Bill Kirby began his career with The Augusta Chronicle 40 years ago and has held just about every job in the newsroom. He and his wife Carla spend their spare time doting on their West Highland terriers, Lil' Bow Wow ("Buddy") and Snoop Dog. He writes several local columns each week, as well as YouTube videos on local history called "Kirby's Augusta." From 1998 until 2001 he was editor and publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. Over a 40-year newspaper career he has won more than 100 state, regional and national awards for reporting, editing, column writing, editorial writing, sports writing, business writing, investigative reporting, layout and design.
Posted August 5, 2010 10:01 am - Updated August 5, 2010 11:26 am

Herman Talmadge: Respect, regrets

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.