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The Talmadge Story

A report from Georgia

Only an act of God can keep Herman Talmadge out of the United States Senate," is the way a Georgia politician sums up the situation in his state. No active opposition of consequence to Talmadge has shown up. It is safe to say that nobody of political consequence cares to dispute the right of way with "Hummon." This is startling, in view of Georgia's history of bitter factionalism—startling until one realizes that there is now but one faction, due to the domination sedulously built up by Talmadge in the decade since his father's death. Herman inherited a powerful machine, but that strength has been enhanced by his patience, cunning and luck into something bigger than anything Old Gene could have dreamed of. Herman has Georgia in the palm of his hand because he has deliberately sought and gained support his father never had—could not have attracted or would have driven off. Herman is monarch of all he surveys and has the satisfaction of knowing that he reigns because he planned it that way.

The elder Talmadge came a cropper once or twice be cause he was capable of overreaching himself, or because he was cranky, or, above all, because he operated by rule of thumb. The younger man, except for one misplay at the outset of his political career, has taken a subtler course. He has chosen to try to catch flies with honey rather than with vinegar. He has gone about the business of consolidating his power systematically, hiding his ruthlessness under a veneer of considerateness and good form.

That is why he has a large city backing, in addition to the devotion of the "wool-hat boys." His father used to brag of being successful in spite of the fact that he had not carried a county with a streetcar in it. But Herman has support in places where you would least expect to see it—in the press, which has given up the fight, and among groups which had reason to be dubious about the cut of his jib.

To be understood, Herman Talmadge must be seen as the second in a dynasty established by his father, Eugene, who for 20 odd years was the worshipped leader of a political faction which relied for its success on the county unit system, the most monstrous perversion of democracy imaginable. The only great rebuff Herman received when he went to the people had to do with his effort to imbed the county-unit system in the state constitution.

Under the county-unit arrangement, the state's 159 counties are arbitrarily divided into three categories, with the 8 most populous entitled to 6 unit votes apiece, the next 30 to 4 and the rest to 2. The result is that 121 small, rural counties determine the political destiny of the state. In 1946, Eugene Talmadge was elected Governor by a popular minority and a county-unit majority.

This abomination was in vogue before Gene became a colossus. Tom Watson, the ex-Populist, used it to his advantage in the 90's, as did others. But it was Talmadge who made it the institution it has become. He brought to the old rural-urban cleavage a personality and a predatory instinct tailored for its perpetuation. It is not surprising that this traditional split had bedeviled Georgia politics longer than elsewhere. Georgia farmers were neglected while prosperity was being sought through the fostering of industry and trade in the cities. Metropolitan bankers and cotton factors were waxing rich, while wretchedness prevailed in the countryside.

Along came Eugene Talmadge with his red galluses, speaking the language of the disinherited, damning the corporations, appealing to vestigial remains of Populist sentiment, playing the part of the "Wild Man from Sugar Creek." He was first elected Governor in the early 3O's, and before long became conspicuously embroiled with the federal government. A thorough authoritarian him self, he could not abide the Roosevelt bureaucrats.

He had been elected as the farmer's friend. But he soon showed a capacity for making other friends. He began to display the ambivalence—some call it playing both ends against the middle—which made him at once the champion of the forgotten man and the benefactor of the interests. When he fought the New Deal, he clinched his hold on the respect of the business community. When he broke up a textile strike with troops, and later kept evicted workers in a "concentration camp," that respect turned to deification.

So corporation executives and tenant-farmers were political bedfellows in support of Eugene Talmadge. One gathers that it never occurred to the "wool-hat boys" that Gene could not be faithful to them if he was con sorting with the crowd which was supposed to be grinding their faces. He was, in any case, a successful Jekyll and Hyde until the day of his death. Then it was that Hummon," who had twice served his father as campaign manager, came into the picture on his own behalf.

Elected Governor for the fourth time. Gene Talmadge died in 1946 before he could be inaugurated. Thereupon, the Legislature declared Herman—not the Lieutenant Governor, M. E. Thompson—chief executive. Herman took over the office with military force and held it for 67 days until the Supreme Court of Georgia ruled against him. Two years later, as the result of a special election, he became Governor.

