The death two days ago of William W. Scranton at 96 inspired the media to recall his illustrious career as a decorated U.S. Army Air Force officer in World War II, congressman, governor, and candidate for the Republican nomination for president in 1964.
After his one term as Pennsylvania governor, which the Pittsburgh Press hailed as one "of few shortcomings and many accomplishments," Scranton announced: "I am not going to run, ever again, for any public office, under any circumstances." He did, however, serve a year as ambassador to the United Nations after being appointed in 1975 by President Gerald Ford.
But one part of Bill Scranton's career that is almost never reported is that he declined a position with more power and prestige than any he was appointed or elected to: that of secretary of state.
Following Richard Nixon's election as president in 1968, his "first choice" to be secretary of state was Scranton, noted the late columnist Robert Novak.
Scranton's "abiding interest in world affairs and forceful personality made him a strong prospect for the post and eminently acceptable to the foreign policy establishment," according to Novak.
Before his election to Congress in 1960, Scranton had served as a special assistant to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and, Theodore White wrote in "The Making of the President 1964," "had a finesse in his conversation about foreign affairs that came not only from reading but from an understanding of reality."
Nixon dispatched Scranton on a fact-finding trip to the Middle East and, upon his return, the Pennsylvanian seemed poised to be offered the top position in Nixon's Cabinet.
New York lawyer Herbert Brownell, campaign manager for Thomas Dewey's presidential campaign in 1948 and attorney general under Dwight Eisenhower, was sent by Nixon to sound out Scranton.
"But Scranton sensed what Brownell was up to," recalled Novak, "and not wanting the president-elect to be put in the position of being refused, stopped him before the question was asked. Under no condition, said Scranton, would he accept any full-time job in any administration — not Nixon's, not anybody's."
In an interview with this reporter in 2008 from his home in Scranton, Pa., — the town founded by his family — the former governor, still sharp and alert at 91, confirmed how the office of secretary of state was put before him and he said no.
"Quite honestly, I didn't want to work under Richard Nixon," said Scranton. He remembered, shortly after returning from his trip to the Middle East, he and his wife Mary met with the president-elect on a train.
It became obvious to Scranton that Nixon, in his words, "was going to be his own secretary of state and make all of the major decisions from the White House."
Nixon did precisely that, with the help of an assistant who would soon become the second-most powerful figure on foreign policy. Henry Kissinger, as national security adviser, overshadowed Secretary of State William Rogers, who had little background in foreign policy.
Scranton would eventually soften his position on taking "any full time job in any administration" when he accepted Ford's offer to be UN ambassador.
As to what kind of secretary of state he would have been, Novak felt that because he was "fiercely independent," Bill Scranton would have been a "forceful figure at the State Department and a dominant personality in the Cabinet."
But given the opportunity, he passed on one of the highest appointments that a president can make because it wasn't the right fit.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax
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