Posted: May 10, 2007
REFLECTIONS OF PETE DU PONT
By Celia Cohen
Pete du Pont is back in style. Thirty years after he took his oath as Pierre Samuel du Pont IV to become the governor on Jan. 18, 1977, a day as bitter and cold as Delaware's own prospects seemed, there are suddenly regular sightings of the two-term Republican executive who willed the state to believe in itself again.
Perhaps it is more than coincidence.
Du Pont was the host of a Republican soiree in January when his famous name inveigled Rudy Giuliani, a political soulmate as the mayor who transformed New York, to appear amid the gold and crystal of the Hotel du Pont in Wilmington at a political gala called the "Pete du Pont Individual Freedom Award Dinner."
There is a story about du Pont this month in Delaware Today magazine, the model of someone who refuses to retire. At 72, he embraces some of the trappings of his age -- he and his wife Elise have four children and 10 grandchildren -- but avoids the traps of slowing down. He writes a column for the online Wall Street Journal, offers commentary on Fox News, and runs policy think tanks.
A narrative of the du Pont administration, which lasted from 1977 to 1985, is being released Thursday at a reception at Brantwyn, his childhood home that is now part of the DuPont Country Club in Rockland. The book, written by Larry Nagengast, is part of the Delaware Heritage Commission's series on governors.
Maybe those things are happening because the times call for reflections of Pete du Pont. Maybe there is an echo in these times of those times, when he took office.
"Somehow Delaware needs to get new visionary thinking, although I'm not enough of an expert to tell you what that's going to be. To get that done, the next governor makes a big difference," he said.
It is not to say that these times are the same as those times. Back then, it was a garden of horrors.
The economy was crippled. The state government was gushing deficits, unchecked by the highest income tax rate in the country. The politics was blighted by corruption and chicanery. School desegregation threatened to provoke massive civil unrest in northern New Castle County, only 10 years after the state showed it was quite capable of it with the Wilmington riots.
These times today can be characterized more fairly as needing some vitamins. More than half of the Delawareans polled recently by Farleigh Dickinson University said the state was moving in the right direction, but still, how is it going to stay that way?
There are warning signs of worry -- the retrenching of the banking industry that exploded into prosperity on du Pont's watch and the impending shutdown of Chrysler, which du Pont helped to keep going a generation ago.
"We got up onto this plane, and we need another step, a vision for the next decade," du Pont said.
When du Pont was elected governor, he brought along not only the cachet of his family heritage but an extraordinary optimism. It would be four years before Ronald Reagan became president with his favorite story of a little boy, when presented with a roomful of horse manure, digging in happily and exclaiming, "There's got to be a pony in here somewhere," but du Pont already had internalized it.
Where others saw catastrophe and some saw at best a challenge, du Pont saw opportunity.
"We had no jobs. We had a government that was way out of control on spending. There was no vision, no where's Delaware going?" he said. "It was a wonderful opportunity. The whole state needed to change, and you came in with enough of a victory that you could change it."
At first there was more horse manure than pony -- political gamesmanship and showdowns with the Democratic legislature, an inartful speech that rattled the bond market when du Pont said the state was bankrupt, a line-in-the-sand budget veto and a stinging legislative override -- but the day did come when the digging out began.
Two years before du Pont became governor, the voters elected a Watergate class of legislators every bit as frustrated and embarrassed as he was by the state of affairs, and eventually they found common ground.
The state righted itself for a generation. The Delaware Economic & Financial Advisory Council, better known by its acronym DEFAC, was created to give an honest reckoning of the state's finances, taxes were cut, and the governor and the legislature committed to balancing the budget in bipartisan fashion.
School desegregation came peacefully. Du Pont set up a Judicial Nominating Commission to filter politics out of judge making. The state enacted the Financial Center Development Act to rejuvenate the economy.
In many ways, it is as if du Pont never left, because much of what was instituted then still remains. It is some legacy, but it is time for something new.
Delaware is on the verge of a new generation of leadership. Du Pont's political contemporaries are still in charge -- Democratic Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. arrived statewide in 1972, Democratic Gov. Ruth Ann Minner was part of the Watergate legislative class in 1974, Democratic Sen. Thomas R. Carper was elected state treasurer in 1976, and Republican Rep. Michael N. Castle joined du Pont as his lieutenant governor in 1980 -- but they have less time ahead of them than behind.
Biden, Castle and Carper are in their 60s, and Minner is retiring when her term is up in January 2009. The change begins with a new governor, and even as loyal a Republican as du Pont acknowledges that the current state of politics here means the next one is more likely to come from the Democrats, either state Treasurer Jack A. Markell or Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., than from his own party with its nebulous field.
"We've become New Jersey," du Pont quipped about Delaware's Democratic leanings.
Whoever becomes governor probably does not know now how to revitalize the state, but it is all right. Neither did du Pont when he got started. As he is quoted in the new book about his administration:
"It's not as if we were a band of zealots that came into the governorship and said if we just do A and B and C, everything will be fine. We learned as we went along, and in fact, I think our biggest weakness was we didn't have all these ideas in our heads in 1977. It took until '78, '79 before we kind of got there."
Du Pont still keeps an office at Richards Layton & Finger, the Wilmington law firm where he settled after leaving the governorship and running for president in 1988. (It took an optimist to make that campaign. Du Pont ran as a change agent in a stay-the-course year, and it did not help, as he drolly said of himself, that he was an ex-governor with a funny French name from a small Eastern state.)
The office is on Rodney Square, and from the window, du Pont can see the past and the present converge. There is the enduring statue of Caesar Rodney, the DuPont headquarters and banks.
The future is waiting symbolically on his desk. It is a paperweight, a rock, with a single word etched into it -- "believe." That is bedrock du Pont, and it works.