The Gentleman From South Carolina

By Joetta L. Sack — September 08, 1999 15 min read
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As you all know, I’ve got all these grandchildren,” Richard Wilson Riley intones. The assembled crowd of educators, who have just greeted their local hero with loud cheers and a standing ovation, know what to expect next from this U.S. secretary of education, inveterate storyteller, and consummate grandfather.

“I’ve got 10 now,” he reminds them. What follows is a tale he’s woven into many speeches about grandchild Hugh, who recently showed off a book he’d written as a kindergarten assignment. “He had worked hard on it; it was five or six pages of pictures,” recalls Riley in his gentle Southern drawl. “On the last page, on the very bottom, it had the letters D-N.”

He asked Hugh what that meant. “Hugh said, ‘Anytime you finish reading a story, you always say D-N.’” The audience rolls into laughter as Riley adds, “I’m still trying to figure out if Hugh was into phonics or whole language.”

Here in his home state, the Southern gentleman and former South Carolina governor now charged with guiding national education policy is revered. Even so, his road to success has not always been an easy one. Dick Riley, who has now held his federal Cabinet post longer than any of his five predecessors, has overcome daunting obstacles to become a tough behind-the-scenes negotiator and politician over the past 40 years.

Unlike such headline- grabbing secretaries as William J. Bennett, Riley, 66, does not fit the standard definition of charismatic. And unlike two-time presidential candidate Lamar Alexander, Riley says he will not use this appointment to pursue loftier positions; instead, it will most likely serve as his swan song to political life.

But never has an education secretary quietly roused such fervent admiration from educators and constituents and loyalty from staff members.

His good buddy President Clinton has said: “I continue to be astonished by Dick Riley’s energy and passion and devotion to education. We couldn’t have a better champion as secretary of education.”

And one of his former employees, Thomas Hehir, who was the director of the office of special education programs until last month, says it isn’t hyperbole when he calls Riley “absolutely one of the most wonderful men I’ve ever encountered in my life.”

Still, with just over a year left till the Clinton administration is history, Riley can’t afford to coast on his legacy. Rather, he faces the enormous task of staving off drastic K-12 policy changes proposed by some congressional Republicans and attempting to inculcate Clinton’s ideas in the 1999-2000 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the centerpiece of federal policy in precollegiate schooling.

“He’s going to have quite a challenge ... but he’s had a challenge all the way along,” says John F. Jennings, the director of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy and a former aide to House Democrats. “I wouldn’t call him an intellectual, but a very good politician who knows how to get things done.”

Riley was practically drafted into politics when he was born on a farm in Greenville County, S.C., on Jan. 2, 1933. He was very close to his father, Edward, an elected county attorney and the chairman of the state Democratic Party. His father, he points out, also passed along his storytelling skills--part of their Irish heritage.

Riley stayed close to home early in his life and graduated from Furman University in his hometown of Greenville. The only significant time he spent out of the state was during his two-year service in the U.S. Navy, which was cut short in 1956 when he was diagnosed with rheumatoid spondylitis, a painful bone disease that causes spasms and the growth of bone spurs. For the next 15 years, Riley fought the disease’s debilitating effects, which gradually warped his spine, by exercising rigorously and forgoing painkillers.

“Many times his father told me, ‘I never thought he’d have any meaningful life’ after that,” says Alex Sanders, a lifelong friend and former state legislator and judge who is now the president of the College of Charleston. “It was only by sheer perseverance that he did.”

The disease left Riley with a hunched back, and he no longer can turn his neck or upper body. Yet the former football player sees himself as able-bodied, his friends say. And Riley, who speaks pointedly with wide-sweeping gestures, often surprises them with his vigor and notoriously strong handshake.

After earning his law degree and working in his father’s firm, Riley chanced a political campaign and was narrowly elected to a seat in the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1963. He successfully set his sights on a state Senate seat four years later.

As a senator, Riley became the leader of a group of Young Turks who challenged South Carolina’s traditional, aristocratic structure. Riley now recalls taking on school finance reform and desegregation, issues that “really gave me a good understanding of education from the ground up.”

He relinquished the Senate seat to run for governor in 1974, but lost the Democratic nomination to U.S. Rep. W.J. Bryan Dorn. In 1978, however, he came from behind to win the nomination, and later, the general election, with 61 percent of the vote.

It was, in part, their four children that spurred her husband’s interest in and fervent advocacy for public education, his wife, Ann, remembers. Mrs. Riley, who goes by the nickname “Tunky,” says that the South Carolina public schools were barely adequate when their children were of school age, but that she and her husband nonetheless chose to enroll their children in them and to volunteer at school.

“We felt they might not be the best schools, but we could make them better,” she says.

Those experiences helped shape Riley’s unyielding stance against vouchers and other public funding for private and religious education--one of the few issues that provoke his rare expressions of anger.

