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Politics still part of Thornburgh's life

With the 1994 general election little more than a week away, Dick Thornburgh is unusually relaxed.

That's because Thornburgh, former governor of Pennsylvania and former attorney general of the United States, is accustomed to being in the thick of political battles. But this year is different. A friend recently described him, he said, as being "part of the government in exile."

Politics came early to Richard Thornburgh. He was born in Pittsburgh, where his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were engineers. They also were rock rib Republicans. And little Richard, at the age of 8, went to bed each night with a Wendell Willkie button pinned to his pajamas.

As a youth, Thornburgh had some ideas about a career that didn't include engineering. He was an avid baseball fan and at one time was certain he wanted to become a sportswriter. But when he began his studies at Yale University, he yielded to tradition and entered the engineering school. He earned a degree in engineering, but decided that was not his field and enrolled in the law school at the University of Pittsburgh; he graduated in 1957.

He joined a Pittsburgh law firm and at the same time began to get involved in politics. His first run for political office came in 1966, when he unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1968, he campaigned for Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in his bid to win the GOP presidential nomination.

Although elective office had eluded him, he soon was called into government service. He was appointed U.S. attorney for western Pennsylvania by President Richard Nixon in 1969, then in 1975 was named assistant U.S. attorney general in charge of the criminal division by President Gerald Ford.

It was not until 1978 that Thornburgh first won elective office, topping a field of seven Republicans in Pennsylvania's gubernatorial primary. He went on to defeat the Democratic candidate in the general election.

Thornburgh took office on Jan. 16, 1979. Ten weeks later he was faced with a monumental crisis: the leaking of thousands of gallons of radioactive coolant from a reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg. Schools were closed, pregnant women and preschool children living within 5 miles of the plant were evacuated.

It was not until 12 days after the crisis began that the area was declared safe. President Jimmy Carter lauded Thornburgh for his handling of the situation. The governor's popularity with the voters held steady despite a severe economic slump, and he was handily re-elected in 1982.

He was not eligible to seek a third term in 1986, but in 1988 he was back on the hot seat again, succeeding Edwin Meese as U.S. attorney general. He remained in that post until 1991, when he resigned to seek election from Pennsylvania to the U.S. Senate.

Early in the special election campaign, Thornburgh was considered unbeatable. But Democrat Harris Wofford swept ahead on the issue of health care and Thornburgh's government service came to at least a temporary end.

"I'm back with my old law firm now in its Washington office," he said. "It's about the sixth time I've come back after sojourns into public life. They're very patient."

He says the law firm gives him plenty of latitude to continue with his extracurricular activities. "I work on things like U.N. reform, in the disability area and on criminal and civil justice matters _ a variety of things that have long been of interest to me."

And he's been doing a little campaigning for others, in Pennsylvania, New York, Missouri and Texas. His 1991 opponent, Wofford, is up for re-election and Thornburgh sees the race as a tossup. "He gained office on a promise of free health care, and when that crashed and burned it gave an opening to the Republican candidate, my former colleague Rick Santorum."

Looking back on his public service, Thornburgh says: "The most rewarding effort was to help revitalize the economy in Pennsylvania. It was a classic rust belt state when I became governor, and we introduced a lot of more future-oriented programs to help develop business. As a result, the economy is in much better shape, and that has had an impact on every one of our 12-million residents."

Thornburgh and his family were struck by tragedy in 1960 when his wife and three sons were in an auto accident. Mrs. Thornburgh was killed, and the youngest boy suffered permanent brain damage. Thornburgh since has remarried and had another son with his present wife, Ginny.

Only recently, his oldest son won his first election. "He was elected to an at-large seat on the Republican State Committee," Thornburgh said. His second son is involved in economic development projects.

The brain-injured son is "a lot more independent than we ever thought he would be," he said. For that, he credits his wife. "She has made a career out of working as an advocate for the disabled. She's the star in the family."

Thornburgh the baseball fan has been mentioned as a likely candidate for the post of Major League baseball commissioner.

"I've met with the owners," he said. "It was a very cordial meeting, but I don't know precisely where that stands. I think they'll wait until they get some settlement of the strike."

But then Thornburgh, 62, may not yet be through with government service. "I've always enjoyed public life, and I've been blessed with a lot of opportunities. And if it knocks again, I'd consider it."