If I die and go to hell…. Friday, Mar 21 2014 

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.

Aboard the Good Ship Lollipop Thursday, Feb 13 2014 

The candidate’s husband met me at the San Francisco airport that August day in 1967 with what he considered good news: According to the latest poll we were riding high, with a 2-to-1 advantage over our nearest opponent in the special election to fill a congressional seat.

So went my first morning as campaign advisor to Shirley Temple Black, explaining to her husband, Charles, on the drive from the airport that the poll he thought was good was in fact awful. True, we had a 2-to-1 advantage over Pete McCloskey, but it was 12 to 6 percent, with no fewer than eight of 10 voters undecided. That wasn’t bad in itself, but brought on heartburn when the numbers also told us that our candidate had an astounding 98 percent recognition factor among registered votes in San Mateo County.

In short, voters knew her, even liked her (the favorable ratio was just as good), but 80 percent couldn’t see her as their representative in Congress. Though now a mother with two growing girls, people still saw her as adorable little Shirley, dancing with Bill Robinson aboard the Good Ship Lollipop.

It would not, I’d learn in the weeks ahead, be an impression easy to overcome. Thanks to Ronald Reagan, the myth has grown that being an actor gives a candidate a decided edge in campaigning for office. Not so if the candidate, like Shirley Temple Black, is reluctant to play the role set out by professional political handlers (like me).

Shirley had her own ideas about the way she wanted to run for office and that was that. No superficial sound bites, no hedging on the issues, no campaign rallies between the hours of 5 and 8 p.m. because the most important thing in her day was to be with her children at dinnertime (remembering, she told me, her own young days when work at the studio came before family gatherings).

Who could argue with that? I’d worked with Barry Goldwater three years before and knew the style: She might win the race, she might lose it, but in either case she was going to do it her own way. What beat us, however, wasn’t so much her style as the Vietnam War. Pete McCloskey, a Vietnam veteran, was against it and had the best of both political worlds on the most important issue of the day.

My candidate that summer and fall of 1967 went on, as we know, to make her contribution as an ambassador overseas, her good cheer and earnest approach to the job serving her and her country well. But had she been elected to Congress, I’m sure, the skipper of the Good Ship Lollipop would have made an outstanding Member – and who knows where it might have gone from there?

Sound bite to remember

“He doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t drink, and both his children are adopted.”

–Florida legislator, circa 1970, explaining why Governor Reubin Askew’s political opponents weren’t likely to catch him in any political scandal.