Frank Keating : After the Explosion--the Heat and Light in Oklahoma City

Richard A. Serrano, a reporter for The Times, has been covering the Oklahoma City bombing incident since it occurred

He is a devout Catholic in the thick of the Bible Belt; a Republican in the conservative Southwest. He is a former FBI agent, a former federal prosecutor and former head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. In April, he was suddenly thrust into the national spotlight--minutes after the worst attack against the federal government. Frank Keating was just weeks into his first term as governor of Oklahoma when an explosion rocked the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in the state capital. The blast killed 169 people and injured more than 600 others.

In the days and weeks since the bombing, Keating seems to have been everywhere. He helped co-ordinate rescue efforts. He helped muster 7,000 blood donors. He created, with his wife, Kathy, trust funds that raised millions to pay burial costs and also help the injured and orphaned and their families. He has been active in rebuilding more than 350 downtown structures that were damaged or destroyed. At one fund-raiser, when a benefactor questioned where all the money was going, Keating walked him over to meet a young boy in a wheelchair, paralyzed on the left side, an ugly hole in his head. "I showed him where his money was going," Keating says.

The governor even embarked on a goodwill "Thank You, America" tour across the nation to credit thousands of out-of-town firefighters, policemen, rescue workers, construction workers and volunteers who, on April 19, set aside their own problems to come here to help. And in the process, Keating has grown increasingly controversial, because many insist he has used the tragedy to gain national prominence.

Tuesday, Keating will again be center stage. The criminal case against defendants Timothy J. McVeigh and Terry L. Nichols enters into a weeklong series of hearings on whether the trial should be moved out of Oklahoma to insure a fair proceeding. Prosecutors want it held here. Keating might be their greatest champion. He can recite a briefcase full of reasons why an Oklahoma jury ought to judge an Oklahoma crime.

But unlike others in Oklahoma--and plenty disagree with him--Keating says McVeigh and Nichols could have acted alone. He is not hung up on conspiracy theories. Or the search for a John Doe No. 2. Or an unidentified leg found in the Murrah rubble.

He also differs with many Oklahomans who, in their anger or alienation, suspect the government may have had a hand in the bombing, or at least known about the conspiracy but failed to warn the public. Keating, the former FBI man, scoffs at such talk. "What's the motive for blowing up your best friend?" he asks.

Others in the state applaud his leadership. Polls show his favorability hit 78% this winter--highest of any governor in the nation. His name is offered as a future senatorial candidate, even as a candidate for vice president.

Keating, 51, is ruddy in face, his hair thinning a bit. While his drive is strong, he, too, has had his weak moments. One afternoon not long after the bombing, away from the crowds and the cameras, he lay down on his office couch and sobbed. It is in this same office that he sat down last week to talk about the bombing and its aftermath.

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Question: Nine months after the bombing, how would you describe the people of this state. At first there was this sense of great grief and sorrow, and that seems now to have been overtaken by anger.

Answer: I think that's not unnatural. People that are victimized senselessly by savagery first are grief-stricken and then are angry and vengeful. But there is a contrast between hating the crime and being open-minded as to the criminal.

And I am utterly, vengefully, intolerantly angry about this. For whoever did this. The question is: Are these the guys? I don't know. That's up for the jury to decide. But all of us in Oklahoma want a trial by a judge of ours, in our community; and if these people are responsible, we want a conviction and we want an execution. Because what happened here was utterly, selfishly, intolerantly unacceptable to our people.

Q: Three little questions. If they keep the trial in Oklahoma, where should it be? If they move it outside the state, do you have a preference? And explain why the trial needs to be close to the victims.

A: The state has a right to a fair trial. The defendants have a right to a fair trial. The public has a right to a fair trial. The victims have a right to a fair trial.

An act of criminal arrogance like this should be tried where it occurred by a judge of the community and by a jury of the community; and the victims should have access to the courtroom. Probably the city in Oklahoma that has the facilities and most objectivity would be Tulsa.

