Herman Talmadge, 88; Georgia Senator
Herman O. Eugene Talmadge, a former governor and U.S. senator from Georgia who once predicted that “blood will run in the streets of Atlanta” if the schools were desegregated, died Thursday at 88.
In failing health for several years, fighting throat cancer, heart ailments, pneumonia and ulcers, Talmadge died at home in Hampton, Ga. The cause of death was not announced.
Part of a powerful Southern political family, Talmadge was a politician who abetted segregation and encouraged resistance to federal integration efforts. After the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court that called for desegregation of the schools, Talmadge offered his prediction of violent unrest over the decision.
“He pleased the people but he did not lead them,” said Eugene Patterson, former editor of the Atlanta Constitution, who often editorialized against Talmadge during the tumultuous civil rights era.
“When they faced the difficult task of respecting the law as interpreted by the Supreme Court in 1954, he was of little help. Rather, he kept the favor of people who resisted the inevitable,” Patterson said.
By the end of his career, after blacks had won the right to vote (over his objections), he had dropped race-baiting from his vocabulary, eventually winning majority black support and a man of the year honor from a black college for his financial support.
His parents were “Ol Gene” Talmadge, a flamboyant politician elected governor of Georgia three times, and Mattie Thurmond Talmadge, known as Miss Mitt and a second cousin of South Carolina’s Sen. Strom Thurmond.
So powerful was the family and its political machine from the 1920s to the 1980s, that it was said in Georgia that you were not so much a Democrat or a Republican, but a pro-Talmadge voter or a communist.
With a lock of hair loose on his forehead and a cigar his constant companion, Talmadge rose in Washington to chair the Senate Agriculture Committee, where he championed food stamps and the school lunch program. He served on the Watergate Committee that found evidence of a cover-up in Richard Nixon’s White House.
And though a reluctant participant in the proceedings--he often said he did not know why Nixon did not hold a huge bonfire on the White House lawn and burn the audio tapes that incriminated him--he was involved in one of the more interesting moments in the hearings.
While questioning John Ehrlichman about the break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, he asked Nixon’s aide if he recalled the idea 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 responded.
“Down in my country,” Talmadge replied, “we still think it is a pretty legitimate principle of law.”
Despite his longevity in the Senate, Talmadge had few friends in Washington, and often saw life through the prism of his past--a Populist, machine-driven kind of politics where loyalty was more important than ideology and street smarts trumped a formal education. Famously, he once said of a colleague, “He was educated beyond his intelligence.”
Talmadge grew up in rural central Georgia and studied to be a lawyer. He got his start in the statehouse at the center of one of the most remarkable chapters in Georgia history, sometimes called the Three Governor Era.
His father, having been elected, died before he could assume office. The Georgia Legislature, controlled by the Talmadge machine, chose 33-year-old Herman to replace him. The incumbent, Ellis Arnall, resisted, but Talmadge loyalists changed the locks on Arnall’s office.
Arnall responded by swearing in his lieutenant governor, M.E. Thompson. For months, the state had three men claiming to be governor, until the Georgia Supreme Court embraced Thompson as interim governor. The following year, Herman Talmadge won election to fill out his father’s term.
“Many [who voted for him] were dead and voted in alphabetical order,” quipped Bill Shipp, a longtime observer of Georgia politics who runs an online political newsletter called billshipp.com..
Talmadge himself, in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution years later, put it this way: “People enjoyed politics then. It was a form of entertainment.”
Within 10 years, he decided he was ready for Washington, and told Sen. Walter F. George that his time was up.
“Sen. George was not ready to retire, but he had majored in international affairs, not always popular down here,” recalled Shipp. “Talmadge frightened him out of it.”
Talmadge served in Washington for more than 20 years and, despite having little national impact, he left a deep impression on his staff.
He once caught legislative aide Dan Tate Sr. dawdling over answering some constituent mail. Talmadge told him to stay the night until he answered all of it. Tate said the remaining letters were written in crayon, clearly from nut cases. “Dan,” drawled Talmadge, “nuts vote.”
Talmadge’s political career was shattered by a divorce from his second wife, Leila Elizabeth “Betty” Shingler. They had married at the governor’s mansion in 1941, but in a bitter 1977 divorce she disclosed his drinking and corruption. In 1978, she told the Senate Ethics Committee that Talmadge kept $100 bills stuffed in his coat, gifts from voters.
The Senate denounced Talmadge. He later said he wished he had “burned that damn overcoat” and, admitting that he was an alcoholic, went to Long Beach, Calif., for rehabilitation.
He mourned the death of his son, who had died in a drowning accident. Then he ran for reelection, as Talmadges always did.
He had a closer-than-usual race in the Democratic primary, from a man who now serves in the Senate, Zell Miller. In a statement released Thursday, Miller said, “The tallest tree in the Georgia forest has fallen.”
Having survived the toughest battle that year, Talmadge assumed that he would skate toward a general election victory. His opponent, Mack Mattingly, was a Republican, and no Republican had ever beaten a Talmadge.
But by 1980, the Old South had changed. Suburban conservatives were no longer Democrats, and blacks were no longer mostly Republicans. Mattingly won, narrowly. Talmadge went home, married a third time and wrote his memoirs.
Six years after he left Washington, he said in an interview, “I call up people these days and tell them my name is Talmadge, and they say, ‘Will you please spell that for me?’”
Talmadge said he always replied, “Where the hell have you been?”