Posted: Jan. 28, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

If politics was made in the image of W. Laird Stabler Jr., there would have been no Swift Boat Republicans for Truth, and the Senate Democrats would not have made the wife of Samuel A. Alito Jr., the Supreme Court nominee, cry.

There absolutely would be Return Day, though -- that uniquely Delaware celebration on the Thursday after an election, when winners and losers ride together in a parade and party leaders literally bury a hatchet in a ceremony of reconciliation on The Circle in Georgetown, the Sussex County seat.

Laird Stabler is possibly the last of his kind, a gentleman in politics. His politics is the politics of consensus, the politics of compromise, the politics of the class act.

He was honored for it, revered for it, lionized for it on Friday evening in the Gold Ballroom of the Hotel du Pont in Wilmington at a tribute that was one of the most dazzling the state has ever seen.

The banquet -- called "What a Guy!" An Evening for Laird Stabler -- was such a draw that it attracted everyone from former President George H.W. Bush to state Rep. John C. Atkins, a gawking, oversized adolescent of a legislator whose district is so deep in Sussex County that this was his first trip to the Hotel.

Stabler, 75, a Chateau Country Republican, was recognized for 40 years in politics without making an enemy, from his first election to the state House of Representatives in 1966, to his term as the state House majority leader, to his election in 1970 as attorney general, to his appointment as U.S. attorney under President Gerald Ford, to his 20 years on the Republican National Committee before he stepped aside in 2004.

He is known as a man's man, a lawyer, a duck hunter, a golfer, a witty and earthy storyteller, so secure in himself that he once wore a kilt from his Scottish heritage to a Republican National Committee meeting. It has been said that Stabler could have been governor if his health had not prevented it, and it is probably true.

U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, a Republican who goes so far back with Stabler he shared a desk with him in the state House and did become governor, could not say enough about Stabler and the Delaware legacy he helped to create.

"Why are we better than other places? It's our civility and decency. I don't know anyone who personifies those elements more than Laird Stabler," Castle told the crowd.

Castle is a political contemporary, but Stabler also is regarded for what he has done for people who came along after him. William E. Manning, now a prominent lawyer and former Red Clay school board president, broke into politics as Stabler's driver during the 1970 election for attorney general.

Manning said, "Laird Stabler taught me a lesson I am still trying to learn, about the importance of being a gentleman. Really, that's why this room is filled tonight."

In keeping with the spirit of the night, Manning also quipped, "He threw several hundred people in jail as the U.S. attorney and attorney general, and very few of them hold a grudge, Laird."

The event began in an impressive fashion, as Stabler entered the Gold Ballroom at march tempo with Castle and Bush behind a kilted squad of bagpipers. A brawny drum major bawled, "Scotland the Brave!" and the musical anthem bayed from five pipers accompanied by two drummers.

The little parade swept through a crowd of 565 people seated at tables that overflowed the ballroom into the lobby. In another sign of respect for Stabler, there were a number of serious Democrats present, including former state Chairs Richard H. Bayard and Gary E. Hindes, Senate President Pro Tem Thurman Adams Jr., Sen. Nancy W. Cook and former Democratic National Committeeman Edward R. "Ned" Davis.

Despite Stabler's friendships with Democrats, there has never been a question about which side he is on. He once said in genuine agony he would never want a child of his to marry one.

In deference to the Democrats, they were allowed to write their checks to a Hurricane Katrina recovery account to avoid contributing to the Republican Party, because in addition to a night for Stabler, this event was a big-ticket political fund-raiser, orchestrated to the hilt by Priscilla B. Rakestraw, the Republican national committeewoman who has been Stabler's unflinching friend and ally.

The occasion was gaudy with 25 Gold Sponsors, who contributed $5,000, and 66 Silver Sponsors, who paid $1,000. Individual tickets went for $175. The room was full of du Ponts, who are Stabler's in-laws through his marriage with Margaretta du Pont Kitchell Stabler, better known as Peg.

There was some idle speculation about whether people were more interested in coming for Stabler or for a glimpse of a past president whose son is the president, but there really was never a doubt. Bush was arm candy for Stabler. The proof was that Bush left early, but the crowd stayed.

The event brought in the right ex-president, the one who practices his politics the way Stabler does, putting aside his 1992 defeat to work with President Bill Clinton, the Democrat who beat him, on tsunami and hurricane relief. Bush praised Stabler by quoting William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet who wrote, "Think where man's glory most begins and ends/And say my glory was I had such friends."

Amid all the accolades, it ought not to be forgotten why this event happened when it did. Evenings like this one come at the end of a political career, and for Stabler it came somewhat sooner than anticipated.

Stabler planned to run for a new four-year term as the Republican national committeeman in 2004 when he was challenged unexpectedly within his own circle. Stunned and unwilling to chance a rift in the party he loved, Stabler withdrew. As word of his decision spread, there was a clamor for him to reconsider, but he would not. He had given his word.

No one mentioned why this dinner came to be, but it was hard not to think about it when Stabler's daughter Margaretta talked about what her father had taught her, explaining that he had said, "The guy who doesn't do the right thing may get ahead of you, but guess what, you'll sleep at night."

Stabler earned his tribute. "Wow, what a night for me," he said. "I'll remember and treasure this evening all the rest of my life."

For some passing hours in the gold glitter of the Hotel, there was no place in politics for Swift Boat Veterans or Mrs. Alito's tears, and every day was Return Day.

Then it was over. Laird Stabler took it with him when he went.