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The hands of Alphonsus Casey

Saturday, June 03, 2000

The one time I heard a creak in Bob Casey's thin, noiseless voice was the morning he sat in the governor's office and described his father's hands.

Alphonsus Casey was 40 before he practiced law. He spent his childhood in the anthracite mines where, at the age of 12, he was sent beneath the mountains outside Scranton to tend the mules that pulled the coal carts.

One day a mule bucked with particular rage and caught the boy in the head. A friend carried him home and young Al's mother laid him on the kitchen table, sewed his face shut, and sent him back to work the next day. Growing up, Bob Casey remembered the scars on his father's face, but it was the indelible stain of labor on Alphonsus Casey's hands that formed the core of his features.

"If you've ever met anybody from that generation who worked in the mines, they have these dark marks on their hands," Casey said, holding his own, very white hands, in front of him and peering hard. "They never get the dirt out, see. Their hands, they look like black-and-blue marks. You see it on their face."

Casey's voice broke. He coughed slightly and put his hands down. "You're from Cambria County, Dennis. You know what I mean," he said. We sat there quiet for a while. You don't know what to say to a man who has come so close to crying at the thought of his father's hands.

Bob Casey, possessed of a Victorian tranquillity, seemed at times capable of distance from his very self. I have seen him stay up all night during budget battles that resembled Stalingrad, then, betraying no loss of sanguinity, give a dispassionate speech, silently draw a line through the appropriations he didn't like, and go home as if he had just been to a dull movie.

The morning of that interview, 10 years ago, Karen Chandler, his campaign press secretary, had counseled him to be more jovial. He strained to laugh during trivial greetings then, obviously uncomfortable -- both of us, I mean -- he retreated to his old self. He was incapable of empty geniality. He learned his manners from Al Casey and it was Al Casey's photo alone that sat on his son's desk in the governor's office those eight years.

Al Casey never made it to elected office. The political machine in Scranton kept him out by running another man named Casey to split the vote. Bob Casey enjoyed the party's backing a generation later, but it was his nature to fight machines when he disagreed. For a time the Democrats loved him. By 1992 the national party could not abide him. Republicans taunted him as a liberal. Democrats disparaged him as a conservative.

The one man who seemed to see him clearly was Al Casey, who looked out across his desk for those years, a patron saint of causes well lost.

Casey had a peculiar means of praise for someone who fought admirably well. He would occasionally turn to a staff member and say of someone, "He's tough. He's hard coal."

I saw him the last time in Chicago. We sat near each other on a flight to the Democratic National Convention in 1996. I'd gone to report. He went to raise hell. Casey was demanding to speak heresy to the party. Living on a borrowed heart and liver that kept him in the game for another seven years, Casey wanted to publicly call on the party to back away from its pro-choice orthodoxy.

We talked politics on the plane. He looked thinner than he'd ever been and was so pale I wondered if it was blood or milk running in his veins.

He complained that his party had taken a rightward tilt and insisted that the liberal tradition meant siding with the powerless and that abortion was the ultimate contest between power and powerlessness.

We reached Chicago when I thought up some mischief.

"Governor," I said, "don't you think it would send a powerful message if you became a Republican? They'd probably have you at their convention."

Casey flashed like a kicked ember.

"Those guys! They're worse!" He tore through the litany: welfare cuts, anti-labor legislation -- the catalog of class warfare that never left his arsenal of beliefs.

He put a hand on my arm. He mentioned the welfare reform bill that cut child benefits and calculated the abortions that would follow.

"It's not enough to be against abortion," he said. "You have to be for something."

He walked away, toward the convention that wouldn't have him, a man living in a world his ideals had surpassed. The son of Alphonsus Casey was for a great many things, and, that moment in that airport in Chicago, I remember looking at that astonishingly white hand and somehow seeing the blue-black shadow of coal dust. I think he would have liked hearing that, and I'm sorry I never told him.

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