Former Pennsylvania Governors Talk Politics, Civility and Leadership at Pitt Lecture

Former Pennsylvania governors Ed Rendell and Tom Ridge on stage with greenery behind them and a table with sunflowers between them. Rendell is speaking into a microphone and gesturing and Ridge's head is turned toward Rendell

Former Pennsylvania governors Tom Ridge and Ed Rendell have differed ideologically over the years, but also are like-minded on other matters, including the value of civility and compromise in politics today.

Ridge, the Republican and the Commonwealth’s 43rd governor, and Rendell, the Democrat and 45th governor, took to the Carnegie Music Hall stage Oct. 1 for “Reflections on Leadership, Governance, and Politics,” part of the University of Pittsburgh’s 2019 American Experience Distinguished Lecture Series.

The two fielded questions from moderator and WHYY-FM senior reporter Dave Davies in a discussion ranging from their early aspirations to the country’s current challenges and political climate. They were introduced by Audrey Murrell, acting dean of the University Honors College and professor of business administration, psychology and public and international affairs.

“We may see competing views on the issues of the day,” she said. “But we will learn how different parties can share the stage, discuss issues and challenge us to be more engaged citizens and work for the common good.”

The political star power was in full effect with the added presence of Dick Thornburgh (LAW ’57), the state’s 41st governor, who was honored with the Elsie Hilliard Hillman Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Public Service. (See below for more on the award.)

Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher set the tone for the evening when he told the 600 or so attendees that the three former governors are “statesmen who represent sound, principled and ethical leadership” of the Commonwealth for 22 of the past 40 years."

He said of the Lecture Series’ nearly 50 years of distinguished speakers: “I believe that tonight tops them all.”

Regarding the impeachment inquiry of President Trump, Rendell and Ridge agreed that the investigation into Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky is justified. However, they had different views on whether the process will result in a conclusion that an impeachable offense was committed. 

Rendell said Trump solicited a foreign government to get involved in a U.S. election, which is “clearly illegal.” Ridge said: “I’m not in a position to say whether it rises to the level of a high crime and misdemeanor, but I find it beyond disturbing.”

Both Ridge and Rendell are lawyers who served as prosecutors early in their careers. Each is a two-term governor who went on to a national position. There were stories about those early years, and even earlier on, about what inspired them as children.

On leadership, both men stressed the important of caring about something with a passion. Rendell said one must be willing to risk losing the office for something they want to get done. He added the inability of Congress to get things done frustrates him.

“We’ve got to do something on immigration and infrastructure,” Rendell said. “Let’s pass something. Let’s work out a compromise. Show the U.S. that Congress can still act as a body that puts the American citizen first.”

Both men discussed the importance of transparency in office and the satisfaction of compromise. As governor from 1995–2001, Ridge said he worked well with both Rendell, then mayor of Philadelphia, and Tom Murphy, former Pittsburgh mayor and also a Democrat.

“We got Democrats and Republicans to vote for the gas tax,” said Ridge. “It was heavy lifting, but the country is better off when both parties do big things together.”

The men wrapped up the evening by calling for an elevation of policy issues and a return to civility. Rendell is optimistic about the country’s future.

“The country is resilient and tends to bounce back from difficult times. Americans still, at heart, are good people,” he said.

Gallagher thanked the governors for sharing what he called “a living example of what leadership means. It’s about serving our country and putting our common interests first and when we do that, we draw from our differences to have a richer palette for solving our common problems,” he said.

Tuesday’s event was hosted by Pitt and Thornburgh and was cosponsored by the Office of the Chancellor, Dick Thornburgh Forum on Law & Public Policy, and the University Honors College. It will be broadcast on the Pennsylvania Cable Network at 10 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 9, and possibly again later in the fall.

Former Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh (LAW ’57) accepts the Elsie Hilliard Hillman Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Public Service at the recent American Experience Distinguished Lecture Series. Pictured left to right: Director of the Institute of Politics Samantha Balbier, Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher, Thornburgh, and Karen Gallagher. The presentation of the Elsie Hilliard Hillman Lifetime Achievement Award to former Pennsylvania governor Dick Thornburgh Tuesday evening was extremely fitting, according to Pitt Chancellor Emeritus Mark A. Nordenberg.

“This is where it all began,” he said, reminding the audience that in 2012, the year Pitt’s Institute of Politics (IOP) created the honor, the late Elsie Hillman herself was the recipient, and Thornburgh and Tom Ridge sat on that very same Music Hall stage offering perspectives on her legacy.

Thornburgh and Hillman had been “friends and allies since the days of their youth,” said Nordenberg, also IOP chair and director of the Dick Thornburgh Forum for Law & Public Policy.

Thornburgh, former two-term governor of Pennsylvania, was also U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania; assistant U.S. attorney general in charge of the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice; U.S. attorney general under two presidents; and under-secretary general of the United Nations. He helped secure passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, impacting some 50 million Americans, and representing a life-long cause for Thornburgh and his wife, Ginny.

Thornburgh was tested just two months into his governorship, overseeing the state’s response to the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident. His calm and confident approach remains an inspiring case study of effective leadership in a crisis, said Nordenberg.

Not only has Thornburgh held important national and state positions his entire career, Nordenberg said, “his years in all of these high offices, rubbing elbows with other high-powered people and dealing with some of the most important issues of our time has not, in any way, changed his warm and welcoming human touch.”

The award was presented to Thornburgh amid a standing ovation and thunderous applause.