A Letter from My Memory Banks: Georgia's Three Governors

December 27, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN Jr.

Ellis Arnall died the other day in a retirement home near Atlanta. Noting his obituary in The Sun, a friend asked me if I had known him. Many Marylanders believe that once a Georgian always a Georgian, and that all Georgians know each other, as if Georgia were not a state but a clan.

I

In fact, I was just an adolescent attending Atlanta Boys High School when I (and much of the rest of the nation) became really aware of Ellis Arnall. This was in 1946. He was the outgoing governor of Georgia. He was a rarity for the state in those days, an urbane, decent and relatively liberal politician.

Voters had just elected Eugene Talmadge to succeed Arnall. Talmadge was a vile racist demagogue whose previous shameful stints in office had given Arnall the platform to get elected in the first place. In 1942 Georgians had felt they owed it to the war effort to clean up their political act.

Talmadge won the Democratic nomination in 1946, defeating Arnall's choice even though he (Talmadge) got fewer popular votes. Like Maryland, Georgia had a county unit system that disenfranchised voters in big counties and cities.

In the general election, some Talmadge supporters and opponents had a premonition the ailing Gene might die before inaugural day. Both sides organized write-in efforts, believing the state constitution allowed the legislature to choose one of the top two runnerups to a dead man. Gene's son Herman got 675 votes, and another Democrat got 669.

Sure enough, the old man died in December.

This is when I got interested in politics for the first time. Why?

Because young Talmadge, a racist chip off the old block and the legislature's favorite, said, "I'm the governor!"

And the lieutenant governor-elect, reading the constitution another way, said, "No, I'm the governor!"

And Governor Arnall said that due to the confusion he wouldn't leave even when his constitutional term was up: "I'm still the governor!"

So as 1947 began, we had not one, not two, but three governors in Georgia. What a story! For a 17 year old not even the sports pages could compete with it. Georgia became the laughingstock of the nation. Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Red Skelton and the other network radio comedians told jokes about the state with three governors for weeks.

Like many teen-agers down there previously bored by politics, I couldn't get enough. Storm trooper tactics: Arnall evicted from the Governor's Mansion and State Capitol by armed Talmadge men. Locks on state executive suites changed. There was even a national security aspect: The state briefly had two (or was it three?) adjutant generals, and the Pentagon didn't know how to handle that.

It was all irresistible reading. I date my desire to become a political journalist to that time.

II

Now, it so happens that the specific answer to the question, "Did you know Ellis Arnall?" is "yes."

I met him not in 1946 but a decade later. I got to know him because a classmate of mine (from junior high school through college days) went to work for Arnall in his Atlanta law firm. That plus the fact that my wife's great aunt had taught Arnall in grammar school (hmmm? maybe all Georgians do know each other?) were all the entree I needed as a reporter in the late 1950s and early 1960s, first in Atlanta and then in Washington, to get to interview Arnall on issues on which a liberal, out-of-politics ex-governor's views were interesting fillips for a news story.

Arnall was presumed not to be politically ambitious anymore. He seemed to be having too much fun in his lucrative law practice. And he was too liberal for the state. But then in 1966, he suddenly re-entered the political wars. He announced he would run for governor. His principal opponent was a man named Lester Maddox.

Maddox was an ex-restaurateur who had gained national notoriety by refusing to allow blacks into his Atlanta establishment -- The Pickrick -- even after the 1964 Civil Rights Act's public accommodations section was upheld by the Supreme Court. Maddox had handed out ax handles to patrons and urged them to use them if needed during the lunch counter sit-ins of the early 1960s.

No black tried to enter the Pickrick, I don't think, until after the law was enacted and upheld. Then one did, and Maddox, himself, confronted him not with an ax handle but a .38 caliber pistol. Then he closed his establishment for good and began running for governor.

Maddox was already well known in the state. For several years he had run weekly restaurant ads in newspapers two columns wide and a page deep, in which, under his picture, he ranted and raved about the issues of the day, before ending up with his weekend's special menu.

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