ALMOST WITHOUT TRYING, HE acquired a near-indelible national image. Wherever he went in those first terrible days following the Oklahoma City bombing, whether tirelessly visiting the families of victims or inspecting the rubble of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating seemed to strike the right note. Grim, but not gloomy; outraged, yet utterly composed. The performance was all the more impressive given the toll it was taking. A week after the blast, Keating, 51, went back to his office one afternoon and lay down. Suddenly he found himself weeping. "I was obviously exhausted," he says, "and it was all just so awful." So it was almost with a sense of relief that Keating told his older brother Martin over lunch a few weeks ago that "my 15 minutes of fame are over."

But that assessment may be premature. The federal building has since been demolished (and the last of its 168 victims removed from the rubble May 29), but Keating remains as something of an accidental political celebrity. Not only has he been a guest host on CNN's Larry King Live, he has also received scores of offers for speaking engagements across the U.S. The irony is that Keating's stock has risen so quickly around the country, it has yet to register fully at home. "People in Oklahoma don't realize that they now have a national figure on their hands," says Frosty Troy, editor of the Oklahoma Observer, a liberal bimonthly.

The governor's roots in his home state—and in politics—go deep. His father, Anthony, was a wealthy Tulsa oilman and head of the city's chamber of commerce; his mother, Anne Martin, was the daughter of a New Deal Illinois congressman. (In addition to Martin, 54, an attorney and writer in Tulsa, Keating has a twin brother, Daniel, who works in banking and insurance there.) As a child, says Keating, "I was very sheltered in Tulsa." Raised a strict Catholic, he went to parochial schools, then to Georgetown University in Washington and finally to the University of Oklahoma law school.

In 1969, law degree in hand, Keating joined the FBI as a field agent in San Francisco. For the rich kid from Tulsa, the job offered a glimpse of society that he had rarely seen. "I just loved it," he admits. "I loved the investigations and arrests." One of Keating's assignments was to infiltrate left-wing underground groups like the Black Panthers and the Weathermen. Though those groups never staged an attack on the scale of the Oklahoma City bombing, Keating says he sees only superficial differences between their rhetoric and that of the right-wing militias. "The leftists I dealt with would never consider themselves patriots, and they had contempt for the government," he says. "The right-wing crowd has contempt for the government, and yet see themselves as patriots. It's a curious anomaly, but both of them are very similar."

As much as he enjoyed the life of a G-man, though, Keating admits, "I was terribly homesick for Oklahoma." After just two years, he returned to Tulsa and took a job as an assistant district attorney. Then, in 1972, on a blind date, he met Cathy Heller, the daughter of a wealthy Tulsa oilman. Keating had begun a run for the state legislature by then, and two days after he took office—seven months after they met—the couple married. Keating would serve in the legislature for the next nine years, working four days at the capital in Oklahoma City, returning to Tulsa and his growing family on weekends. (The Keatings have three children: Carrie, now 21, a junior at the University of Virginia; Kelly, 19, a freshman at Southern Methodist University; and son Chip, 15.) During legislative sessions, "he called every single night, talking to every one of the children," says Cathy, 44. "He wanted to make sure they knew that even though he wasn't present he was there."

Politically, Keating built a record that was not so much moderate as eclectic. In the 1970s he was the only Republican in the legislature who voted to make Martin Luther King's birthday a state holiday. He fought to liberalize liquor laws and voted for the Equal Rights Amendment. But he has been an ardent foe of abortion and specific legal protections for gays, and he endorses a law permitting the carrying of concealed weapons.

After a failed bid for Congress in 1984, Keating moved with his family to Washington, where he held a series of mid-level posts in the Reagan and Bush administrations. But in 1993, after eight years away from Oklahoma, he returned home and began lining up support for the governor's race. Last November he won a four-year term. Three months after he took office, the Oklahoma City bomb went off.

How Keating will fare down the road in the world of Oklahoma politics is unclear. Apart from his exemplary role in the relief effort, he raised the hackles of state Democrats by referring to them as "dunderheads" in a recent speech and has worried some moderates by appointing members of the religious right to key posts in his administration. As for the lure of national politics, including suggestions that he might emerge as a vice-presidential candidate on the 1996 Republican ticket, Keating is matter-of-fact. "For the time being," he says, "I've got my work cut out for me here."

BILL HEWITT
JOSEPH HARMES in Oklahoma City

  • Contributors:
  • Joseph Harmes.