On the morning of his Commonwealth’s 1992 presidential primary, I got a telephone call from Pennsylvania Governor Robert P. Casey, a man whose pro–life record I knew and admired, but whom I had never met. A mutual friend had given him a copy of a talk I had presented to the Catholic bishops criticizing the proposition that one can legitimately be “personally opposed” to abortion while supporting its legal permission and even public funding.
The Governor, intending a compliment (I think), was calling to say that I had demonstrated rigorously what was, to him, hardly in need of formal demonstration, namely, that excluding the unborn from the legal protections against arbitrary killing that the rest of us enjoy is a sin against the principle of equality.
As the Governor saw it, elementary justice demands that all human beings, without regard to age, size, stage of development, or condition of dependency, be accorded the equal protection of the law. Like the prohibition of slavery, the restriction of abortion is a civil rights issue. Abortion is no more a matter of “freedom of choice” than was slavery a matter of “property rights” or segregation a matter of “freedom of association.”
I asked Casey whether he was lonely being a pro–life Democrat. “Not,” he replied, “as lonely as you must be being a pro–life Ivy League professor.” I knew I was going to like this guy. “By embracing abortion,” the Governor said, “the Democratic Party is abandoning the principle that made it great: its basic commitment to protecting the weakest and most vulnerable members of the human family.”
A few months later, despite his achievements as the two–term Governor of the nation’s fifth largest state, the Democratic Party would, to its eternal shame, deny him the right to speak at its national convention. The Clinton Democrats would permit no expression of dissent on the question of killing the unborn.
For half an hour our telephone discussion continued, moving back and forth between the social and political dimensions of the abortion question and its scientific and philosophical aspects. The humanity of the unborn child was a matter not of religious dogma, he observed, but of biological fact. The pro–abortion mentality that had taken root in the elite sector of American culture, and was now firmly in control of the apparatus of his party, was, he declared, a manifestation of what he called the “Cult of the Imperial Self.”
Casey was a realist. He was keenly aware that politics could not, by itself, accomplish the cultural renewal that was needed to restore a vision of the common good that included respect for the sanctity of innocent human life. But he was persuaded—and it is clearer today than ever that he was right—that political action is an indispensable ingredient in the struggle.
Finally, I said that I had better let him go. “Surely,” I thought to myself, “the Governor of Pennsylvania has more pressing things to do on the morning of his state’s presidential primary than chat with a professor.” But he wanted to keep talking—though not, as I learned when I tried to shift the conversation to the politics of the day, about the primary election. It was clear that Bill Clinton was going to win in Pennsylvania, and that he would go on to obtain the Democratic nomination. The Governor was resigned to it, but not happy: “Clinton’s a shrewd and capable politician,” he said, “but not a man you can respect.” Casey knew what the rest of us would soon discover.
A week or so later, he called back: “I’d like you to do me a favor: Could you organize a group of pro–life thinkers to get together with me and some other people I’d like to invite to think about a strategy for moving the pro–life cause forward? We can meet here in the Governor’s mansion in Harrisburg.” I rounded up a number of friends: Bill Porth, Rabbi Marc Gellman, Hadley Arkes of Amherst, Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard, Jim Kurth of Swarthmore, Elizabeth Fox–Genovese of Emory, and Rabbi David Novak, then of the University of Virginia. Not long after, the first of what turned into a series of meetings took place. Later sessions would include political types: the Governor brought in Sargent and Eunice Kennedy Shriver and a few other pro–life Democrats; I brought in Jeffrey Bell and Frank Cannon.
Bell and Cannon, though themselves long–time Republican activists, conceived the idea that the pro–life movement should get behind Casey in a primary challenge to Clinton in 1996. But then tragedy struck: the Governor’s health, which had been fragile for several years, went into a sharp decline. To save his life, a rare heart and liver transplant would be required. The idea of a Casey presidential candidacy was put on the shelf.
By late 1994, however, the Governor’s truly miraculous recovery enabled him to return to politics. His brush with death only strengthened his resolve to fight for the right to life of the unborn. Three weeks before that year’s congressional elections, he spoke to a group in Washington that I was also addressing. He had not lost any of his political acumen: “There is an earthquake coming in a few weeks,” he predicted. “If you’re a politician, you can taste it in the air; any politician who can’t taste it is in the wrong business.” The “earthquake,” which almost none of his fellow politicians managed to “taste” in advance, came in the form of a Republican takeover of Congress.
