Virginia Knauer, top consumer adviser to three presidents, dies at 96

Virginia Knauer, the top consumer adviser to three Republican presidents and an early advocate of recycling, unit pricing and other reforms that have become standard practices, died Oct. 16 at her home in Washington. She was 96.

She had congestive heart failure, said her granddaughter, Nancy J. Knauer.

(Steve Szabo/The WASHINGTON POST) - Virginia Knauer was a presidential consumer affairs adviser to three Republican presidents (Nixon, Ford, Reagan) and advocated several reforms in consumer products (product labeling, recycling, improved safety) long before they became the norm. In 1972, she introduced her assistant, Elizabeth Hanford, to her future husband, Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.).

When Mrs. Knauer became President Richard Nixon’s special assistant for consumer affairs in 1969, she was the highest-ranking woman in the administration. She also held the title of director of the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs, but neither job came with any legislative or enforcement authority.

Nonetheless, Mrs. Knauer became an energetic voice for consumers, giving scores of speeches around the country and urging manufacturers to be more responsive to the needs of their customers.

“Get with it, boys,” she told one trade group, “or Congress will act.”

Mrs. Knauer was a well-coiffed grandmother when she became Nixon’s consumer adviser, but she had already spent years sharpening her political instincts as a Republican operative and city council member in Philadelphia.

In Washington, where she also served as director of the Office of Consumer Affairs under presidents Gerald R. Ford and Ronald Reagan, Mrs. Knauer was not afraid to mix it up with critics from both the right and the left.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader charged that she had little authority to bring about change, but business groups and members of her own party accused her of moving too fast and ignoring the imperatives of commerce.

In 1969, Mrs. Knauer had a well-publicized dispute with Agriculture Secretary Clifford M. Hardin and meat manufacturers over the fat content of hot dogs. At the time, there were no restrictions, and some hot dogs were more than 50 percent fat.

Mrs. Knauer argued for a maximum fat content of 30 percent, but Hardin insisted that 33 percent was fine. One evening, Nixon called Mrs. Knauer at her office.

“Virginia, I just wanted you to know I’m with you 100 percent on the hot dogs,” the president said. “I’m on a low cholesterol diet myself.”

The Department of Agriculture soon established a 30 percent limit on fat content.

Mrs. Knauer’s office received thousands of letters a month, which prompted her to write to manufacturers, demanding explanations and follow-up reports on why their products didn’t work. After she drew attention to defective school buses, General Motors ordered them recalled.

She promoted recycling bottles and other products and introduced consumer awareness to public school curriculums. Long before such practices were commonplace, Mrs. Knauer was an advocate for nutritional labels, unit pricing of groceries and the disclosure of ingredients in cosmetics. She helped get transparent windows placed in the front and back of bacon packages, allowing shoppers to assess its fat content and general quality

When U.S. automakers were slow to install safety and environmental features, she presciently warned in 1970:

“The Japanese will be first on the market with a non-polluting engine. The Germans will be first on the market with an effective bumper; and . . . as a result of foreign innovation, the domestic automobile companies will see their share of the market drop considerably.”

Much to the surprise of her detractors, Mrs. Knauer showed that it was good business to cater to consumers. She commissioned a study in the early 1970s demonstrating that companies could prosper more through good customer relations than by attracting new customers through advertising.

“What I’ve done is keep an open door here,” Mrs. Knauer told The Washington Post in 1970. “To be pro-consumer militantly doesn’t mean to be militantly anti-business.”

Virginia Harrington Wright was born March 28, 1915, in Philadelphia. Her father was an accounting professor at Temple University.

Through a dual-degree program, she received bachelor’s degrees in art history from the University of Pennsylvania and in fine arts from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1937. She studied portrait painting in Florence before World War II.

Through the 1950s, Mrs. Knauer was one of the country’s top breeders of Doberman Pinschers and was president of the Doberman Pinscher Club of America.

Wilhelm F. Knauer, her husband of 36 years and a lawyer, died in 1976. A son, Wilhelm F. Knauer Jr., died in 1986.

Survivors include a daughter, Valerie Burden of Washington; three granddaughters; and a great-grandson.

Mrs. Knauer was elected to the Philadelphia City Council in 1959 and headed the Pennsylvania Bureau of Consumer Protection before coming to Washington.

“I’ve been a feminist for 20 years,” Mrs. Knauer told The Post in 1970, “and I’m all for advancing women in public office.”

In her early days in the Nixon administration, Mrs. Knauer’s top assistant was a young lawyer named Elizabeth Hanford. In 1972, Mrs. Knauer introduced Hanford to her future husband, Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.). Elizabeth Dole later became secretary of transportation and secretary of labor and a U.S. senator from North Carolina.

“Virginia Knauer was the great inspiration in my life and career,” Elizabeth Dole said in a statement, “a best friend, wise mentor . . . dedicated public servant and lifelong advocate for consumer protection.”