Verner column: My favorite political rascals
My colleague Shavonne Potts’ recent column about some of the shenanigans committed by politicians from South Carolina, her home state, touched off something of a mini-debate about which state has the more embarrassing skeletons clattering about in its political closet, North Carolina or South Carolina.
Both Carolinas have had their fair share of cads and cutthroats in office, yet neither can hold a candle to my home state of Georgia when it comes to electing rogues, rakes and nincompoops. I don’t want to boast, but when you come from a state that can lay claim to Lester Maddox, Herman Talmadge and “Machine Gun” Ronnie Thompson ó as well as the Yazoo Land Fraud ó well, that’s an impressive resume.
While South Carolina can claim Strom Thurmond, Georgia can counter with Maddox, governor from 1967 to 1971. Coming from a long line of “states’ rights” segregationists, Maddox campaigned by riding a bicycle backward and handing out miniature pickaxe handles, a symbolic reminder of his refusal to allow blacks to eat at his Pickrick restaurant in Atlanta. (He finally shut it down rather than heed court-ordered integration.) What many people don’t remember, however, is his reaction to the 1968 slaying of Martin Luther King Jr. Maddox, who once labeled King “an enemy of our country,” refused to allow King’s body to lie in state at the Capitol, refused to attend his funeral and objected to the flags flying at half-staff at the Capitol. Convinced the massive crowd converging on Atlanta for King’s service would bring on Armageddon, Maddox barricaded himself in his office amid riot-gear equipped troopers until the throngs dispersed. As a friend later observed: “Maddox was probably Georgia’s finest 19th century governor. He was just born 100 years too late.”
When it comes to rogue senators, North Carolina’s John Edwards is a tough act to follow, but he’s a political piker when set alongside Herman Talmadge, a four-term senator and former governor. Edwards was caught with his pants down; Talmadge was caught with his overcoat on ó its pockets stuffed with wads of cash constituting “campaign contributions” and Senate expense money. What makes this even more delicious is that it was the senator’s spiteful wife, Betty Talmadge, who defrocked him during their 1978 divorce proceedings. Along with accusing him of “cruel treatment and habitual intoxication,” she revealed the existence of the cash-laden overcoat and said she herself used it as something of a primitive ATM, withdrawing $100 bills to supplement the meager “allowance” doled out by her husband. Talmadge was denounced by the Senate Ethics Committee in 1979 and subsequently lost his bid for a fifth term. He would later remark: “I wish I’d burned that damn overcoat and charged everything on American Express.”
And then there’s “Machine Gun” Ronnie Thompson, mayor of Macon, Ga., from 1967-1975. As his nickname suggests, Thompson was a “law and order” zealot who, in the words of one biographer, “had a predilection for the flamboyant.” That’s like saying cats have a predilection for licking themselves. During the civil-rights unrest of the 1970s, Thompson issued “shoot to kill” orders to the police. “I want them to shoot,” he said. “We will ask questions later.” As a further show of force, he used civil-defense funds to purchase a used Army tank for the city, which he had painted red, white and blue.
History doesn’t record whether the tank deterred crime, but it added a unique element to the annual Christmas parade.
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Chris Verner is opinion page editor of the Salisbury Post.
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