Monday, November 5, 2007

House of Talmadge

In my earliest memories, probably as a preschooler, I played on the lawn of the Georgia Capitol, which was across the street from where I lived at an Atlanta address that has since vanished to make way for interstate highways and put up a parking lot. In addition to bronzed cannons, this playground included an oversized statue of Eugene Talmadge pointing his huge finger down Memorial Drive. At the end of that unscenic highway, find Stone Mountain, in Talmadge’s day and even into the 1960’s, site of Saturday night KKK cross burnings and more permanently the memorial in carved relief sculpture of the three horsemen of the Confederacy: Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis. As Georgia Governor, Eugene Talmadge fired educators from the state university system for advocating “communism or racial equality.” He referred to the Rosenwald Fund, founded by the president of Sears, Roebuck & Co. to support social issues, as “Jew money for niggers.” Earlier this year, it came to light that the FBI had a file on Eugene Talmadge in connection with racial incidents, including a lynching, in the town of Monroe. Eugene Talmadge was elected Governor of Georgia four times in the 1930’s and 1940’s, the same era that four times elected Franklin D. Roosevelt President of the United States. Despite Roosevelt’s many regular visits to Warm Springs, Ga., Eugene Talmadge was not a frequent dinner guest at the Little White House.

Eugene Talmadge won election to his fourth term as governor in 1946 but died before he could take office. The then-new Georgia Constitution provided for a Lieutenant Governor for the first time, and M. E. Thompson had been elected. Upon the death of Gov.-Elect Talmadge, his vassals in the Georgia legislature, operating on the doctrine of divine right of kings and kingmakers, voted to make Eugene Talmadge’s son Herman the new governor. Herman had, after all, received some write-in votes in Telfair County, the Talmadge home, previously uncounted votes, discovered like found money. Come January 1947, both Herman Talmadge and M. E. Thompson claimed the office of Governor of Georgia, and outgoing Governor Ellis Arnall refused to vacate the office to Talmadge. Thus Georgia’s governorship had three pretenders to the throne simultaneously. The Georgia Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of Lt. Gov.-Elect Thompson. In the 1948 special election, Herman Talmadge defeated M. E. Thompson and served as Governor of Georgia until 1954, then was elected in 1956 to the U.S. Senate, where he served until 1980. He became chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and looked out for the interests of farmers and agricultural businesses. His long career in the U.S. Senate ended with censure for padding his expense reports, and even his popular ex-wife Betty testified against him before the Senate Ethics Committee.

However, Sen. Talmadge’s finest moments came as a member of the Watergate Committee, chaired by North Carolina Sen. Sam Ervin. During these investigations of the involvement of President Richard Nixon in the break-in of Democratic Party Headquarters and other 1972 campaign crimes and misdemeanors, a leading tough inquisitor was Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii. One of Nixon’s vassals, under his breath, referred to Sen. Inouye as “that Little Jap.” An open microphone picked up the comment for public consumption. The next day, Sen. Talmadge had the priviledge of reciting in his beautiful Georgia twang for the committee and the national television audience the details of how Sen. Inouye lost his right arm in WWII combat service in the U.S. Army in Italy and won the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Copyright 2007 by William C. Cotter

3 comments:

Jackie said...

When I used to travel out west, people would ask me to tell them about the time we had all the governors. However, I still think Louisana has us beat.

Tina said...

The History of Georgia, by Kenneth Coleman, contains an excellent account of the "three governors" era. You can get it on Amazon, used paperpack. A good read.
To me the Georgia capitol has a really "old Georgia" feel about it. Not altogether pleasant. The most unusual portrait is that of Lester Maddox. If you look carefully at the table shown in the painting, you will see a rolled-up copy of the Atlanta Journal Constitution which clearly contains a dead fish. You can see the head and tail poking out.

Oreo said...

An interesting post. Yes, we here in Sportsman's Paradise have an interesting political history, but I'm not sure it beats this. A photo-finish, at best, maybe.

 

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