Illustration by Tom Labaff
Once upon a time, there were three giants who lived in Delaware. Their names were Carvel, Williams and Boggs, but nobody called them that. People here knew them as Big Bert, Honest John and Cale. Big Bert—Elbert N. Carvel, that is—was the Democratic governor. He was 6-foot-6 with a voice like a hoarse foghorn and a Santa Claus twinkle in his eye, particularly when he was tweaking upstaters, as only a downstater can. Big Bert lived in Laurel himself. “As we all know,” he would respond, whenever upstaters complained they had to drive south, “it’s twice as far from Wilmington to Seaford as it is from Seaford to Wilmington!”
Honest John was John J. Williams, a Republican senator. He was a feed dealer who vaulted from the Millsboro Town Council to the U.S. Senate, where his innate sense of honesty made him so fearless in standing up to corruption, he came to be known as the “Conscience of the Senate.” Honest John spoke in such a little, wavery tone, he acquired still another nickname as “Whispering Willie.” Like Carvel, he had a downhome funny bone. He asked people who wrote to him in Washington at the Senate Office Building to please spell it out, so he would not be embarrassed by mail addressed to “John J. Williams, S.O.B.”
Cale—formally J. Caleb Boggs—was a Republican congressman, governor and senator. His state loved him. He was unassuming and friendly and had a knack for making anyone and everyone feel as if he knew them personally. John Rollins, a business powerhouse who was his lieutenant governor for a term, once said, “Cale Boggs is the epitome of what the people want. If you asked Cale Boggs to stop on the train in Baltimore and pick you up a hoagie sandwich, he’d say, ‘Yup, yup, yup, yup, do you want peppers on it?’”
Big Bert and Honest John and Cale tended diligently to Delaware’s needs for 25 years or so from the end of World War II on. They were there as Hurricane Hazel smote the state and JFK was assassinated and the Civil Rights Movement unsettled life as they knew it. Giants cannot last forever. One day, time passed by Big Bert and Honest John and Cale and their political skills. They faded amid the overwhelming distress of the war in Vietnam, the Days of Rage and a strangling economy. The Watergate scandal was not far off.
It did not look like they were leaving much behind to pick up where they left off—a junior congressman, a kid senator and another senator who acted like he was such a nobody that people would not remember him without his trademark Saint Bernard and an enormous campaign button with big letters to say who he was. Their names were du Pont, Biden and Roth, but that is not what they were called, because it turned out they were giants, too. Who could have known? In the small-state ways of Delaware, people knew them as Pete and Joe and, well, Bill Roth. Somehow Bill Roth was always just Bill Roth. Maybe he really did need the dog and the campaign button.
Pete shared one of the most famous names in state history. That would be Pierre S. du Pont. The first Pierre was the French immigrant who settled here in 1800 to put the Revolution and Napoleon behind him. Pete was Pierre IV. After a start as an undistinguished Republican congressman, Pete found his calling as governor and accomplished through politics what earlier du Ponts did through business. Pete remade Delaware. He righted the state’s finances, cut taxes, eased into school desegregation without violence and revived the economy, turning its “three C’s” of chemicals, chickens and corporate law into “four C’s” by adding the credit-card industry.
As for Joe—that would be Joseph R. Biden Jr.—maybe people should have known he would be a giant, because he got going as a giant killer. After two years in politics as a 29-year-old Democrat on the New Castle County Council, Joe took away Cale’s seat in the Senate. It was the sort of thing that gets someone labeled “presidential material” right away. Over three-and-a-half decades, the chairmanship of the Senate’s Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees and two failed presidential campaigns, it did not get Joe to president, but it did get him to vice president. No Delawarean ever did better.
Bill Roth—shorthand for William V. Roth Jr.—had the distinction of becoming a household name across the country. As a Republican senator, he became famous for the Roth IRA and the Roth-Kemp tax cut (although being Bill Roth, he was fated to see the tax cut generally called Kemp-Roth with the top billing going outside of Delaware to the flashier Jack Kemp, the star-quarterback-turned-Republican-congressman.) The Roth IRA and the Roth-Kemp tax cut made for an impressive legacy. As Pete put it, “That’s two political victories in a lifetime. That’s very unusual.”
Pete and Joe and Bill Roth did not stand alone for long. Politics filled in behind them. Along came Castle and Carper, known Delaware-style as Mike and Tom, their given names being Michael N. Castle and Thomas R. Carper. They became linked forever by a famous job swap, assisted by the voters, to switch Mike from the Republican governor to congressman and Tom from Democratic congressman to governor. With such a strong contingent in place, Delaware experienced political peace in their time. It lasted until the end of the 20th century, and then the changes came. Pete left politics after a stab at running for president, Tom bested Bill Roth for senator, Joe went off to be the vice president, and Mike was bewitched at a Tea Party.
Now the state stands at a crossroads—in politics, business, law and academics. There has to be a new governor because Jack Markell, the Democrat holding the office now, runs up against the two-term limit next year. Wilmington has been shaken by violence, and the entire state embarrassed, when Newsweek belittled the city as “Murder Town USA.”
The DuPont Company has split with all the shock of an atom blowing apart. The courts, which bring in all those corporate dollars, just underwent a total overhaul with new leadership still establishing itself on the Supreme Court, the Court of Chancery and the Superior Court. The University of Delaware needs a new president, and Delaware Tech just got one.
Once upon a time, there were giants who lived in Delaware. It could stand to be home to some new ones.