The last New Frontiersman

Harry Wiggins was the last embodiment of John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” to serve in the Missouri Senate.   He was a gentle soul, soft-spoken, sometimes emotional to the point of tears in debate, a man who loved being a Senator, loved representing Kansas City.  

Senator Wiggins served 28 years.  Term limits robbed Kansas City of the Senator who proudly carried the city’s legislative package each year, a senator who never filibustered when he was personally offended by someone else’s bill or filibustered as a way to force his bill on an unwilling Senate.  He was known as someone who sought compromise and had the courtesy to take his bills out of debate if problematic opposition arose on the floor and then try to work out differences behind the scenes. 

He could not run again in 2002.  He died of stomach cancer a day before his 72nd birthday in 2004.

Kansas City Star political reporter Steve Kraske, one of the analysts we use for our “Campaign Watch” programs in major election years, recalled that Wiggins’ legacy included the 911 phone number, the establishment of the bistate tax that Kansas City metropolitan area voters have re-approved regularly, and an early childhood screening that became the Parents as Teachers Program.  “Wiggins employed an unusual style to succeed in Missouri politics,” Kraske wrote after Wiggins’ death, “He was nice to everyone, always hospitable and hard-pressed to say anything critical of anyone, Republican or Democrat…On the Senate floor he was regarded as the ultimate compromiser.” 

No member of the Missouri Senate ever served in the chamber with Harry Wiggins. And the senate is the poorer for it.

We remember something about his Capitol office.   On the wall, he kept a framed copy of his invitation to President Kennedy’s inauguration.  

Harry Wiggins wore his liberalism on his sleeve.  He retained a deep belief in the ideals of the New Frontier despite the growing cynicism about government and the increasing meanness in the political dialogue.   He had become a disciple of John Kennedy as a young man, when the Massachusetts Senator was emerging as a presidential candidate.  Attorney General Robert Kennedy made him an assistant U. S. Attorney for Kansas City. 

His essential fairness led Governor Bond, a Republican, to make him the general counsel for the Public Service Commission during Bond’s first term, a position Wiggins quit a couple of years later when, Kraske recalls, the PSC decided to start granting utility rate increases without public hearings.  The next year, Wiggins ran for the state senate and defeated a two-term incumbent.  

We thought of Senator Wiggins when we stopped at our favorite bookstore in Albuquerque—Page One– recently and picked up a copy of Ted Sorenson’s memoir, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History.  Harper Collins published it in 2008.  The paperback edition came out in 2009. 

Ted Sorenson was a Kennedy confidant for eleven years, a key figure first in Senator John Kennedy’s office and later in President Kennedy’s office.  He wrote the first significant book about Kennedy after the assassination.  He left the White House after Kennedy’s death and became a government advisor, and an international lawyer.  But he has never lost the ideals advocated by President Kennedy. 

Toward the end of the book, Sorenson wrote, “JFK’s presidency was a time of high ideals, and those who remember it well still mourn the loss.”  He recalled a note from Ethel Kennedy after a 1991 meeting in which she referred to “all the vitality, creativity and dreams of the New Frontier” 

But he goes on, “…Sadly, in little more than forty years, the message from Washington has completely changed…What has happened to JFK’s standards for dedication and innovation?  The luster of public service has been tarnished by the increasing role of incompetent presidential cronies and corrupt lobbyists… 

“Nor has JFK’s standards of presidential oratory—and the standards of speech and English usage in the White House—been maintained.  That’s serious.  The less often that Americans hear thoughtful public rhetoric, the more likely they are to be vulnerable to deceptive demagoguery.  Kennedy’s eloquence is deemed old-fashioned today.  His style, say some, is too lofty in this hectic age of cynical sophistication.

“Today presidential themes and drafts are edited by committee.  Stirring phrases have been replaced by sound bites and applause lines.  Majestic understatement has lost out to hyperbole.  Presidents announce but do not inspire.  Politicians are obsessed with making the nightly news instead of making history.

“The trend away from Kennedy’s core standards and ideals seems irreversible.  But I still have faith in the ability of the American people to reverse those trends, just as JFK reversed a century of federal inattention to civil rights, reversed the increasing dangers of the nuclear arms race, reversed the long record of American failures in space exploration.  Even his contest for the presidency in 1960 challenged what appeared to be irreversible prejudice against a Catholic in the White House.  I still have faith in he American people to do the right thing.”

Sorenson concludes, “I’m still an optimist.  I still believe that extraordinary leaders can be found and elected, that future dangers can be confronted and resolved, that people are essentially good and ultimately right in their judgments. I still believe that a world of law is waiting to emerge, enshrining peace and freedom throughout the world.  I still believe that the mildest and most obscure of Americans can be rescued from oblivion by good luck, sudden changes in fortune, sudden encounters with heroes.

“I believe it because I lived it.” 

To which Harry Wiggins would quietly say, “Amen.”

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