To non-Hoosiers, it was somewhat surprising last Thursday to find the outpouring of mourning there was for the late Indiana Gov. Edgar Whitcomb. There were long lines of people waiting to sign condolence books at the State Capitol in Indianapolis.
A public service included a 19-gun salute and a procession that took the funeral cortege from the War Memorial to the Capitol.
The surprising part about this farewell was that Whitcomb, who died Feb. 4 at age 98, last held office 44 years ago. His final attempt at a return to politics met with defeat when he tried to win the Republican nomination for U.S. senator in 1976.
But after all those years, Hoosiers remembered Whitcomb well, as both a hero whose death-defying service in World War II propelled him into politics and as a true-blue conservative in the governor’s office.
Before the U.S. was at war, the young Whitcomb quit Indiana University in 1940 to join the U.S. Army Air Corps. Commissioned a second lieutenant and assigned to the Philippines, he was captured and tortured shortly after Pearl Harbor when the Japanese overran the base in which he was stationed. Whitcomb escaped, but was recaptured and severely beaten.
Whitcomb then pulled off a second, spectacular escape in which he swam through shark-infested waters to an unoccupied island. He then made his way to China under an assumed name and returned to the U.S. in 1943.
Much like the young John Kennedy after World War II, Whitcomb’s wartime heroism resulted in a boom for him to seek office back home. He served in the state senate from 1950-53 while earning his law degree from Indiana University. Whitcomb then spent the next twelve years building a thriving practice in Seymour and Indianapolis.
Elected secretary of state in 1966, Whitcomb immediately set his sights on the governorship in ’68. Running as the most conservative candidate, he won nomination at the Republican convention over state House Speaker Otis Bowen, a moderate, and a little-known Purdue University dean named Earl Butz (who would later become famous as President Gerald Ford’s tart-tongued secretary of agriculture).
“[Whitcomb] was like Reagan — running on a platform of no new taxes and rolling back government by eliminating waste,” recalled Fred Mann, who had worked on Whitcomb’s campaign while a Young Republican at Indiana University.
Then-California Gov. Reagan campaigned for Whitcomb that year and he handily defeated Democratic Lt. Gov. Robert Rock. (That same year, State Rep. William Ruckelhaus for the Senate as a moderate Republican and was defeated by Democratic Sen. Birch Bayh.)
True to his word, Gov. Whitcomb vetoed numerous spending bills that came out of the state legislature. When his old nemesis, Speaker Bowen, pushed a plan to cut property taxes with an increase in the state sales tax, Whitcomb said no. In his view, a tax was a tax and he was against it.
Whitcomb oversaw the computerization of the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles and its criminal records. In addition, he created a private citizens’ commission on government efficiency whose recommendations saved taxpayers $12 million annually.
Because the governor of Indiana was limited at the time to a single term, Whitcomb could not succeed himself in 1972. When he next sought office, it was 1976 and he had been out of the limelight for four years. Whitcomb was badly beaten in the GOP primary for U.S. Senator by Richard Lugar, who had just finished two successful terms as mayor of Indianapolis. Lugar went on to serve 36 years in the Senate.
Free spirit Whitcomb returned to private practice and, in 1987, set out to achieve his dream of sailing around the world. He also worked for a Christian textbook publisher and in his 80s, settled in an isolated cabin along the Ohio River.
Indiana’s current Republican Gov. Mike Pence, who is frequently likened to Whitcomb, said that his colorful predecessor was “a treasure to our state” and his “life of courage, service and adventure inspired generations of Hoosiers.”
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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