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The Man Who Was Everywhere

The serendipitous political career of Harris Wofford

Courtesy of Harris Wofford

History will show that Harris Wofford did not split the wood that blazed during Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats. He had no hand in Watergate or in Iran-Contra, nor did he pilot the fighter jet that deposited George W. Bush on the deck of the aircraft carrier from which he declared, “Mission Accomplished.” But these are the exceptions. Pick pretty much any other major chapter from the last 80 or so years of the American political story, and there’s a shockingly good chance that Wofford played a role—tangential or central, onstage or off, but always, somehow or some way, in it.

“Have you heard this one before?” Wofford asks before launching into an offhand anecdote that, in the course of its unspooling, will include Shirley Temple, Clare Boothe Luce, John Kennedy, and, naturally, himself. It’s an autumn afternoon and Wofford is sitting in the living room of his tidy, one-bedroom apartment on the edge of Rock Creek Park. He has a sallow face and bushy eyebrows that lend him an owlish countenance; when recalling particularly painful memories—the political defeats, the assassinations of friends, the death of his wife—he squints and his hazel eyes cloud over. But these moments quickly pass. Talking about his career, Wofford doesn’t project gravitas so much as bemusement, as if he still can’t quite believe the things he has seen, or the unexpected, even magical, consequences of his actions. “In my life, accident has been crucial,” he says. “One accident after another.” Now, at 88 years old, he badly wants to make sense of them all.

Wofford’s story begins with the accident of his birth—to a wealthy and prominent Southern family who, by dint of his father’s work in the insurance industry, got plopped down in Scarsdale, New York. In 1937, when Wofford was eleven, his widowed grandmother from Arkansas invited him to accompany her on a six-month tour around the world. Traveling by freighter, the pair spent Christmas Eve in Bethlehem and visited Shanghai months after the Imperial Japanese Army had ransacked the city; in Rome, he watched Benito Mussolini announce Italy’s withdrawal from the League of Nations. “There was a fascist torchlight parade afterwards,” Wofford recalls, “so this was my seventh grade.” But the most momentous stop of his voyage came in India, where he became fascinated with Mahatma Gandhi and his philosophy of nonviolence. What started as a boyhood curiosity ended up changing the course of Wofford’s life, and countless others.

As an idealistic high schooler, he founded a group called the Student Federalists, which advocated for united world government. The organization grew so big—1,000 members from 30 chapters—that by the time he was 18, Newsweek predicted he’d one day be president. After serving in the Army Air Corps and graduating from the University of Chicago, Wofford, accompanied by his new wife, Clare, returned to India on a fellowship to conduct a more serious study of his hero, who’d been assassinated the previous year. During Wofford’s time there, Gandhi’s disciples frequently asked him about the nascent civil rights movement back in the United States—and when Wofford returned to his home country, he immersed himself in it.

He became the first white student to enroll at Howard University Law School since female suffragists had attended in the 1910s—a decision that so upset his grandmother she beseeched him, “You can go there to teach them, to help them, but you can’t go and be a student with them.” (The fact that Wofford spent his third year of law school at—and ultimately graduated from—Yale would be small comfort.) In 1951, he hosted one of the Gandhi disciples, Ram Manohar Lohia, on a tour of the American South. They visited the Highlander Folk School, the Tennessee retreat where many civil rights activists learned to confront oppression, and Lohia was surprised to discover that civil disobedience was not on the curriculum. He convinced school officials to change that. Four years after Wofford and Lohia’s visit, a seamstress from Montgomery, Alabama, named Rosa Parks attended Highlander; a few months later, back in Montgomery, she engaged in her own Gandhian act of civil disobedience by refusing to give up her seat on a city bus.

The Montgomery bus boycott brought Martin Luther King Jr. to the attention of Wofford, who by then was practicing law at white-shoe Covington & Burling in Washington. He wrote King several letters on the importance of Gandhian civil disobedience; when those entreaties failed to elicit a satisfactory response, Wofford began showing up at King’s Northern speaking events, finally seizing his attention in Baltimore, where Wofford successfully pitched him on traveling to India. Chauffeuring King to Washington later that day, Wofford and the minister sat in front and talked about Gandhi while Clare and Coretta Scott King conversed in the backseat. At one point, Wofford recalls, “We heard Coretta say, ‘Clare, ever since Martin chose this course, I’ve had nightmares that he’s going to be killed.’ King turned around and said, ‘Corey, get that nightmare out of your head.’”

