100 Years on the Front Lines of History
If the filmmaker putting the finishing touches on a biopic about former Sen. Harris L. Wofford had waited for the lifelong activist to hang it up before rolling tape, the forthcoming documentary might never have gotten made.
The Pennsylvania Democrat, who is poised to join the nonagenarian set in a few weeks (April 9, to be exact), shows no signs of slowing down, doggedly championing progressive policies — like he did in 1936 while distributing campaign materials for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first re-election push — same as he has for going on a century.
“So it’s been a very long road that I’m enjoying,” he said of a personal drive that’s kept him on the front lines of modern history.
In It to Win It
According to Jacob Finkel, director of the aforementioned film and founder of the Corporation for Civic Documentaries, shining a light on Wofford’s far-reaching career — from helping shape the course of the Civil Rights movement to ongoing efforts to bolster volunteerism — seemed like a civic duty itself.
“I want more people to know about the unheralded impact Harris Wofford has had… It’s a story more people in this country should be aware of,” Finkel said of the feature-length flick he hopes to unveil in the coming months.
Wofford’s time on Capitol Hill may have been brief, but he said he tried to make the most of it.
Originally appointed by Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey in early 1991 to fill the vacancy left by the death of Sen. John Heinz, R-Pa., Wofford that fall mounted a campaign to formally serve out the rest of Heinz’s third term.
As chronicled in “The Road to Nowhere: The Genesis of President Clinton’s Plan for Health Security,” a pair of Democratic strategists — namely James Carville and Paul Begala — hatched a risky plan to propel their guy past GOP front-runner Richard Thornburgh: Promise the public universal health care.
“National health care reform … it’s definitely the long bomb, the Hail Mary,” Carville theorized, per Jacob Hacker’s book. “But it’s a pretty damn good Hail Mary.”
The ploy worked.
Wofford scored a come-from-behind victory and poured himself into fulfilling the lofty goal.
Senate Republicans, he soon discovered, had no such interest in the goal.
“Health care was a total fiasco and a complete failure,” Wofford conceded.
Wofford did manage to move other priorities through the closely divided 102nd Congress, but was still swept out of office in November 1994 by conservative firebrand Rep. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.
Georgia Democrat John Lewis told Roll Call he’ll forever treasure working with Wofford on enshrining the birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a national day of service.
“It made King’s birthday a day on, instead of a day off,” Lewis said of the collaboration.
Leading By Example
The King Act was a fitting bookend to the pro-equality mission he’d set out on decades before.
Finkel said part of what attracted him to Wofford in the first place was his involvement in one of the defining moments of the 1960s: encouraging then-Sen. John F. Kennedy to console Coretta Scott King while her husband languished in a Georgia jail.
Lewis remembers the politically charged incident — which played out amidst the Kennedy-Richard Nixon election — quite vividly.
“At that time in the South, many African-Americans were legacy Republicans, dating back to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Sr., the father of Dr. King, who we referred to as “Daddy King,” was one of them,” Lewis said of the environment that Wofford, then working as an adviser to Kennedy, was confronted with. “When he was told that Senator Kennedy had called his son’s wife, he said, ‘Tell the young senator from Boston that I have a suitcase full of votes for him.’ The message went out among black leaders all over the country, as far away as New York and Detroit.”
“That was a very close election,” Lewis recalled. “But it is was the African-American vote that made the difference for Kennedy.”
Finkel remains captivated by everything that’s transpired since.
“He made the suggestion that won John Kennedy the 1960 election and has been a leading force in the service movement since his work helping to start the Peace Corps,” Finkel said of the wealth of life experiences he’s had the opportunity to explore.
In addition to Wofford, Finkel turned the camera on a who’s who of Wofford’s contemporaries: Lewis, Carville, former President George H.W. Bush, former Sens. Santorum and Tom Daschle, D-S.D., Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, Gen. Colin Powell and other powerful figures.
Daschle and Casey also helped promote the film, co-hosting a November 2015 screening at the E Street Cinema in Washington, attended by former Sen. Charles S. Robb, D-Va., and 150-some supporters similarly interested in seeing the project reach fruition. Media personality Bill Moyers oversaw a second showing in January in New York City.
Wofford described the mini-previews — “I’ve only seen the 15 minutes that were shown at the events in D.C. and New York,” he explained — as “amazingly successful.” According to Finkel, the twin fundraisers exceeded the $100,000 originally sought to help polish the nearly completed project.
The original plan, Finkel said, was to try and release the film ahead of Wofford’s 90th birthday. He now expects to roll everything out later this summer.
Wofford prefers to view the minor delay as a motivational tool.
“Jacob and I are in a little competition,” Wofford quipped, noting that he’s striving to turn in a draft of his memoirs this fall.
Ever the optimist, Wofford implored leaders, from the 45th president on down, to get serious about the environment.
“The climate crisis for the whole planet calls for American leaders’ help to continue,” he counseled. Wofford praised President Barack Obama for keeping climate change in the public consciousness (“Those strides are just the beginning,” he said) but estimated that there’s plenty of work still to be done.
Wofford intends to do his part by keeping to a time-honored tradition: comparing notes with those across the aisle. The veteran pol said the late Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., told him that the best way to connect with those in the other party was to commune with them at the weekly prayer breakfast — sage advice he’s followed for the past 25 years.
“I go to the Senate prayer breakfast almost every Wednesday,” Wofford said.
For him, the informal get-together is all about open communication.
“It’s not a place where you do political argument. It’s where you become personal,” he stated. “It’s an oasis of civility.”
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