Bill Kirby blogs Augusta history

Herman Talmadge: Respect, regrets

Chronicle file photo
With Georgia Gov. George Busbee (left) looking on, U.S. Sen. Herman Talmadge campaigns forcefully in Augusta in 1980. He would win the Democratic Primary, but lose to Republican Mack Mattingly in one of Georgia's most shocking political upsets.
In this photo taken about 1960, Herman Talmadge -- as usual -- seems to the focal point of an Augusta crowd.  Chronicle file
Chronicle file
In this photo taken about 1960, Herman Talmadge -- as usual -- seems to the focal point of an Augusta crowd.

I can explain rear-wheel drive, the philosopher Kant's categorical imperative and the infield fly rule.

But I cannot honestly explain the late Herman Talmadge, the former Georgia governor and U.S. senator who would have turned 97 Monday.

The son of famed (and sometimes notorious)  Gov. Eugene Talmadge, Herman surpassed his father in every effective level of governance yet always seemed to be in his shadow.

As a leader, Herman was probably smarter than anyone this side of Jimmy Carter, although he didn't act like it.

He was a shrewder politician than longtime House Speaker Tom Murphy, yet lost his last election when he forgot to pay attention to the voters.

And he was a more accessible than his junior Senate partner, Sam Nunn.

In fact, the photo files of The Augusta Chronicle are clogged thick with large, black and white images of Talmadge visits to Augusta – the crowds were always large.

Yet with Talmadge there was an inner barrier past which few ever got, much less ventured, particularly in the years before his death in 2002.

His 1980 loss to Republican Mack Mattingly remains the most surprising upset in Georgia political history. After it, Mr. Talmadge left both public life and public scrutiny, venturing out only with his 1987 autobiography Talmadge: A Political Legacy, A Politician's Life.

One reviewer summed it up as: "Herman never forgot a friend nor forgave an enemy."

But in glancing through the book again, I found some themes insightful. In it, Mr. Talmadge often refers to politics as "addictive," and complains that the process can drain a man of his strength and health and friendships.

He also maintains that he never wanted to become a politician, but felt responsible to accept the role after his father's death.

I believe that's about as much insight as you're going to get.

I think Herman Talmadge spent his entire life trying to live up to the image of his legendary father Eugene, who was elected to the state's highest office four times.

They named bridges and hospitals after Gene Talmadge. Herman was often the devoted son attending such ceremonies.

And when after 30-plus years as a governor and U.S. senator, the voters finally let Herman go home, he went quickly and quietly and never looked back.

"The sad thing about Herman Talmadge, " James C. Cobb, a professor of history at the University of Georgia, once said "is he probably could have taken Georgia further than he did, if he had moved further beyond his father's shadow and his father's network of support."

Herman Talmage did a lot. His early support for public education was revolutionary in its day. His backing of farmers and agriculture was always stalwart and sure. His performance during the 1972 Watergate hearings was honest, probing and principled.

But with his considerable gifts, Herman Talmadge could have done more.

That was not only his tragedy or Georgia’s tragedy, but also ours.


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charliemanson 08/07/10 - 12:38 pm
His 1980 loss to Republican

His 1980 loss to Republican Mack Mattingly remains the most surprising upset in Georgia political history.

1979) Senator Herman Talmadge of Georgia punished after his ex-wife produced cash "gifts" he had hidden in an overcoat; Talmadge later wrote, "I wish I'd burned that damn overcoat and charged everything on American Express." Talmadge the same year admitted to having spent five weeks in alcohol rehabilitation; he was not re-elected to the Senate in 1980.

Read more:


No upset. Just the voters choosing the best person for the job.

iam4him 08/08/10 - 09:10 am
Newly released files from the

Newly released files from the lynching of two black couples more than 60 years ago contain a disturbing revelation: The FBI investigated suspicions that a three-term governor of Georgia sanctioned the murders to sway rural white voters during a tough election campaign. That was his dad. probably should have done everything to distance himself from the dishonest cheat. I'm glad there is no longer a hospital honoring the lowlife.

iam4him 08/08/10 - 09:25 am
As for him, said Georgia's

As for him, said Georgia's Governor Herman Talmadge: "As long as I am governor, Negroes will not be admitted to white schools."

Nate Owens
Nate Owens 08/09/10 - 05:22 pm
Good read. Informative. I

Good read. Informative. I knew about pappy, not the kid.
Your stuff is always interesting or funny and sometimes both.
Keeps me coming back.
If you get a chance get a book (I think it was only paperback) "Southern Fried" - funny stuff and some pages on Talmadge. Illustrated by my favorite, another son of Georgia, Jack Davis.

spartan22 08/25/10 - 01:47 pm
Its not that Talmadge lost

Its not that Talmadge lost because of his long standing connections to corruption and views on segregation. The Talmadge legacy has survived too long to upset this easily. No, it simply was another 'out of nowhere' event that I remember succinctly ---as the coat tails of a President elect Ronald Reagan that campagned heavily for Republican Mack Mattingly that turned the tide. You dont shut down a long time incumbent without a powerful political machine put in motion that would cause such magnanomous shift in the Georgia political scene. Many incumbents were tossed in the 1980 election in the House and Senate in many Southern states the years that followed 1980 and Republicans won stunning inexplicable elections all over the place, with no better explanation than CHANGE was wanted and tides massively turned alost overnight to become a wholesale exodus to the Republican camp.

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