He saved Georgia from going down the road to racial ruin like Mississippi and Alabama. He was one of the greatest governors of the 20th century.
– Bill Shipp, on Herman Talmadge
Almost 40 years ago, I sat in the office of Georgia U.S. Sen. Herman Talmadge and we talked about a job.
We were members in the same college fraternity and had met the year before at a social function. I had done some political writing for another governor, and Talmadge invited me to drop in next time I was in Washington.
So there I was.
Honestly? He really didn’t have any need for me, but he was friendly, gracious and wrote down some names on a piece of paper and told his secretary to get me their phone numbers.
Nothing came of it, but whenever I was in Washington over the next decade, I would always go by and pay a call.
For example, one June day in 1980, I joined him and his cousin, U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, for a fun-filled day of behind-the-scenes lawmaking.
They were marvels. Still in my 20s, I struggled to keep up as they bobbed and weaved up and down the Capitol corridors.
It was just me and two of the most powerful Southern politicians of the 20th century – no entourage, no handlers.
Let me report that they spoke frankly. Let me also report that they spoke in Southern accents so thick, no Washington Post reporter would have known what they were saying.
There was also some chewing tobacco involved, and Talmadge deftly targeted every ashtray, garbage can or potted plant we passed with a discreet deposit. I still laugh to remember it.
Memory, however, is a tenuous thing. Last week, the state of Georgia did little to mark the late senator and governor’s 100th birthday.
Well, let me light some belated candles on the cake.
Herman Talmadge was a two-term Georgia governor, and, as former Atlanta Constitution political editor Bill Shipp noted, perhaps the best of the lot over the previous century.
His support for agriculture was stalwart, and his early support for public education was revolutionary in its day.
He was a U.S. senator for almost a quarter-century and his performance during the 1972 Watergate hearings was honest, probing and principled.
As a leader, Talmadge was probably smarter than anyone this side of Jimmy Carter, though he didn’t act like it. He was a shrewder politician than longtime House Speaker Tom Murphy, and he was a more accessible than his junior Senate partner, Sam Nunn.
The photo files of The Augusta Chronicle are thick with 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.
I think he spent much of 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.
Then there were the scandals of a messy divorce, improper campaign cash donations that led to Senate censure, and admission of alcohol problems. Then his 1980 loss to Republican Mack Mattingly, which remains one of the most surprising upsets in Georgia political history.
“The sad thing about Herman Talmadge, “ University of Georgia history professor James C. Cobb 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.”
With his considerable gifts, Herman Talmadge could have done more.
That he didn’t was not only his tragedy, but ours.