Originally created 03/22/02

Featured obituary: Mr. Herman Talmadge



ATLANTA - Herman Talmadge, the junior figure in a father-son dynasty that dominated Georgia politics for a half-century, was remembered with lowered flags and lavish praise after his death Thursday at age 88.

Though elected as a staunch segregationist just after World War II, the former governor and U.S. senator adroitly clung to power through 1980 by reaching out to black voters as the state gradually turned its back on a racist past.

A 3 percent sales tax he pushed through in the 1950s was cited by many Thursday as the first modern step toward improving Georgia's schools and roads. Before that, Democratic state Sen. George Hooks said, "We were looking up at Mississippi."

Others hailed his chairmanship of the Senate Agriculture Committee, from which he shepherded the 1973 Rural Development Act to provide aid for industrial development and water and sewer systems in rural communities.

"He was the best friend the farmers ever had," Georgia House Speaker Tom Murphy said.

He became known to a national audience while serving on the Senate Watergate Committee, but a few years later his career spun out of control with alcohol abuse, an investigation of his campaign and office expenses, and a denunciation by the Senate.

Mr. Talmadge, who had been in declining health for several years, died at his home in Hampton early Thursday. He underwent open heart surgery in July 1997 to replace a defective heart valve. In 1996, doctors removed a cancerous tumor from his throat.

Gov. Roy Barnes ordered flags lowered on state buildings and grounds. Mr. Talmadge's body will lie in state at the Capitol for a few hours Monday. The funeral will be Monday afternoon in Hampton, said Rogers Wade, a former Talmadge aide.

"He grew up in an era when segregation was the law of the land, but as times changed, he changed and served the state well both as governor and U.S. senator," former Gov. Carl Sanders said.

Mr. Talmadge was governor from 1948 to 1955 and was senator from 1957 through 1980. His father, Eugene, was elected governor a record four times.

After the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed segregation, Mr. Talmadge predicted "blood will run in Atlanta's streets." He voted against the 1964 civil rights and the 1965 voting rights bills.

In 1975, however, he was named Man of the Year by predominantly black Morris Brown College.

"One of the things he regretted, I know, was that he had that segregationist past," said state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, a veteran civil rights activist. "When he grew up, that's just how it was. ... But he was a man who delivered for Georgia. He brought the bacon home."

Mr. Talmadge was responsible for one of the most memorable moments in the Watergate hearings.

He quizzed White House aide John Ehrlichman about the break-in at the office of Vietnam War critic Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist, asking whether he remembered the 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?" Mr. Ehrlichman replied. Said Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 Mr. Talmadge knew he had diverted campaign contributions and more than $37,000 in Senate expense funds to the senator's personal use.

Mr. Talmadge narrowly lost re-election in 1980 to Mack Mattingly, the first Republican elected to the Senate from Georgia since Reconstruction.

In his memoirs, published in 1987, Mr. Talmadge wrote, "In retrospect, I wish that I'd burned that damn overcoat."

The scandal clearly damaged Mr. Talmadge, but the ultimate cause of his downfall may have been that "he got caught in a time warp," said University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock.

After winning a bruising Democratic primary contest, which in the past was tantamount to election, Mr. Talmadge paid little regard to his Republican challenger, Dr. Bullock said.

"He went back to Washington, didn't raise more money, didn't come back to the state. He was the first victim at a statewide level of a developing Republican Party."