Reubin Askew, two-term governor of Florida during the 1970s, died last week. But for the breaks of history, he would have made a good, possibly a great president.

It all goes back to air travel connections in what someone of my age, in an addled remembrance of the past, thinks of as the good old days.

Airline travel in the South half a century ago was best characterized by the frequent flyer’s complaint that if he died and went to hell, he’d have to layover in Atlanta. This was true of national reporters sent down to cover the political and social upheaval taking place in the region during the ongoing civil rights revolution. A layover in Atlanta? What better way to spend time in the Georgia capital than visiting its progressive new governor, Jimmy Carter, and getting his views on the state of the nation?

So it was that after more than a year of interviews with stopover national correspondents, the always available Carter was hailed on the cover of Time magazine as the leading voice of the New South.

Meanwhile, a few hundred miles downwind as the crow and Delta Airlines flew (but didn’t stopover), another new face of the changing South, Reubin Askew, was running the show in Tallahassee, Florida.  How successful a Southern governor was Reubin Askew in the turbulent Seventies? As his obituary in the Washington Post told us:

“Defying political custom, party loyalties and entrenched business interests, Mr. Askew launched a series of reforms designed to make state government more open and to increase opportunities for the poor and disenfranchised. . . . A supporter of racial equality (he) integrated the state highway patrol and other state agencies, supported busing to end school segregation, despite overwhelming opposition, appointed the first African American to the state supreme court . . . and the first African American cabinet official since Reconstruction.”

And more: Following Askew’s eight years in office, one of his leading opponents in the state legislature conceded, “He has exhibited a kind of morality in office that causes people to have faith in the governor’s office to a higher degree than we have seen in a long, long time.”

Askew served two terms as Florida’s governor. Jimmy Carter, after one term in Georgia (deemed by Atlanta Constitution editor Reg Murphy as politically disastrous), launched his campaign for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination the moment his foot touched ground outside the Georgia statehouse.

James Thurber once wrote an alternative history describing the fate of a frustrated young Napoleon born thirty years after the French Revolution, his gift as a great military leader unused and unwanted. For Reubin Askew it wasn’t a matter of living in the wrong time, however, but in the wrong place. Had Delta or United marked just a few of their flights from New York and Washington for stopovers in Tallahassee, we might be looking back at the good old days when President Askew was in charge.

Sound bite to remember

“I did the best I could with what I had.”

–Former heavyweight champion Joe Louis, on being asked to sum up his legendary boxing career, circa 1951.