He had promised not to raise taxes, but there was little he could do without an overflowing treasury. When a Sales tax was proposed in the Legislature, Herman professed to be against it. He could have kept the servile Legislature from imposing the tax, but he did not exert himself for that purpose. What he preferred to do was to sign the bill with a show of reluctance. As a result, Talmadge had more money to play around with than any predecessor; so much money, indeed, that the largesse of the Talmadge administration could be distributed with nice awareness of returns on the investment.

As Governor, Herman Talmadge was not the paragon conjured up by his idolaters—by columnists who have joined his procession, bankers who have enjoyed cooperating with him, the power elite which figures large in Georgia as in most other Southern states. But he was unquestionably a good Governor, if the test be lavish expenditures enhancing the prestige of the man 'n charge. He deserves credit for having done "more to build Georgia than all his predecessors," as his admirers insist. He deserves the applause called for by improvements, valued at $740 million, publishing themselves in highways, college buildings, hospitals, health centers, forest conservation, farmers' markets. He raised the pay of teachers. Under his direction 53 percent of the state's income went to education—the highest ratio in the nation, he estimates.

He himself has pointed out that, in spite of the "noise about what I was doing to or against the Negro," he was responsible for the outlay of $3,715,000 for the expansion of Negro colleges; a half million dollars for a psychiatric hospital for Negroes, replacing "a dilapidated, broken-down fire trap"; $476,000 for an academy for the Negro blind, "described by educational authorities as the most modern in the nation"; the same amount for the physical modernizing of the school for the Negro deaf.

This is an impressive record. But it is the record of a spending Governor, not a creative one. In the light of Governor Ellis Arnall's performance 1942-46, Herman Talmadge's is conventional and limited. Arnall brought about administrative reforms, a new constitution, a genuine renewal of Negro suffrage. These are real advances in a Southern state. They stand for the sort of competence which is beyond Herman Talmadge, who is given to doing the routine thing on a generous scale.

That is why his achievement lacks the enduring quality which is the proof of genuine constructiveness. Everything is deteriorating under the present Griffin ad ministration, actually an extension of Talmadge's control. The fact is that as things were before Talmadge they are again, because he did nothing to raise a standard to which wise and honest men could repair.

Re-elected in 1950, he could not under the Georgia law succeed himself four years later. But he was free to keep on building his fences for a greater distinction. The elder Talmadge had sought unavailingly to break into the United States Senate. The younger man felt the same itch, but went about easing it in a much craftier way. He made sure that the next Governor would be his man, so that, if the Lord took away Senator George, Herman Talmadge would be appointed to the vacancy. But if George withstood the ravages of time and chance, Talmadge would leave nothing undone to persuade George to retire at the end of his term. George went through the motions of intending to fight it out with the upstart. But he found he had no friends left in Georgia of any political account. He found he could not raise a decent campaign fund. Talmadge had seen to that.

The tills which Senator George thought he could tan were already Talmadge's. With his hold on the small counties, Talmadge could speak sternly to these monied people. All he had to do was to let them know that he meant business when he claimed George s seat. He had been their friend, and they were his friends. They must have felt a natural reluctance to part with an old reliable like George. But here was a new reliable, a young and dynamic one, who would not be remote from the folks at home, as George had been. Moreover, they were being pressed by a man of steel, who had declared himself and who would be elected against George or any other contender.

How had Herman Talmadge managed to become powerful enough to impose his will in this fashion? He had in his pocket the adherents of the Talmadge machine —their name was legion, and they were in the right places and, besides, as we have seen, he has contrived to ingratiate himself with elements which would have spurned his father. But a new and compelling factor had entered the equation. As luck would have it, the US Supreme Court handed down the school integration decision in 1954, the issue he could use to his heart's content.

He had always been a racist, because that was his father's best issue, because that was the way his backwoods backers would have him be, and—let's be fair—because that was his own predilection. So who promptly jumped to the head of the column of Southern reaction to the decree? Herman Talmadge, of course, and he it was who, in the course of a national television pro gram, presented the case for Southern opinion so impressively, if not ominously, that he became a national figure. Two years later, he made another TV appearance, and repeated his earlier triumph.

