Originally created 03/21/02

Former Georgia governor Herman Talmadge dies at 88



ATLANTA -- Herman Talmadge, a former governor and U.S. senator who directed Georgia's most potent political machine for more than 30 years after inheriting it from his father, died Thursday. He was 88.

Talmadge, who started his career as a staunch segregationist but later reached out to black voters, died at his home in Hampton, according to Haisten Funeral Home in McDonough.

Talmadge underwent open heart surgery in July 1997 to replace a defective heart valve. In 1996, doctors removed a cancerous tumor from his throat.

His political career began and ended with landmarks. It started with the "three governors" dispute of 1947, in which Talmadge literally seized the governor's office. And it ended in 1980 when he was unseated - amid Senate denunciation and alcohol problems - by the first Republican to win a Georgia Senate race since Reconstruction.

He served six years as governor and 24 years in the Senate.

In that time, Talmadge skillfully rode the tide of Southern racial politics, evolving from a staunch segregationist to a powerful committee chairman who championed economic development in appealing to black and white voters.

After the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed segregation, Talmadge predicted "blood will run in Atlanta's streets." In 1975, however, he was named Man of the Year by predominantly black Morris Brown College.

"In my mind, he's a political legend who helped shape Georgia's history during a period of major social changes," said former Gov. Joe Frank Harris. "He was a lifelong public servant."

He chaired the Senate Agricultural Committee from 1971 to 1980 and shepherded the Rural Development Act into being in 1973 to provide aid for industrial development and water and sewer systems in rural communities.

In 1973, with the Watergate scandal consuming Washington, Talmadge severed on a Senate investigative committee and was responsible for one of the most memorable moments in the hearings that helped lead to President Nixon's resignation in 1974.

He was quizzing White House aide John Ehrlichman about the break-in at the office of Vietnam War critic Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist. Talmadge asked Ehrlichman if he remembered studying the ancient legal principle that "no matter how humble a man's cottage is, that even the King of England cannot enter without his consent."

"I am afraid that has been considerably eroded over the years, has it not?" Ehrlichman replied. Said Talmadge: "Down in my country we still think it is a pretty legitimate principle of law."

But in 1979 the tables were turned when the Senate Ethics Committee looked into irregularities in Talmadge's campaign and office expenses.

His ex-wife, Betty Talmadge, told the committee he used to keep large amounts of money in the pocket of an overcoat in the hall closet of their Washington condominium. The senator said the money was small contributions from supporters who knew he would spend it on personal expenses.

Talmadge ultimately was denounced by Senate members for mishandling his financial affairs. He blamed the problems on a former aide, who pleaded guilty to submitting a false expense account but testified that Talmadge knew he had diverted campaign contributions and more than $37,000 in Senate expense funds to the senator's personal use.

Talmadge narrowly lost re-election in 1980 to Republican Mack Mattingly.

In his memoirs, published in 1987, Talmadge wrote, "In retrospect, I wish that I'd burned that damn overcoat." In 1992 he added, "Don't know what ever happened to that coat. I may still have it."

Herman Eugene Talmadge was born Aug. 9, 1913, to Eugene Talmadge, then a farmer and mule trader, and former telegraph operator Mattie Thurmond Talmadge in McRae in southern Georgia. He was the second of three children and the only son.

Like his father, Talmadge became a lawyer. His father won election as agricultural commissioner and then governor, but the son - by his account - left the Navy at the end of World War II determined not to be a politician.

That changed Dec. 21, 1946, with the death of Eugene Talmadge, then out of office but the governor-elect by virtue of his victory in that fall's election.

The Talmadge machine had prepared for its leader's demise by making sure the younger Talmadge received some write-in votes. The machine maintained that the Talmadge-dominated Legislature should pick the new governor from the losing candidates.

Herman Talmadge won the legislative vote, but was kept from the governor's office by outgoing Gov. Ellis Arnall, who contended Lt. Gov.-elect M.E. Thompson was his rightful successor. When Arnall departed for the night, Talmadge had his supporters take over the office at the Capitol as well as the governor's mansion, and Arnall found his way blocked by state troopers the next day.

The state Supreme Court eventually ruled in favor of Thompson, but Talmadge beat him in a special election in 1948 and won a four-year term in 1950. As governor, he imposed a sales tax and used the money to overhaul schools, hospitals and the road system.

Barred by law from succeeding himself, Talmadge returned to his law practice and farming interests, including a ham curing business, and began a campaign that led to easy election to the Senate in 1956.

He became a force in the Senate, first as part of the Southern coalition that for a time obstructed civil rights legislation and later as chairman of the agriculture committee.

As the Supreme Court's integration ruling took effect, Talmadge withdrew his opposition. He said he had always believed only that the races would both benefit from segregation, never that whites were superior. When Leroy Johnson was elected to the state Senate in 1962, becoming the first black in the Legislature since Reconstruction, Talmadge invited him to breakfast at his mansion in Lovejoy.

Still, he voted against the 1964 civil rights and the 1965 voting rights bills.

Talmadge cast crucial votes in 1978 for the treaties that would yield control of the Panama Canal.

"I will always believe that he did it out of respect for me as a fellow Georgian," then-President Jimmy Carter, who had backed the treaties, later wrote.

In his memoir, Talmadge said his constituents hated the idea of giving the canal to Panama, but he concluded it could not be protected from a hostile host country.

Also in that memoir, Talmadge said he began having drinking problems after the death of the younger of his two sons. Robert Shingler Talmadge, 29, drowned while on a Memorial Day outing at Lake Lanier in 1975.

Talmadge was treated for alcohol abuse at a naval facility in Long Beach, Calif., in 1979. In December 1992 he said he had not touched alcohol since that time, and "I'm happier than I've ever been in my life."

He was divorced from Betty Talmadge in 1977 after 35 years of marriage.

After his defeat at the polls in 1980, Talmadge returned to his 2,500-acre farm in Henry County south of Atlanta.

In 1984, he married Lynda Pierce, a home economist about 25 years his junior. It was his third marriage. He and his first wife, model Kathryn Williams, divorced three years after marrying in 1937.

Talmadge said he deliberately avoided politics in his later years and missed it only slightly. But he said some former constituents still called him for help, unaware he had been out of office for years.

"I see so much going wrong and I'm powerless to affect it in any way," he said.

In addition to his wife, Lynda Pierce Talmadge, survivors include a son, Herman Eugene Talmadge Jr. of Lovejoy, and several grandchildren.