The Legend of Catherine Baker Knoll
Most Pennsylvanians believe they have a Lieutenant Governor named Catherine Baker Knoll. She is purported to be a kindly, older woman, slim in outline. The legend, which remains uncontradicted, is that she has been the personification of a good and loyal Democrat for over 200 years.
In recent years, the role of Catherine Baker Knoll has been played by Madeline Albright, the former Secretary of State in the Clinton administration. When Pennsylvania’s Democrats need Catherine Baker Knoll to be present, most recently as the Lt. Governor on whose coattails Governor Rendell rode to office, Madeline Albright dresses appropriately and comes to Pennsylvania. She makes the required speeches, cuts the necessary ribbons, opens agricultural exhibits, says “I sincerely congratulate you for your vital contributions.”, nods wisely, shakes hands compassionately, and goes back to wherever she lives.
To digress for a moment, Madeline Albright has become one of America’s great political fill-ins. On occasion, Madeline Albright has replaced Diane Feinstein. For that, she wears a black wig and more stylish clothes than would be thought attractive in rural Pennsylvania.
Once, when Christie Todd Whitman was undergoing a long bout of elective surgery, Madeline Albright filled in as Governor of New Jersey. She had to lose a few pounds, and was only publicly visible when seated behind a desk reduced a few inches in height, but did an effective job. For nearly six months, the people and legislature of New Jersey believed that Madeline Albright was Governor Whitman. At the same time, she was thought to be the Lt. Governor of Pennsylvania. When Christie Todd Whitman returned, New Jerseyites were never told that what little money had been in the State Treasury was gone.
Pennsylvania Democrats are taught from a very early age that Catherine Baker Knoll is the one person they can always trust. Many older Democrats actually revere Catherine Baker Knoll. Some of them, in an historical distortion that would be unfathomable outside of Pennsylvania, believe that Catherine Baker Knoll was once Eleanor Roosevelt. “I know it doesn’t make any sense,” the more lucid among them will admit, “but that’s just the way it was.”
When threatened with the possibility that Catherine Baker Knoll may be removed from a ballot by some ruthless, younger Democrat, most lately, Edward Rendell, Pennsylvania’s older Democrats go into attack mode.
Buses, filled with Democratic Citizens renowned for their support of Catherine Baker Knoll, begin their biannual trips across Pennsylvania. “We’ll show Catherine that we care!” They are filled with Pennsylvania’s most loyal Democratic Citizens. Heartless Republicans call the DC’s “Demented Citizens”.
Their insult comes from an understandable jealousy. Republicans know that they do not have a single universally-beloved person in their own party who can generate such loyalty. Republicans tried to turn Elsie Hillman into their own version of Catherine Baker Knoll. Even hardened Party regulars weren’t fooled. “No one even knows if she’s warm-blooded.” was the most positive reaction to their ploy. Attempts to dress Tom Ridge up in a dress and wig while trying to smile warmly were similarly unsuccessful.
A close examination shows that the Republicans’ mocking heartlessness may have a grain of truth in their “Demented Citizens” accusation. Early-rising investigators discovered that many of the Democratic Citizens on the Catherine Baker Knoll support buses actually are recruited from nursing homes. Most of them, unfortunately, do suffer from dementia.
Many bus riders are, it appears, those without whom their nursing home staffs would most like to do, even for only a day. Among the ever fewer words they are able to put into coherent sentences are those favorably directed towards Catherine Baker Knoll.
The DCs are a very inexpensive group to move around. Many of them do not realize that they are on a bus, that they are moving, or that they have left the home. Wearing their bright CATHERINE buttons and beanies, and bravely waving their “KEEP KATHERINE” (sic) flags, they can be driven in and out of the State Capitol and wheeled through an amazing number of offices and ceremonies in a day.
Their enjoyment of the trip is enhanced by the wide variety of plentiful medications that are given, largely on a random and increasing basis, as their “day out” progresses. “That sure is a good picture.”, they say over and over, staring out their assigned window while rolling through scenic Pennsylvania.
Since most of them cannot remember having eaten, they are rarely fed. Party activists, anxious to cut costs, make sure the DCs are returned to the long-suffering staff of their nursing homes without a single restroom stop. They are warmly greeted, stripped, hosed down, and strapped back into their warm beds, remembering little of their long jaunt except a few pills the less demented have cunningly hidden away in their shoes.
By the time they doze off, a third of the DCs from any given bus actually think that they have spoken to Catherine Baker Knoll. Another third have forgotten who Catherine Baker Knoll is. The other third thinks that they, themselves, are Catherine Baker Knoll.
Historians calculate that if Catherine Baker Knoll were a real person, she would be well over 200 years old. Before her part was so ably played by Madeline Albright, the Catherine Baker Knoll role was beautifully filled by Shelley Winters. Before Shelley, Tallulah Bankhead did a fine job, and before that, Theda Bara.
Theda, who had a terrible voice, did not have to speak. She was replaced by Tallulah when sound was introduced to American films. Cinema historians remember that one of the very first “talkies” featured Tallulah Bankhead as Catherine Baker Knoll, giving each Pennsylvania soldier a red poppy as he got off a troopship in Philadelphia. Faded photographs of Catherine Baker Knoll pinning a poppy on an honored ancestor are still family treasures in many Pennsylvania households.
An early tintype shows the first verifiable image of Catherine Baker Knoll. She is bandaging wounded Pennsylvania infantrymen immediately after the Battle of Gettysburg, where she is said to have braved enemy fire to “take care of my boys”.
A faded pencil sketch, portraying her bayoneting a British sailor during a little known skirmish in the war of 1812, has yet to be authenticated.
No one knows who portrayed Catherine Baker Knoll in the early days of the Republic. During the frigid winter at Valley Forge, it was Catherine Baker Knoll who kept hundreds of soldiers alive with kettles of hot soup. She also delivered letters to and from the troops. She was so well known that stamps weren’t needed; an early ruling by the Continental Congress decreed that she merely had to initial the corner of the envelope with “CBK” in her distinctive, flowing script.
In the French and Indian war, Catherine Baker Knoll warned young George Washington of an Iroquois ambush, saving his life and the future Republic. Before that, countless pioneer families learned to count on Catherine Baker Knoll. She learned so much from Seneca medicine men that she wrote, and convinced Benjamin Franklin to publish, herbal guides that allowed pioneers to make life-saving medicines from local flora.
One theory has it that the first Catherine Baker Knoll was a member of the Penn family. They disowned her for eloping with, depending on who is telling the story, an Irishman, a Scotch-Irishman, or a Hessian soldier with the unlikely name of Rupert Woodcock.
Regardless of historical theories, most nursing homes across Pennsylvania have at least a dozen recordings of Catherine Baker Knoll press releases going all the way back to Theda Bara. Adapted to various VCR and TIVO formats, there are few nursing home Democrats who do not watch it daily.
No matter who Catherine Baker Knoll seems to be, what role she is playing, or who is playing her, Catherine Baker Knoll is larger than life. She is not only a legend in her own time, but for all time.