If it is moved out of the state, it ought to be scheduled where these people can attend. It's very important to these people. They want to participate. They want to see that justice is done. But that's the process. Otherwise, you'll have vigilantism. If victims don't think that justice is done, they'll take it into their own hands.

Q: There is a sense on the street that these two could not have done this alone. That there are others. Either people fault the government for not being able to find them, or they go to the other extreme and say the government had something to do with this.

A: I, as a citizen, have no trouble accepting the proposition that there could be others. The investigation should be continued. And perhaps even be accelerated. But I don't step to the point where the government was a participant or is a party to a cover-up. That is beyond lucidity.

Q: But there are these unsolved mysteries--John Doe No. 2, this unexplained missing leg. All of which tends to indicate there are others involved.

A: There are often in monumental cases like this conspiracy theories that abound, but in truth there is nothing to them. Often what you have is what we may have here: that these two bottom-crawlers pulled off something like this and there's nothing more to be said. Except that they should be convicted and executed as quickly as possible.

Q: How do you think the rest of the nation views Oklahoma since the bombing?

A: The three lessons of this bombing is that first, there is an Oklahoma. Secondly, is that Oklahoma has pretty good people. And third, that Oklahoma works.

I had the opportunity to go quail hunting with [Ret.] Gen. [H. Norman] Schwarzkopf for half a day. We were walking across a field and he said, "You know, I've been in big wars and little wars, and big tragedies and little tragedies, and big operations and little operations. And in my entire career I have never seen anything handled with the professionalism, the skill of the community and the tremendous efficiency of this city."

I was in South Korea and talking to the president of South Korea and we were trying to get companies to move to Oklahoma. And he said, "Your state is the subject of extensive debate in our country. We had a building collapse in Seoul and our response was not favorably compared to yours."

And the Japanese at the earthquake at Kobe say the same thing. They say what they saw in Oklahoma is what they want to see there. They were very amazed.

Q: As the months go by since the bombing, do you sense people are getting tired of all the tributes and memorials?

A: I go down to this exhibit we have on the east wall in the Capitol and I read a letter from Don Farrell [describing the pain of losing his daughter in the bombing]. You read that down there and it just welds your eyes closed and sucks the air out of you. It's like a solar plexus kick. It's a beautiful piece he wrote. All of us feel that way. All of us have that sense of absence and loss.

Q: Would you rebuild the Murrah building on that site?

A: Oh no. That is hallowed ground. That is a cemetery.

Q: Suddenly you are in the national spotlight. Do you see yourself emerging as a national figure?

A: No. No. I've had many jobs that were not insignificant in the federal government--and my seven or eight years back there were joyous. But this is what I love doing. To come back home to my roots and help make Oklahoma a first-rate state. That's all I care about. I have no desire to run for the Senate. This is what I want to do. This is what I enjoy doing. This is all I'm thinking about.

I'll let everybody else worry about whether I'll get any national queries. My ambition is to finish this off and buy a ranch.

Q: How do you respond to some criticism that you have used the bombing to boost your own political fortunes?

A: I think that's totally unfair because its completely and utterly untrue. I have steadfastly declined to make this a signal of anything. Except of Oklahoma's decency. And all my travel has been significantly for economic development.

It would be like if somebody accused you of not mowing your grass and then you looked out at your lawn and it was all nice and neat. The accusations would just stun you. You'd say, "Where's this guy coming from?"

Q: Your numbers have gone up. That must make you feel good.

A: It wasn't just a bombing high. People felt that I handled the bombing with some degree of skill and they got to know me better and I got to know them better. We all felt like combat veterans when it was over. And that's a wonderful common denominator.

Q: Would you rule out any chance of being on the ticket in '96 in the second spot?

A: There might be a remote possibility, but I can't even imagine such a thing would occur. I don't see that happening. But I wouldn't rule anything out. I don't bring any strength to Dole's ticket. Colin Powell brings strength to Dole's ticket. Right now this is what I love doing.*

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