Originally created 03/26/02

State pays tribute to Herman Talmadge



ATLANTA -- The state paid tribute Monday to Herman Talmadge, remembering the governor and senator as a survivor of turbulent change during Georgia's emergence from its segregated past into a diverse future.

Four days after Talmadge died at age 88, his body lay in state at the Capitol. Hundreds of mourners filed past his casket, and many more honored his memory at a memorial in Hampton later in the day.

"Herman was a creature of his age. When the age changed, Herman changed," said Mel Steely, a history professor at the University of West Georgia who came to the Statehouse. "He was not a fool and did not suffer fools gladly."

At a three-hour viewing at the Capitol, white-gloved state troopers and other law enforcement officers stood as an honor guard. The casket, framed by floral sprays, was draped in an American flag, and Talmadge's portrait was placed nearby.

Just after 11 a.m., the casket was borne from the Capitol to the strains of the "Navy Hymn" through a double line of saluting law enforcement officers and lawmakers from both chambers.

Gov. Roy Barnes and his wife, Marie, joined former Govs. Lester Maddox and George Busbee and former Sen. Sam Nunn with the family in the solemn march to the hearse.

At a service in Hampton in which taps were played and an American flag placed over the casket, Barnes said every Georgian is the beneficiary of Talmadge's life, calling him an advocate of change even when it wasn't popular - like advocating a sales tax to improve schools.

"He was a fine man. He was always willing to talk to you and help you in any way he could," said Bertrice Hallman of Hampton, a friend of Talmadge's for 55 years, following the service.

"People who are great, never lose it. No matter how long it's been (since he was in office), there are still people who remember," said Betty English, Talmadge's wife's Sunday School teacher at the First Baptist Church of Hampton.

Talmadge, heir to one of Georgia's most powerful political dynasties, was governor from 1948 to 1955 and U.S. senator from 1957 through 1980. His father, the flamboyant Eugene Talmadge, was elected governor a record four times before that.

Though elected as a segregationist, Talmadge remained in power by moderating his views, as did many Southern politicians of the era.

Steely said he teaches his history classes that Talmadge and Miller are the two most important governors of the 20th century.

"Herman, because he changed the face of the state into a modern direction with the bringing of the sales tax," Steely said. "When he got through, there weren't any more one-room schools. They were all gone."

Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin said Talmadge "came through some very turbulent times from a segregated society to an integrated society, and I think he made the transition as good as any elected public official possibly could have. We did not have the turmoil here we had in some other states," Irvin said.

Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond, who is among the first blacks to have been elected to statewide office in Georgia, said Talmadge "was a role model for the modern day white Democratic politician in Georgia. He showed them by example that you could relinquish those racist, segregationist views, reach out to black voters and still maintain political power."

Flags outside the building and on state property elsewhere have been at half-staff since Talmadge's death and were to remain so until after the funeral.

Talmadge came to power at a time when there were two parties in Georgia, "the Talmadge supporters and the Talmadge antis," Irvin said. "You didn't really have Republicans or Democrats. Everybody ran as Democrats."

A World War II veteran, Herman Talmadge was thrust into power with the death of his father, who had been elected to a fourth term but had not taken office. The Talmadge machine, knowing the elder Talmadge was ailing, had prepared for its leader's death by making sure the younger Talmadge received some write-in votes in the election.

In the confusion that followed, the Legislature elected Herman Talmadge governor on the strength of his write-in votes but the Georgia Supreme Court eventually ruled in favor of Lt. Gov.-elect M.E. Thompson.

Talmadge beat Thompson in a special election in 1948 and won a four-year term in 1950.

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

He was chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, from which he shepherded the 1973 Rural Development Act, and won national attention for his role on the Senate Watergate Committee. A few years later his career went into a tailspin because of alcohol abuse, an investigation of his campaign and office expenses and a denunciation by the Senate.

He was defeated in 1980 and never again held public office.

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