Politics & Policy

A Politician Who Was His Own Man: Edgar Whitcomb, R.I.P.

The walls of the governor’s office in Indiana’s statehouse are crowded with mostly interchangeable portraits of its former occupants. Perched in a corner of the expansive antechamber is a painting of a middle-aged man with a shock of silver hair and a self-assured smile, the sunlit Indianapolis skyline to his back. His portrait stands apart from the nearby likenesses of his fellow Hoosier heads of state. In this case, art really does imitate life.

That man, Edgar Whitcomb, who has just died at the age of 98, with little national notice, had but a dalliance with politics: one term as Indiana’s chief executive office, plus two years as its secretary of state, and three in its legislature. But he lived a fuller, more captivating, and quite possibly more satisfactory life than any of the other similarly long-lived but better-known politicians we lionize for no other reason than their ability to cling to power.

A man of righteous independence who did not, frankly, give a damn about his legacy, Whitcomb was anti-establishment decades before it was in vogue. He was a member of the Greatest Generation, and a conservative Republican who prioritized principles over party. His story, full of improbable turns, noble service, and cinematic adventure, is one of universal interest. It should capture the imagination and earn the admiration of those beyond the borders of his state.

Whitcomb was anti-establishment decades before it was in vogue.

Some of Whitcomb’s exploits were by choice — as a boy he left his home in southern Indiana to ride the rails to New York and down the Eastern seaboard. Others were out of necessity — in 1939, he abandoned his pursuit of a medical degree at Indiana University to join the U.S. Army Air Corps when American entry in World War II seemed likely.

After enlisting, Whitcomb headed to the Philippines, where he remained until the conclusion of the Battle of Bataan. Rather than surrender to the Japanese, he fled to the island of Corregidor, where he eventually ended up a prisoner of war.

Once he witnessed Japanese treatment of American prisoners firsthand, Whitcomb determined to escape, swimming three hours across the shark-infested South China Sea and then traversing the islands before being recaptured and sent to a brutal prison at Fort Santiago. While there he persuaded his captors that he was a civilian miner but was beaten daily before being repatriated in a prisoner exchange in 1943.

Characteristically, shortly after his return stateside, Whitcomb rejoined the war effort and spent the remainder of the conflict flying bombing runs in a B-17 Flying Fortress.

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After the war, now a young war hero with charisma to burn, Whitcomb returned to Indiana with his sights set on politics. The launching pad for his ambitions came in the form of Escape from Corregidor, a harrowing recollection of his wartime experiences. Published in 1958, the book became a bestseller, paving the way for his election as Indiana’s governor in 1968 on twin pledges of government efficiency and refusal to raise taxes.

By choice, Whitcomb as governor was a solitary man. “I would describe him in one word as a conservative. Conservative morally, politically, economically, socially,” Ed Simcox, a onetime Whitcomb aide who was later Indiana’s secretary of state, recently recalled.

Instead of acquiescing to the demands of GOP leaders, he stuck to his campaign promises of better, less-expensive government.

Whitcomb’s beliefs put him at loggerheads with his own party. Instead of acquiescing to the demands of GOP leaders, he stuck to his campaign promises of better, less-expensive government. When the Republican-controlled legislature passed a bill increasing sales and income taxes, Whitcomb remembered his campaign promises and wielded his veto pen. No longer able to tolerate his independent spirit, the Republicans turned on the governor, first statewide, then nationally.

This culminated in Plan X, a national attempt by the GOP to remove Whitcomb from office. The governor was summoned to Vice President Spiro Agnew’s office in Washington. Once there, Whitcomb was shown a series of beautiful pictures of Canberra before being asked by the soon-to-be scandalized vice president whether he would be interested in becoming U.S. ambassador to Australia. Whitcomb politely declined and instead served out the rest of his term-limited time in office.  

An unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate against Richard Lugar in 1976 marked the end of Whitcomb’s involvement in politics, but certainly not his adventures. After retiring he shunned the standard corporate board-sitting and fundraising associated with ex-governorships and instead hopped a plane for Greece, where he procured a 30-foot sailboat.

He then spent part of his 70s navigating the world alone. It’s hard to imagine most politicians even leaving their offices without an accompanying aide, let alone sailing the seas solo.

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At the conclusion of his voyage, Whitcomb returned to rural southern Indiana and built a log cabin overlooking the Ohio River in the town of Rome, population 36. There he remained until his dying day, never interested in protecting or padding his legacy, happy to be away from the limelight and perfectly content to be removed from politics.

Well-tailored, handsome with his square jaw and greying mane, Whitcomb was straight out of political central casting. But the looks were deceiving. Holding office was a temporary duty, not a lifelong vocation. And over his nearly century-long life he found fulfillment and purpose far away from the lectern and the public eye.

Now that is a legacy worth celebrating. In Indiana and beyond.  

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