Around the same time that Wofford was courting King, John F. Kennedy was courting Wofford. The two first met in 1947, at a lawn party thrown at the Connecticut home of Clare Boothe Luce; neither man had impressed the other. “He had a beautiful woman on each arm,” Wofford recalls, “and he listened to me for about two minutes maybe and then he said, ‘Right now I’ve got my eyes on tennis,’ and departed.” But a dozen years later, when Kennedy was getting ready to run for president, he recognized Wofford’s value. Kennedy ultimately persuaded Wofford to join his presidential campaign and work with Sargent Shriver on courting the “Negro vote.”

Harris Wofford with Bill Clinton and Al Gore in the Oval Office in 1995.
Courtesy of Harris Wofford

It was a tricky assignment. Just days before the election King was thrown in a Georgia jail for driving with an out-of-state license. Coretta feared for her husband’s life and begged Wofford to get Kennedy to intervene with Georgia’s Democratic governor. Kennedy’s other advisers blanched at that notion, fearful that such a move would cost him the support of Southern whites. But behind those advisers’s backs, Wofford, working with Shriver, prevailed upon Kennedy to make a private phone call to Coretta to express his concern. The call prompted Martin Luther King Sr., who’d endorsed Richard Nixon on account of his suspicion of Kennedy’s Catholicism, to switch his endorsement to Kennedy; and when Coretta told a reporter that Kennedy had contacted her, the news swept across black neighborhoods—assisted by pamphlets touting the call bought and distributed by the Kennedy campaign. In the end, many people, including Nixon himself, attributed Kennedy’s narrow victory to his overwhelming share of the black vote. The day after the election, Nixon’s African American chauffeur told the defeated candidate, “Mr. Vice President, I can’t tell you how sick I am about the way my people voted in the election.” Nixon replied, “If there was any fault involved it was not with your people; it was mine, in failing to get my point of view across to them.”

After this success, Wofford settled into his very particular role—a figure of the establishment who always sought out ways to undermine it. (Robert Kennedy once called him “a slight madman.”) He took a job in the Kennedy administration and helped Shriver found the Peace Corps. He participated in the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965 and got arrested at the Chicago convention in 1968. He also served two stints as a college president—first at Old Westbury, the experimental New York college devoted to giving students more of a say, and when that ran off the rails, at the venerable women’s college Bryn Mawr.

The whole time, Wofford often thought about running for office, but the right opportunity never presented itself. Then, in May 1991, Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey, one of his old law partners, appointed him to the U.S. Senate after John Heinz was killed in a plane crash. With a special election scheduled six months later, it was assumed that Wofford’s stay on Capitol Hill would be short; a Democrat hadn’t won a Pennsylvania Senate seat in 20 years. But Wofford, relying on a pair of young, unheralded political consultants named James Carville and Paul Begala, ran a populist campaign that focused on the economy and health care reform. The day after he won, he received a congratulatory phone call from Bill Clinton, who was about to embark on his presidential race. “What about this Ragin’ Cajun I’ve been reading about?” Clinton asked Wofford. “Should I meet him and consider him for our campaign?”

Pretty soon, both Wofford and Clinton were being dogged by a rejuvenated Republican Party, and when a young politician named Rick Santorum challenged Wofford for his Senate seat in 1994, Wofford knew that, for one of the first times in his life, historical currents were pushing against him. “I remember being impressed by his demagoguery,” Wofford says. The next ten years were relatively uneventful by Wofford-ian standards—Clinton tapped him to run AmeriCorps; he and Colin Powell led a group that promoted volunteerism. Then, in 2005, he met Barack Obama. The freshman senator had been assigned Wofford’s old desk on the Senate floor—a good enough excuse for the two of them to strike up a friendship. In 2008, when his presidential campaign faced a crisis over inflammatory remarks by his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, Obama gave his now-famous race speech in Philadelphia. The person he chose to introduce him that day: Harris Wofford.

Back in his apartment, Wofford slowly walks me over to a wall decorated with photos of all the people we’ve been talking about—King linking arms with protesters in Chicago, Kennedy addressing Peace Corps volunteers at the White House. Every one of the pictures, he explains, is connected to another one. That’s how he has come to understand not just his life, but life—that the seeming randomness of experience isn’t random at all. “I’ve been thinking a lot lately about causal chains,” Wofford says. “If I hadn’t taken Ram Manohar Lohia to Highlander, there wouldn’t have been a Rosa Parks who went to jail; there wouldn’t have been a Martin Luther King to put in jail; and there wouldn’t have been a phone call to Coretta for Kennedy to make.” He pauses and, for a moment, his eyes again grow cloudy again. “If you remove just one link from the chain, even one that seems insignificant, you can change the whole course of history.”