On a trip to South Carolina in June, Riley is back home for several state education conferences, visits to three schools, and get-togethers with old friends.

On one day, the secretary stops in at Rivers Middle School, a decrepit, 60-year-old building in downtown Charleston. Sitting in the band room, an ill-equipped, dirty basement that happens to have one of the few working air-conditioning units in the school, Riley listens carefully and takes notes as parents and teachers explain their frustrations in securing renovation money.

He offers no promises, but assures the group that he will remember their concerns. School construction funding is, after all, one of the U.S. Department of Education’s priorities this year. “It’s a matter of all of us in this country deciding what’s important,” Riley says softly but passionately, exuding just a slight hint of his boss Bill Clinton’s charm.

Afterward, Principal Benjamin Gadsden says he was “extremely proud” and inspired by Riley’s visit: “As a principal, we often feel that our calls aren’t being heard.”

During his recent South Carolina tour, Riley is still addressed as “Governor” and quickly recognized when he stops by the rustic SeeWee Restaurant in a rural area outside Charleston for a favorite meal of collard greens and fried green tomatoes.

And, while Riley now battles for the president’s policies on Capitol Hill, it is South Carolina that remains the scene of his greatest political and educational achievement: the passage of the state’s Education Improvement Act.

It was 1983 when Riley saw a ripe opportunity to make drastic changes in the state school system, as South Carolina was ranked at or near the bottom according to national education data.

“Education in South Carolina had just kind of bogged out,” says Ronald A. McWhirt, the acting superintendent of the 44,000-student Charleston district and a longtime friend of Riley’s. “He realized the reform efforts weren’t getting to the grassroots, and he took that effort.”

Riley’s EIA vision included early-childhood and gifted-education programs, expanded professional- development opportunities and pay raises for teachers, new programs that emphasized basic and compensatory skills, a tough attendance policy, new accountability measures, and more involvement from parents, communities, and businesses. To pay for the EIA, he proposed an unprecedented 1-cent increase in the state sales tax, infuriating the business community and some residents.

Determined to win over public support, Riley took his long-shot campaign for the EIA to shopping malls and county fairs, says Terry Peterson, who worked for Riley for all eight years of his South Carolina governorship and has been with him throughout his almost seven-year tour in Washington. “He shook 2,000 hands one day, until his hands were bleeding,” Peterson recalls.

“He’s very tenacious--when he gets a hold of something, he can’t let it go,” McWhirt says. The plan passed in 1984.

During Riley’s eight- year tenure as governor--South Carolinians amended the state constitution to allow him to run for a second term--he also earned a reputation for being thrifty with taxpayer dollars.

Sanders and others quickly learned never to expect exquisite meals once their friend reached the governor’s mansion. Riley typically ordered chicken-salad sandwiches rather than steak or lobster for meetings. And he traded the gubernatorial limousine for a Ford.

After he left office, Republican governors ran South Carolina for the next 12 years, and many state officials say the implementation of the EIA suffered without Riley’s guidance. Nonetheless, they agree the law was a turning point.

“The legacy is that he created a statewide commitment to education reform that hasn’t disappeared,” says Bob Thompson, a South Carolina businessman who serves on a state committee that evaluated the EIA and other, more recent education initiatives. “If you look at a lot of the federal legislation that’s come out of his shop, you can find a lot of the EIA in there.”


Riley’s road to Washington also began during his years as governor. A few weeks after they were elected governors of their respective states in 1978, Riley and Clinton met at the National Governors’ Association’s winter meeting in Washington. The two Democrats both saw education as a way to ease the poverty entrenched in South Carolina and Arkansas, and the attraction was instant. Riley told his wife the first day of the conference, “I met this young governor from Arkansas, and he is a very, very interesting guy.” A few days later he told Peterson, “He’s going to be a star.”

“It was very clear [Clinton] had some special abilities,” Riley recalls. “He excelled in whatever discussion there was.”

Later that year, Peterson recalls, Clinton and Riley attended a Southern Regional Education Board conference in Florida. What started as a walk on the beach with their wives turned into a seven-hour conversation on education, thus advancing a mutual attraction to a cemented friendship.

Clinton visited Riley several more times during their tenures, and often, they would drive out into the country to buy a barbecued turkey. (Riley notes that Clinton would usually eat much, much more.) And when Clinton was elected president in 1992, Riley’s name was already circulating as the obvious choice for secretary of education.

But Riley really wasn’t interested in the job. He had spent so many years in the public spotlight--and since leaving the governor’s mansion in 1987, he had been fulfilled with behind-the-scenes work for the SREB and other education groups.

He agreed to come to Washington for a few weeks to supervise Clinton’s transition team. Clinton soon offered him the secretary’s job, and to the surprise of his friends and even himself, he accepted.

“I had no earthly idea about staying” in Washington, Riley says. “But it was such an enormous opportunity for me, I didn’t hesitate one moment.”

