Posted: Feb. 24, 2008

W. LAIRD STABLER JR., 1930-2008

By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

If the Republicans are the Grand Old Party, then W. Laird Stabler Jr. was their Grand Old Man, the grandest of them all.

Politics tends to turn people into a collection of their titles, and certainly Stabler had his share -- attorney general, U.S. attorney for Delaware, a member of the Republican National Committee for 20 years -- but to define this man in that way would be to empty him of what he was.

Above all, Laird Stabler was known for his intrinsic worth and age-old gallantry, for bringing more to any post than it could bestow on him. With the Scots' heritage he reveled in, he was right out of Robert Burns' poem that it is the measure of the man that counts:

A man's a man for a' that.

For a' that, an' a' that . . .

Is king o' men for a' that.

Stabler, who was 77, died early Sunday morning at his Montchanin home, going as gently as he lived, after taking a turn for the worse Saturday afternoon in his long bout with oral cancer.

He probably took a political era with him, a time when partisanship could be waged without Ann Coulter cruelty, as boxing could be the sweet science without Mike Tyson brutality. He was the personification of it.

Stabler was a complete man. He was as Chateau Country as he was earthy, as at home with the du Pont family into which he married as in a duck blind, a charming combination of dignity and ribaldry, and people were glad to know him and grateful for his attention and his counsel. They took him more seriously than he ever took himself.

Stabler used to wisecrack that others would cross the street to avoid him, because he always was asking for contributions for the Republican Party or its candidates. Sooner or later, he got them, though, because he was a prodigious fund raiser, a skill most prized in politics.

There was a running joke in the Republican Party that Stabler always was called upon to introduce Michael N. Castle, a man who needed no introduction. Stabler and Castle were seatmates when they were elected to the state House of Representatives in 1966, the beginning of Castle's career as a legislator, lieutenant governor, governor and congressman.

"It's very sad. It's a great loss. He was a wonderful public servant, but he may have been a better person, and he was wonderful to have as a mentor and friend," Castle said.

"I appreciate all his introductions. We had a lot of fun with it. I'll just miss that. It will never be the same."

Stabler used to jest that he kept getting elected as national committeeman because he never did anything, so he never got anyone angry at him. No one was fooled. What Stabler did was keep the party together.

He was famous for being a voice of reason that even Castle and National Committeewoman Priscilla B. Rakestraw, two of the more strong-minded members of the party hierarchy, would heed.

It was a point of pride for Castle. "We sat next to each other in the state House of Representatives, and of course, I was rather volatile and Laird was much more thoughtful. He would keep me wrapped up sometimes," he said.

It was the same way with Rakestraw. "He could do it with a look or just by putting his hand on my arm," she said. "There was just an innate decency in Laird that shined through everything he did."

In keeping with Stabler's nature, one of his best friends was Richard H. Bayard, a former Democratic national committeeman and state chair who now works with the lobbying firm run by Stabler's son, Laird III. Bayard is a du Pont, and they met through family gatherings and their membership at the Bombay Hunt Club near Leipsic in Kent County.

Bayard became an early admirer of Stabler's leadership style when Stabler was trying to persuade a Republican state senator, also a member of the hunting club, to fall into line on a party position. The senator said he would not back the party when it was wrong.

"Laird told him, that's when I need you the most!" Bayard said. "He's going to be missed wherever he spent time, the legal community, the political scene, the golf course, the duck blind."

Stabler spent nearly 40 years in politics, and he was fond of saying with typical self-humor that he was steered to it by a senior law partner who counseled that he would be better off there than in a legal practice.

Stabler had the gentleman's upbringing for it. Born in Tennessee, his family moved to Delaware when he was a boy. He went to Princeton and the University of Virginia law school and married Margaretta du Pont Kitchell, better known as Peg.

It was a perfect path to the law firm of Potter Anderson & Corroon -- a Democratic firm, to be sure, but these were conservative, moneyed Democrats with du Ponts as their clients. William S. Potter himself was the one who sent Stabler into politics.

Stabler was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1966 in a Republican landslide that pushed the Democrats into the minority. By his second term, he was the House majority leader.

Then Stabler did what gentleman lawyers used to do. He got himself elected to a single term as attorney general in 1970 and followed it up with an appointment from President Gerald Ford in 1975 to be the U.S. attorney, until the Democrats took back the White House with Jimmy Carter's inauguration in 1977.

As the U.S. attorney, Stabler was in charge during one of the state's best-known corruption investigations, which put New Castle County Executive Melvin A. Slawik Sr., a Democrat, in jail.

With the passage of time, Stabler is remembered most these days for his long tenure as national committeeman, serving on the party's governing council, from 1985 to 2004. Along with Rakestraw and Basil R. Battaglia, a longstanding state chair, they formed a triumvirate that brought stability and strong-handedness to the party during its days of ascendancy, now passed.

Stabler's departure from the party leadership was precipitous. He was challenged unexpectedly for national committeeman in 2004 and was so taken aback that he decided to retire. There was a clamor on his behalf, but he said he had given his word he would not run, and he would not go back on it.

The usurper never became the national committeeman. He was defeated in a pro-Stabler backlash engineered by Wilmington Republican Chair Thomas S. Ross.

"He showed a lot of us young guys what it meant to be a Delaware Republican, and more than that, what it took to be a Delawarean," Ross said.

Stabler left his party post in style. He was honored in 2006 at a Republican gala that brought the first President George Bush to the Hotel du Pont in Wilmington to recognize him. Stabler already was dealing with oral cancer, but it was thought to be in remission, and it was a joyous night.

Now Stabler is gone after a lifetime of fortune for the people grateful to be able to say they knew him. In return, it is fitting that this most Delaware of Delawareans was granted his last wish, expressed in an interview 10 years ago.

"I wouldn't leave Delaware except feet first."