June 17, 2015

They Took Away My Gun

Pub Notes

When I was 10 years old, I longed for a .410 shotgun, in spite of the fact that I had shot a hole through the back door of Mr. Bowen’s Chrysler with one. My parents were understandably reluctant to arm me with my own weapon, but I continued to dream of it while having to make do with borrowing my uncle’s single-shot model with the broken ejector, which meant digging out the spent shell with a beer can opener every time I shot at pigeons on the roof of our house.


I was reminded of my .410 obsession while reading the new Georgia Press book discussed in this column and in Capitol Impact last week: The Three Governors Controversy: Skullduggery, Machinations, and the Decline of Georgia’s Progressive Politics—a very interesting book about one of the defining periods in our Georgia political history.

They say all politics is local; maybe all politics is personal, too. The three governors book examines that confrontation in the context of the longtime split in Georgia politics between those who supported Eugene Talmadge and those who didn’t. My parents didn’t, and they didn’t support Eugene’s son, Herman, who headed the Talmadge faction after his father’s death.

Which brings us back to my .410 shotgun. The upshot of the three-governor controversy wasthat Herman had briefly seized the governor’s office and had been “elected” by the Georgia legislature after Gene died before being sworn in. Then, the Georgia courts ruled that the new lieutenant governor, M.E. Thompson, was actually the governor, so he served as “acting governor” until the next election cycle in 1948, a grudge match between M.E. and Herman, which Herman won. Then, in 1950 there was a rematch, the final gubernatorial showdown between Herman Talmadge and M.E. Thompson—the last hurrah of the anti-Talmadge faction in Georgia, and of my shotgun.

Everybody except a few people like my next-door older cousin and history teacher Anita Whitaker was a Democrat, but compared to the Talmadge crowd, the anti-Talmadge forces were a little bit more moderate, meaning they thought it was OK for black people to vote. The county unit system was still in effect then, so every little county was important in an election, and ours, Greene, fell into a northern tier of counties that tended to be anti-Talmadge. Our next-door-neighbor on the other side, older cousin and lawyer Miles Walker Lewis, was a personal friend of M.E.’s and had voted for him in the Georgia legislature during that wild session that elected Herman. (Miles told me all the legislators were drunk and hopped up on pills—meaning, of course, those who elected Talmadge.) My father and Miles and Sen. A.P. Roper and other anti-Talmadge townspeople were working hard to swing our two county-unit votes for Thompson, while the Talmadge crowd were working just as hard and also promising road-paving to some of the outlying communities that still had to come into town on dusty or muddy roads, depending on the season.

In those days before television, political campaigning consisted of the candidates coming to town—on separate occasions, of course—and speaking from the courthouse square, with the size of the crowd a measure of their popularity. M.E. came and spoke: “It’s Thompson’s Time,” was his slogan. Afterward, my parents hosted a reception for him in our home, something I’d never seen them do before, a measure of their enthusiasm for this unassuming standard-bearer. (My father had asserted that if M.E. were elected, Miles Walker would probably be his attorney-general.) That was also the only time I had ever seen whiskey served in our parlor, it generally being confined to the kitchen.

It was a fine day, with the next governor of Georgia standing in our parlor enjoying a highball among friends. Though she did not partake of their spirits, my mother was as excited as the men, and she very uncharacteristically broke her reserve about such matters to confide in me that she believed if Mr. Thompson was elected governor, my father would buy me that .410 shotgun I so fervently desired.

Talmadge crushed M.E. and me, and I never did get that shotgun. If anybody reading these columns over the years has wondered how a Greene County boy became such a determined liberal, that was probably the beginning, right there in our parlor, when my personal and political interests joined and then were dashed by the Talmadge crowd, which later morphed into the Georgia Republican party. They took my away my gun, and I can’t let it go.