Thornburgh, Richard Lewis

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Thornburgh, Richard Lewis

Richard Lewis Thornburgh served as U.S. attorney general from 1988 to 1991, working for the Reagan and Bush administrations. A former governor of Pennsylvania, Thornburgh put a strong emphasis on criminal enforcement during his tenure and moved away from the ideological social issues favored by his predecessor, edwin meese iii.

Thornburgh was born on July 16, 1932, in Carnegie, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Yale University with an engineering degree in 1954 and earned a law degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1957. After his admission to the Pennsylvania bar in 1958, he joined the Pittsburgh law firm of Kirkpatrick, Lockhart, Johnson, and Hutchinson.

In 1969 President richard m. nixon appointed Thornburgh U.S. attorney for western Pennsylvania. He served as U.S. attorney until 1975, when he joined the Justice Department as an assistant attorney general. As head of the department's criminal division, Thornburgh was instrumental in setting up the public integrity section that investigated alleged improprieties by department personnel.

"This collective amnesia that seems to affect the White House staff would concern me if I were the president."
—Richard Thornburgh

After leaving office in 1977, Thornburgh returned to the Kirkpatrick law firm in Pittsburgh, but he was intent on beginning a political career. In 1978 he was elected governor of Pennsylvania, an office he held until 1987. In his early days as governor, Thornburgh was thrust into the national limelight. The nuclear accident at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power plant in the spring of 1979 set off a wave of panic in Pennsylvania. Thornburgh was credited with bringing calm to the state. In July 1988 President ronald reagan appointed Thornburgh U.S. attorney general, succeeding Edwin Meese. Meese had become a controversial figure in the Reagan administration. He had stressed social issues such as Abortion and Pornography and had pushed for an end to Affirmative Action. Meese also had come under scrutiny for possible criminal conflict-of-interest charges. He resigned only after an Independent Counsel declined to file criminal charges.

Taking office under these circumstances, Thornburgh sought to restore integrity and credibility to the department. During the last months of the Reagan administration, he moved to revitalize management of the department, refocus its energies on prosecuting crimes involving guns or drugs, and aggressively pursue white-collar criminals.

His early months in office convinced President george h. w. bush to reappoint Thornburgh attorney general. His tenure in the Bush administration drew criticism from some conservative groups for his prosecution of environmental crimes and for his strong enforcement of Civil Rights protection for disabled persons. Within the department, his management style provoked criticism. Career department officials called him aloof and alleged that he employed political partisanship in the administration of justice.

Thornburgh resigned as attorney general in July 1991 to run for the U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania in a special election. Harris Wofford, his Democratic opponent, had been appointed senator to fill the seat until the special election. At the beginning of the campaign, Thornburgh enjoyed a 40-point lead in the opinion polls. Wofford, however, argued that the country needed a national Health Insurance system and reminded voters of the economy, which was in recession. Thornburgh's lead crumbled. Wofford easily defeated him, earning 55 percent of the vote to Thornburgh's 45 percent.

In 1992 President Bush appointed Thornburgh undersecretary general of the United Nations, a position he held until 1993. Thornburgh rejoined the Kirkpatrick law firm's Washington, D.C., office and served as a legal commentator on several television network news and talk shows. His autobiography was published in 2003.

Further readings

Ford, Daniel. 1986. Meltdown. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Thornburgh, Dick. 2003. Where the Evidence Leads: An Autobiography. Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press.


Affirmative Action; Meese, Edwin, III; Nixon, Richard Milhous.