Early in 1993, Riley launched what became an uphill battle in Congress for the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, a broad standards-based reform effort with roots in the Bush administration. After extended and sometimes tense negotiations, Riley persuaded liberal Democratic leaders to support the measure, which ultimately passed and became the first of his major Washington victories.

Practically since the beginning of his appointment, he has been dogged by rumors of his imminent departure. Within months, he was rumored to be headed to the presidency of Furman University. Also in 1993, Clinton considered him a candidate for a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, but he said he wasn’t interested.

Then in December 1994, Riley was diagnosed with prostate cancer, a month after Republicans won control of Congress and shortly after his father’s death. Early in 1995, while ill from his cancer treatments, he visited Congress to defend the federal role in education to the new GOP leaders who wanted to eliminate his agency.

Ann Riley recalls that period as “terrible,” but says her husband was thoroughly committed to staying because of the priority he places on continuity in leadership for long-term education reform. It was that mind- set as well that drove his decision to keep his post when Clinton was re-elected in 1996.

“Dick likes to work--he thrives on his work,” Mrs. Riley adds.

Early last year, Clinton informally offered his education secretary the ambassadorship to Ireland. It was an offer that Riley says he was tempted to accept--and that his wife desperately wanted for him. But he declined because he felt there was still much work to be done in education.

Then came the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal.

Soon after the first allegations against the president stemming from his relationship with the former White House intern, Riley appeared on camera with Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and other Cabinet members to declare that they believed Clinton’s denial of a sexual relationship. Until just before Clinton’s August 1998 admission that a relationship had existed, Riley continued to publicly defend his close friend while engrossing himself in day-to-day Education Department activities.

The matter--which led to the president’s impeachment and eventual acquittal--is still painful for Riley to talk about, although he says he believes Clinton truly regrets his actions.

“I was very disappointed in the president, and I think he has suffered a lot from that series of events,” Riley says slowly, deliberately. “He has asked us and the Cabinet to forgive him, and I believe in forgiveness.”

Riley’s future plans, meanwhile, are often discussed and debated by friends and education insiders in Washington.

Most likely, he says, his public-service career will end, and he will return to South Carolina and the family farm he still owns in Greenville. And he will, in some capacity, strongly support Vice President Al Gore’s run for the presidency. “Whatever I do, it’ll be an effort to help public education,” he says.

On Capitol Hill, Riley receives warm welcomes and friendly handshakes from even the most fervent anti-Clinton conservatives--although they rarely agree with him on policy.

Rep. Bill Goodling, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee, is a chief GOP critic of many Clinton administration policies. Still, he calls Riley a “wonderful individual.”

“I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like him, even when they don’t agree with him,” Goodling said in written correspondence. “Unfortunately, Secretary Riley has been forced to take direction from others ... and he has taken positions that he would have opposed as governor. ... However, I am optimistic that he will return to his roots as a leader for state rights and local control during the remainder of his time as secretary.”

But as the chief spokesman for the president’s education initiatives, Riley is often a lightning rod for criticism.

In one instance, Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the Michigan Republican who chairs the House Subcommittee on Education Oversight and Investigations, closely scrutinized the Education Department’s workings in 1997 when he launched the “Education at a Crossroads” hearings, a project designed to trim bureaucracy and eliminate programs deemed unnecessary.

Hoekstra berated Riley when he was unable to answer a question on the exact number of federal education programs. Hoekstra later repeatedly advertised Riley’s fumble as proof of the need for reform or abolition of the department.

Now, the stage is set for the education secretary’s sprint to the finish line with the ESEA reauthorization. The process, which is already under way, forces Congress and the administration to debate federal K-12 policy as a whole because the ESEA encompasses most major federal school programs, including the $8 billion Title I program designed to raise the achievement of low-income students.

Back in Charleston speaking to the educators’ group, Riley has moved from the story of his grandson Hugh to a more serious effort to impart the significance of the work still ahead of him.

He tells the crowd that the reauthorization could usher in historic reforms, including high-stakes accountability measures for students and schools. But it comes as record enrollments and racial and ethnic diversity in schools are drastically changing the education landscape. “For those of us who’ve worked so hard to improve education, now is not the time to rest easy,” he cautions his audience.

He considers accountability for student performance the Clinton administration’s top educational goal and the foundation for its plans for the ESEA reauthorization and any new policy initiatives. “I’m so proud of what we’ve done in that area,” he says.

Still, there is much more that he contends needs to be done. Riley also tells the Charleston group he wants Congress to adopt a new federal program to help pay interest on school construction bonds and allocate more money for Pell Grants for college students. And he wants to see better results from existing programs to help lessen the gap between students from poor families and their more affluent peers.

That said, Riley comes full circle to the anecdote he used to open his remarks.

“I don’t think I can add any more to that,” he offers. “And, in the words of my grandson, D-N.”


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