Originally created 03/24/02

Former senator was enigma in public life



A lot has changed in this country.

- Herman Talmadge, 1987

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

But I cannot honestly explain Herman Talmadge, the former Georgia governor and U.S. senator who died last week at age 88.

The son of famed 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. Yet with Mr. Talmadge there was an inner barrier past which few ever got, much less ventured.

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 the other night, 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, " said James C. Cobb, a professor of history at the University of Georgia, "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 but also ours.

Reach Bill Kirby at (706) 823-3344 or bkirby@augustachronicle.com.