In the aftermath of the “earthquake,” Casey saw an opportunity for a pro–life Democrat to take a shot at Clinton in 1996. He took his own experience of electoral success in Pennsylvania to mean, as he often put it, that “a qualified pro–life Democratic presidential candidate can’t lose.” In his 1990 reelection as Governor, for example, he had crushed Barbara Hafer, a well–known and credible pro–choice Republican woman, in an extraordinary landslide—carrying sixty–six of the state’s sixty–seven counties and winning by more than a million votes. What became clear almost immediately, however, was that Casey alone among the country’s remaining handful of pro–life Democratic officeholders possessed the standing and will to take on Clinton and the party establishment. The question was: Would health concerns rule out a presidential campaign?
Casey was once again prepared to give it a shot. He formed a presidential campaign “exploratory committee,” calling on Jeff Bell and Frank Cannon to run it. I had told the Governor about my brilliant Princeton colleague John DiIulio, a pro–life Democrat and perhaps the most sought after public policy analyst in American politics. “Sounds like my kind of man,” the Governor said. “Ask him to call me.” I was far from sure that John could be persuaded to join us. “He is likely to think this effort is quixotic and crazy,” I told the Governor. “Have him call me,” Casey repeated. DiIulio’s reaction was the opposite of what I had feared it would be. “Bob Casey? He’s my hero,” DiIulio said. “Just ask him what my assignment is.”
DiIulio’s “assignment” was to become (with me) codirector of the campaign’s “issues committee.” We signed on a number of notable academics and public policy analysts and began putting together a program that would be, in its social, economic, and foreign policy dimensions, truly pro–life, pro–family, and pro–poor.
Casey had always been a mainstream Democrat. While morally and culturally conservative, he often looked for governmental solutions to social and economic problems that conservatives think can best be addressed by private initiative. He loathed the elements of economic libertarianism that manifest a Social Darwinist, “devil take the hindmost” (as he invariably described it) view of politics and human relations. “This,” he insisted, “is how the Cult of the Imperial Self manifests itself in Republican circles.” Under the influence of his new band of associates, however, he began to consider that some of the ends he sought could better be attained by means that did not involve the creation and maintenance of large governmental bureaucracies.
Casey became interested in neoconservative ideas, particularly the thought of Irving Kristol. His comfort level was increased, I must say, by the insight that much in neoconservatism harmonizes with the tradition of Catholic social thought—particularly its emphasis on the idea of “subsidiarity.” In 1996, he wrote: “Conservatives have a point about some functions of government, and it counts in part for their electoral success. . . . All the money in the world will not solve America’s deeper social problems.” Like Kristol, Casey knew that the “deeper problems” were fundamentally moral, not economic.
Casey’s presidential “exploratory committee” was encouraged by two early developments: first, the Governor, despite his outspokenness on behalf of the unborn, was being treated by the media with great respect; second, our initial fund–raising efforts made clear that we would be able to support a serious challenge to Clinton. Then came the blow: three weeks into the venture, it became clear to the Governor and his family that he simply lacked the stamina to continue the effort. It would have to fold, this time for good.
Governor Casey continued to speak out for the pro–life cause and made the promotion of adoption as the loving alternative to abortion a centerpiece of his efforts. He helped his eldest son Bobby get elected to statewide office as Auditor General (a position he had himself held before becoming governor) and looked forward to the prospect of some of his younger sons entering electoral politics. He enjoyed spending time with his beloved wife Ellen and their enormous clan of children and grandchildren. John Wauck captured the thought of many of us who have known the Casey family: “They are the G–rated version of the Kennedys.”
In the aftermath of the Governor’s heart and liver transplant, the New York Times referred to him as a “folk hero” for his courage and determination. It was a status he had earned long before the surgery.
In 1990, James Carville, who was running Casey’s reelection campaign, pleaded with him to modify his position on abortion. (Surely by then Carville should have known better than to try; but, I suppose, in the heat of a campaign he forgot that he was working for a man of principle.) As Casey was preparing for a televised debate with Ms. Hafer, Carville bluntly told him that if he did not give in on the question of permitting abortion in cases of rape and incest he would lose the election. “If that’s true,” the Governor replied, “then I’ll just have to accept defeat.” Casey did not need polls, focus groups, or handlers to tell him what to think or say. Carville would have had more luck trying to move the Rock of Gibraltar. Casey was a fierce competitor who had lost elections earlier in his career, and he hated losing. But the prospect of winning with the blood of abortion’s victims on his hands had no appeal to him whatsoever.
He often remarked that “paid operatives speak for the abortion industry, feminist zealots purport to speak for women, population controllers claim to speak for the planet—I speak for the child.” So he did. In so doing, he also spoke for the basic American principle of “equal justice for all.”
Henry Hyde, a man of like stature in the other party, once paid tribute to Casey: “The Democrats say they speak for ‘the little guy’; Bob Casey speaks for the littlest guy of all—the unborn child.”
With the Governor’s death on May 30, the pro–life movement has lost a champion, the Democratic Party its conscience, and American politics a model of principled statesmanship. Requiescat in pace.
Robert P. George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University.