Thoughtful viewers who expected to be confronted 'with another old-fashioned Southern demagogue, saw and heard a restrained, articulate man, who tore no passion to tatters, but who by his very self-control, in view of the nature of his thinking, took on a sinister quality. This was Demagogy New Style; none of the violence of a Tillman or a Watson; nothing but a cool, calculated ventilation of primitive views on race relations, the rights of human beings who happen to be colored, the proper function of the Supreme Court and states' rights. Talmadge was well-prepared for this showing on a grand scale. He had spoken to innumerable audiences at home, through every medium, to the same general effect, although not always with the "correctness" which he demonstrated abroad. He has had a TV program of his own, and he has edited his father's paper, The Statesmen. In short, he has had ample opportunity to work out variations on a familiar theme.

Like Tom Moore's man, he has two voices, bass and tenor. Herman can be unceremonious with his neighbors and dressed-up for other audiences. He learned that trick from his father, although Gene found it harder and harder, as he grew older, to stay within bounds. His son shifts gears more readily. He can do this, because he has a tighter rein on his impulses and has a better mind.

A better mind, but not cultivated nor truly civilized. What Herman does possess is a shrewd intelligence, which he uses as a complete materialist. To him, as to Peter Bell, a primrose by the river's brim is a yellow flower, and nothing else. He moves passively and portentously within the range of his narrow outlook, massively with the sure-footedness of a Joe Louis, portentously as though he were a kind of Juggernaut.

This is not another Tom Watson, capable of writing an engaging life of Napoleon Bonaparte. Talmadge merely echoes the fanaticism of the later, rabid Watson, while avoiding his intemperance. His experience as a naval officer with a fine record in World War II gave him a fresh polish but not a fresh horizon. He is an activist, with only sufficient ingenuity to be a consummate strategist in his chosen field of politics. He did not take to the law seriously, and his farming is on the avocational side.

He believes in good fences—good fences in the form of unqualified segregation, good fences against having any truck with foreigners, good fences against social and economic reforms, good fences to keep the Supreme Court from going back on its dicta of 60 years ago. He is, like his father, a militant defender of the status quo against the astrologers, the star gazers, the monthly prognosticators. He is immune to the stir and fret of a world in transition. Like his father again, he stands for a particular kind of chauvinism, which would make the dark, brooding intolerance of the Georgia backwoods the yardstick of national and international conduct.

Consider the little book, You and Segregation, which he got out for campaign purposes in 1955 before he was sure of frightening Senator George into with drawing. One goes through these 79 pages and looks in vain for something to lift the heart, something which reveals a philosophy of government rising above prejudice, something to indicate that law has a social significance, that states' rights are not what they were before the Civil War, that there are some things in heaven and earth which a Talmadge can object to without resort to the cry of Communism. In this pamphlet, Talmadge takes his place alongside men like Eastland and McCarthy, who denounce Chief Justice Warren as a fellow-traveler.

Eugene Talmadge was a Negrophobe to the extent of being willing to imperil the standing of his alma mater, the University of Georgia. As a consequence, he antagonized friends and alumni of that institution, and paid a heavy political price for his vandalism. His son, in finitely more discreet, has won the favor of those who condemned Eugene. As a result, he has just finished a term as president of the Georgia Alumni Society. This represents a difference in technique which can be illustrated by another reference to the University.

Eugene as a student was an inveterate debater and joined in every discussion at the old Phi Kappa Society. His favorite trick was to make his point, pause, and then from a distance of 10 feet or so expectorate tobacco juice through the open door of a 'big pot-bellied stove, full of red-hot coal. The sizzling which followed seemed to delight his soul. It was as though he were receiving the applause he needed to proceed with his forensic display. Already he saw himself as the tribune of the people and was perfecting himself in the vulgarisms with which he later won the hearts of so many followers.

But Herman, a generation later, hit upon a more refined way of producing an impression. He too was a persistent college debater, and quite naturally took the affirmative side of the question: "Should Talmadge be re-elected Governor?" This was a student affair, held in the college chapel. But the speaking had not gone far before it was plain that a Talmadge clique, in part non-academic, occupied the front seats and was providing the noisy approval which Herman felt he needed. The device is not unknown to stump-speakers and others seeking public approval, but, so far as Herman was concerned, it was a distinct improvement on his father's tactic.

Since then, he has carried this self-discipline to the point of seeming a machine of sorts. But the human frailties are his also. He was once prone to heavy drinking. During his early days as Governor, he was host at a gathering of Governors in a suburban hotel near Savannah. His fondness for the bottle was embarrassingly conspicuous on this occasion. He was AWOL from several functions. When a superior court judge was to be sworn in, he could not be found, while everybody stood at gaze like Joshua's moon in Avalon. It is reported that, through the good offices of the evangelist Billy Graham, he has quit imbibing. The quip is going the rounds in Georgia that the water wagon is the only wagon, other than his own, which Herman has cared to mount.

