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Dick Thornburgh (1932–2020), former U.S. Attorney General and Pennsylvania governor

by Linnea Crowther

Dick Thornburgh was the former U.S. Attorney General as well as the former governor of Pennsylvania, who guided the state through the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear disaster.

Governor of Pennsylvania

Thornburgh served as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, as well as Assistant Attorney General for the U.S. Justice Department’s Criminal Division, before running for governor as a Republican in 1978. He won the election, and he was just two months into his first term when the unprecedented disaster at Three Mile Island occurred. The nuclear plant, located near the state capital of Harrisburg, experienced a partial meltdown that terrified locals as well as people across the country. Thornburgh oversaw a largely successful response to the accident, including evacuation and cleanup. He won reelection in 1982 and served as governor for a second term before declining to run again in 1986.

U.S. Attorney General and after

President Ronald Reagan (1911 – 2004) appointed Thornburgh U.S. Attorney General in 1988. He served under Reagan as well as President George H.W. Bush (1924 – 2018) before resigning in 1991. Among Thornburgh’s accomplishments as Attorney General was successfully championing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which passed in 1990. Thornburgh was a passionate supporter of the legislation as the father of a son with disabilities. After Thornburgh’s resignation, he ran for U.S. Senate, but he lost the election in an upset. It was the end of his political career; in later years, he served as Under-Secretary General at the United Nations and worked as a lawyer.

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Thornburgh on his handling of the Three Mile Island accident

“You have to reassure people. You have to go before the cameras and microphones and tell them what you know and what you don’t. You have to stop the rumors, and, of course, you have to make decisions. There isn’t any Republican or Democratic way to deal with a nuclear crisis. Nobody has ever had to deal with this kind of accident before.” —as quoted in the New York Times

Tributes to Dick Thornburgh

Full obituary: The Philadelphia Inquirer

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