrell or Dan Ackroyd as Reagan). But Reagan actually remained committed to some social programmes, just as Nixon had, which today's greed-is-good upwardly mobile tea partiers would rather forget. They forget about his raising taxes, and his major recession too, but memory isn't a strong point with the wingnut right, fast becoming America's de facto centre. More on this in a moment.
The second key thing about Schweiker was that he and Gary Hart headed the Senate's Church Committee's investigation in the role of the CIA and FBI in the investigation of the JFK assassination, and their conclusions, that the agencies had deliberately lied to, withheld information from, misled and misdirected the Warren Commission, created a firestorm. I'd recommend reading Gaeton Fonzi's The Last Investigation (here's a link to my obit of Fonzi from the Independent in 2012). Schweizer had hired Fonzi, a Philadelphia journalist, as an investigator for the Church Committee; the book details among other things the interference by the intelligence agencies in the House Select Committee's JFK investigation which sprung from the Church and Pike reports. 

In May and June of 1976 Schweiker went public with his and Hart's conclusions. A few months later Vice President Gerald Ford, a Warren Commission member who was later shown to have been leaking the commission's workings to the intelligence agencies, managed to hang on to the nomination; he lost to Jimmy Carter and four years later when Reagan ran, Bob Dole was his VP. I'm not suggesting a conspiracy, though we all know what happened to Gary Hart's presidential aspirations.

By coincidence, or not, Schweiker's voting record moved significantly to the right for the next four years, and in 1980 he did not contest his Senate seat. In 1981 Reagan appointed Schweiker secretary of Health and Human Resources; for the next two years he enacted many of the cuts Reagan had promised to Social Security, welfare, Medicare and the like, but can be said to have held them back from the draconian measures Reagan's backers were expecting. He left in 1983 to become head of the American Council of Life Insurance, a typical game-keeper to poacher move in the Beltway.
Ironically, Schweiker's Senate seat was taken by Arlen Specter, on the surface another 'liberal' Republican (he switched from Democrat to Republican in 1965, then switched back at the end of his career in 2009 while facing severe threats from the right--he then failed to get the Democrat nomination for the Senate in 2010). Specter's voting record had always been firmly on the Republican spectrum; you might say he played a liberal to placate an electorate used to voting for liberals. But more telling, given Schweiker's principled stance on the JFK assassination and the intelligence community, Specter's greatest claim to fame is that as counsel to the Warren Commission he invented the 'magic bullet' theory to explain away the idea that Kennedy and John Connally were hit, as Connally believed, and as the Zapruder film strongly suggests, by separate shots. If that were the case, there would be too many bullets for one assassin to have fired. Specter's stroke of genius saved Warren and has sparked criticism and argument for the past six decades. You might argue, in our post-Santorum era, the Keystone State deserves another Schweiker.


Stephen said...

The magic bullet theory was a theory that explained a problem that never existed. If the bodies are lined up the way they were positioned in 3D space then the bullet follows a relatively straight line, no need for the magic bullet theory.

Michael Carlson said...

Read the background to the Warren Report. There is no doubt the theory was devised to explain disconcerting facts, not derived from them. And I've seen the 3d reconstruction, which includes movement not in the film and relies on a 'relatively' straight line, which doesn't exist in physical reality. Given the preponderance of evidence arguing for a kill shot from the front, it doesn't matter anyway...