Richard Schweiker, Critic of JFK Assassination Probe, Dies at 89

Richard Schweiker, the former senator who helped reveal the U.S. intelligence community’s shortcomings in the investigation of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, has died. He was 89.

He died on July 31 at Atlantic Care Regional Medical Center in Pomona, New Jersey, the Associated Press reported, citing his son, Richard Schweiker Jr.

The former congressman, who represented Pennsylvania for eight years in the House and 12 years in the Senate, became secretary of the Health and Human Services Department under President Ronald Reagan in 1981. A Republican with a moderate-to-liberal voting record, Schweiker was an anomaly in Reagan’s conservative administration and belonged to a party wing that no longer exists.

As a senator, Schweiker had bucked his fellow Republicans by voting against President Richard Nixon’s antiballistic missile system, rejecting two of Nixon’s Supreme Court nominees, speaking out against the Vietnam War and being one of the first Republicans to call for Nixon to resign following the Watergate scandal.

After two years as Reagan’s health secretary, he claimed that more money in the federal budget, in percentage terms, was dedicated to his department than ever before.

Budget Battles

Schweiker ran the biggest agency in the federal government, with funding of almost $300 billion -- the largest component of which went to Social Security -- by the time he resigned, the New York Times reported in a 1983 article. Even though welfare and other entitlement programs were trimmed, he managed to restore many of the cuts proposed by the Office of Management and Budget, headed by David Stockman, the Times said.

Schweiker stepped down in 1983 to return to the private sector and was replaced by Margaret Heckler, a former representative from Massachusetts.

“More than anyone else, you have been responsible for honoring my firm commitment that society’s safety net be maintained” Reagan wrote in a January 1983 letter accepting Schweiker’s resignation.

“At the same time, it has been your role to make sure that these huge programs are prudently administered, so that America’s taxpayers will know that their dollars are being wisely spent. You have performed both these tasks with unexcelled competence and compassion.”

Reagan’s Choice

While still a senator, Schweiker was chosen as a running mate in Reagan’s unsuccessful 1976 bid to become the Republican presidential candidate. Reagan’s decision to announce his choice of vice president before securing the nomination was considered unusual and risky. Gerald Ford, with Bob Dole as the vice presidential nominee, became the party’s candidate, losing the election to Democrat Jimmy Carter.

During the mid-1970s, Schweiker was a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, whose chairman was Frank Church. The Pennsylvania senator was co-chairman, along with Gary Hart, of a subcommittee reviewing the investigation of Kennedy’s assassination. Two members of Church’s committee -- 1964 presidential candidate Barry Goldwater and Vice Chairman John Tower -- voted against the release of its 1976 report.

“The evidence the Committee has developed suggests that, for different reasons, both the CIA and the FBI failed in, or avoided carrying out, certain of their responsibilities in this matter,” Schweiker and Hart wrote in their study regarding the role of U.S. intelligence agencies in the Warren Commission’s review. The Warren Report of 1964 found that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the 1963 fatal shooting of Kennedy in Dallas.

Intelligence Failures

Schweiker and Hart wrote that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Central Intelligence Agency had neglected to examine Oswald’s possible ties to Cuba’s communist government and to Cuban exile groups in the months before the assassination. Senior officials withheld facts “which might have substantially affected the investigation” and didn’t provide them to the Warren Commission, they wrote.

Richard Schultz Schweiker was born on June 1, 1926, in Norristown, Pennsylvania. He was the son of the former Blanche Schultz and Malcolm Schweiker, a ceramics company executive and co-founder of a business that later became American Olean Tile Co., according to a New York Times obituary in 1982. Schweiker also had a sister, Sylvia. His brother, Malcolm Schweiker Jr., died in World War II in Okinawa, Japan.

Enlisting in the U.S. Navy in 1944, Schweiker served on an aircraft carrier until he was discharged as an electronics technician in 1946, according to a White House profile released on his nomination as health and human services secretary.

Career Path

Schweiker graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Pennsylvania State University in 1950. He then worked for his father’s tile company until he entered Congress in 1961. Schweiker was elected to the Senate in 1968 and re-elected in 1974. He didn’t run for a third term.

Following his job in the Reagan administration, he became president of the American Council of Life Insurance, an industry trade association. He held the post from 1983 until 1994.

Schweiker, who resided in McLean, Virginia, was married to the former Claire Coleman, a onetime host of the children’s television program “Romper Room.” She died in 2013. In addition to Richard Jr., they had four other children: Lani, Kristi, Kyle and Malcolm.