His followers adore him, whatever his pecadillos, and they adore him not merely because he can drop into their idiom, voice their views and look to their feet, but because of some quality which endears him to them and makes them cling to him. Just what this quality is can only be guessed. It is certainly hidden from Talmadge's critics. It arises in part, we must assume, from the fact that he has come to symbolize what they crave in political leadership. Herman outshines his father in this '•aspect, because he is the more sophisticated. In "The Honorable Peter Stirling," the hero, also a politician, gladdens the hearts of the barflies by wearing evening clothes in their company—they are so identified with him ^s their own that they become vicariously the glass of fashion, the mold of form.

There he stands, at the age of 43, about to take a seat in the United States Senate. What is his role likely to be 'n that forum? There is a growing body of opinion in Georgia which holds that being in Washington will be a sobering experience for Talmadge—that he will avoid being an extremist and try to be a statesman. With most of these optimists, of course, the wish is father to the thought. They are, perforce, reconciled to having Talmadge in the Senate. It is a short step for them, in the circumstances, to make the best of an unwelcome situation by persuading themselves that somehow good will flow out of what they would have recently regarded as an affliction.

On the other side are those who are expecting the worst. They do not believe the leopard can change his spots. They do not believe that Talmadge can fail to be himself—for two good reasons. The first is that he takes quite literally the suggestion that he has "accepted the leadership of the pro-segregation forces, standing up to the Supreme Court's most momentous decision since Dred Scott." The second reason is that if he softens, if he does not rise to this challenge, he will lose his hold on the voters who made him what he is. Herman will not take that risk.

It is possible to name some Southern demagogues who grew lax or who became weary of splitting the ears of the groundlings. They were older men taking their ease in Zion-—like "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman of South Carolina, content to roar occasionally but able to get away from his obsession. But it is to be noted that none of these changelings was in Talmadge's shoes, none came to the center of the stage at a similar conjunction of events. It can be said of Talmadge, as William Logan Yancey said of Jefferson Davis: "The man and the hour have met."

Some Southern politicians have mellowed in Washington. They have been broadened by their contacts, they have sat at the feet of great men, they have consciously chosen to improve themselves through study, through lending themselves to noble causes, through absorbing ideas greater than themselves—in short, they have taken the poet's advice and left their outgrown shells by life's unresting sea. Conceivably, Herman Talmadge could go through such a process, and so escape his low-vaulted past.

But the odds are against his doing so. He will not be in an atmosphere congenial to such a sea change. But, even if he were, he would resist alteration because he is not the stuff which suffers alteration. He is neither bookish, nor inclined to invite his soul, nor aware of a world outside his touch and ken. He is a manager, a doer, not even distantly an intellectual. All his life, he has preferred the mixed diet of politics to the milk and honeycomb of the spirit.

No Senator from the South is so well equipped or so zealous to become the head and front of a sustained fight for segregation. He has youth, brains, courage, vigor, ambition, resolution, in ample measure. He is hampered by no entangling alliances. He does not have to pull his punches. He is committed exclusively to the preservation of what he would call "the Southern way of life." Any changes which Washington may bring are likely to accentuate his single-mindedness and make him the choice and master spirit of racial reactionism in the Senate. His program of Southern solidarity advanced in You and Segregationwill have a sounding-board in his Senate activities.

We must organize as we have never been organized before [he declares]. Acting with calmness and deliberation, we must form an organization in each state pledged to utilize ail legal and lawful means to restore Constitutional government in the country and to re establish the inalienable rights of the several states and their citizens to govern their own affairs. . . . This is buncombe, but Talmadge is the man to use it as his pabulum for years to come. The organization he proposes may yet emerge. It is certain that a heavier than-ever bombardment of the Supreme Court is ahead of us. It is no less certain that legislative efforts will be made to curb the authority of the Court by statute. In some quarters, the hope is being nursed that if only the shouting can be kept up long enough effectuation of the school decision can be avoided indefinitely. "Judges have been known to change their minds. The Court might temper its attitude in response to steady Congressional pounding."

A whirlwind of rebellion is in prospect, and Herman Talmadge will be in his element, riding the storm.