National Catholic Register

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This Politician Needs a Party

BY Bill Murray

July 7, 1996 Issue | Posted 7/7/96 at 2:00 AM

 

Fighting for Life, by Gov. Robert P. Casey (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1996, 255 pp., $22)

BY ROOTING out corruption and observing the law, Robert Casey built a good name for himself as a two-term auditor general for Pennsylvania from 1969-1977. Other Robert Caseys, however, profited from his good name.

In 1974, a register of wills named Robert E. Casey spent very little money to win the state treasurer's office in Pennsylvania. Then, in 1978, a Robert P. Casey from Pittsburgh, Pa. who taught biology and owned an ice cream store ran for lieutenant governor and a Robert J. Casey from the Pittsburgh area ran for Congress.

The confusion of Pennsylvania's voters helped to torpedo two of Casey's three tries for Pennsylvania's governorship. He refused to give up, however. And since Casey triumphed in 1986 and was reelected in 1990 as Pennsylvania's governor, he has built such a solid name for himself—not only in that state, but also among many Catholics and pro-life advocates nationwide—that nowadays theBob Casey is rarely confused with pale imitations.

Such stories, recounted in Casey's new autobiography, Fighting for Life, show him to be a man who has fought against long odds and, for the most part, won. The book makes for compelling reading as it weaves Casey's family life, health struggles and political career together.

Casey alternates chapters of his family and his political career with those of his struggle to survive and recover from a heart and liver transplant in 1993. The structure, which he credits to his son Chris, adds to the book's drama and makes it difficult to put down.

Casey's spouse, Ellen, and his father, Alphonsus, figure prominently in the book. Alphonsus grew up working in the coal mines of Pennsylvania but eventually graduated from college and earned a law degree at age 40. Through his example of hard work and emphasis on virtue, he taught his son to be a Christian gentleman with genuine concern for the underdogs in society.

Robert Casey and Ellen have eight children. The ex-governor writes that from the time he met her in high school his wife has been an anchor. Her successful battle with cancer in 1978 seems to fore-shadow his later triumph over severe health problems.

Like many Catholics, Casey never drew great attention to his faith in God. He just practiced it and served as a good example for others. Later in his life, though, the abortion issue compelled Casey to take a leadership role in a faith-driven cause, and his faith came out front and center.

For example, he writes how he and his wife didn't “plan” to have eight children, to run for the governor's office four times, or to live in the same house for more than 30 years. But Casey's openness to God's will and to taking chances helped set him apart from the vast majority of U.S. politicians.

Casey demonstrates a keen appreciation for the role of providence and the irony in his life. He writes at length about Dr. Tom Starzl, the surgeon who saved his life, and about Michael Lucas, the young man who died in a shooting and became Casey's organ donor.

Casey understands that hundreds—if not thousands—of strangers prayed for him during his operation and recovery, and that his life was saved by strangers. He also points out that organ bank officials did not give his request any special treatment, even though he was the governor of the nation's fifth-largest state.

For much of the book's second half, Casey writes about his struggles for the pro-life cause. He writes that he will always remain a Democrat, but acknowledges the chasm between him and his party on the abortion issue. While Casey may have fit squarely in the Democratic party 30 years ago because of his commitment to the family and to workers, his staunch leadership in the pro-life cause has made him an anomaly today.

Casey's retelling of the 1992 Democratic convention is particularly striking. After winning reelection in 1990 by the largest landslide in Pennsylvania gubernatorial history—approximately one million votes—Casey asked to speak at his party's presidential convention. The party snubbed him, insulting him further by neither answering him directly nor giving reasons for the refusal. Furthermore, the Democrats allowed a leading pro-choice supporter of Casey's 1990 Republican opponent—who had made abortion a leading issue in that campaign—to speak at the convention.

While some may label Casey's crusade for the unborn as obsessive, the ex-governor shows the flip side of the coin—that the Democratic party's aggressive pro-abortion stance is at odds with its historical mandate to help society's weakest members.

Though Casey's health has kept him from challenging President Clinton for the presidency, his story makes one hope that a young Casey-like Democrat will emerge from the ranks to give pro-life Democrats someone to rally behind and lead the party to where it belongs on the abortion issue.

Bill Murray is based in Rockville, Maryland.