The New York Times labeled him a "supersquare," while the Miami Herald swore his strongest epithet was "golly." A political colleague called him "the original Boy Scout," while Newsweek magazine depicted him "graced with a face that could sell bibles door to door." When Spiro Agnew was told that his host would not be serving wine at a Tallahassee luncheon, the vice president muttered, "Is he serious?"
He was Reubin O'Donovan Askew, and he was very serious. In a new biography, Martin A. Dyckman captures the life and times of a great Floridian in a tempestuous era. Dyckman, a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times, makes a compelling case that Askew was the indispensable leader in "the golden age of Florida politics."
Born in 1928 in Muskogee, Okla., Askew endured a childhood of privation but seems to have never felt self-pity or a moment of insecurity. Raised by a remarkable single mother, Askew only recalled once seeing his abusive, alcoholic father.
In 1937, Alberta Askew moved her family to Pensacola. Family and place deeply influenced young Reubin. His Christian Scientist mother honored thrift, charity and empathy while abhorring gambling, laziness and alcohol. Her dutiful son lived those homilies.
Following military service and law school, Askew returned to Pensacola in 1956, earning $450 a month as an assistant Escambia County prosecutor. "Askew's improbable political ascent," writes Dyckman, began in 1958. Improbable, indeed! Elected state representative in 1958, Askew was a puritan in Babylon.
The 1960s wrought dizzying social, cultural and political revolutions. Florida exploded with 2 million new residents as streams of retirees, Cuban emigres and Midwestern transplants sought their slice of the American and Florida dreams.
Alarmed at the state of the state, Askew directed his energies toward reforming Florida's archaic government. His most formidable obstacle was the so-called Porkchoppers, rural and small-town conservative Democrats from North Florida who fought for the status quo. Panama City's Dempsey Barron exemplified the Porkchopper ethos, and Dyckman's accounts of their relationship are priceless.
Luck and timing graced Askew's ascent. In the mid 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Florida's malapportioned legislature was unconstitutional. A new wave of urban legislators (Bob Graham, Terrell Sessums, Louis de la Parte) grappled with the old guard.
In an award-winning 2006 biography of LeRoy Collins, Dyckman lionized the former governor (1955-61) as "Floridian of his century." But Collins' immediate successors — Farris Bryant, Haydon Burns and Claude Kirk — lacked will and leadership, their accomplishments and personalities ranging from lackluster to reactionary to loopy.
In 1966, Floridians elected Claude Kirk governor, the first Republican elected to that office in the Sunshine State in almost a century. The convulsive changes then sweeping the country — free love, drugs, anti-war protests, race riots and political alienation — swept Kirk into the governor's mansion. "Claudius Maximus" proved to be a better campaigner than governor, although Dyckman correctly points out that Kirk's environmental record was exceptional.
Reubin Askew was convinced that he could win the governor's race, something no Pensacolian had ever achieved. As seen from the vantage point of 2011, the year 1970 represented a high-water mark of Florida's Democratic Party. The 41-year-old Askew easily defeated Kirk, while little-known 40-year-old "Walkin' Lawton" Chiles was elected U.S. senator, defeating St. Petersburg congressman Bill Cramer.
Gov. Askew led the charge to reform Florida. Audaciously, he took on Florida's corporate giants, announcing that he was seeking a corporate profits tax, a severance tax on phosphate mines and judicial reform. He masterfully fought off foes and convinced legislators and citizens to back his measures. He was selected to be the keynote speaker for the 1972 Democratic Convention in Miami Beach and was rumored to be a vice presidential nominee.
But old demons lingered. Coinciding with court-ordered plans to integrate Florida's schools, state Sen. Richard Deeb of St. Petersburg helped craft an antibusing straw vote for the March 1972 presidential primary ballot. The question was explosive: Do Floridians favor forced busing?
Askew countered, insisting that a second question be added: Do Floridians approve of quality education for all children?
In the spring presidential primary, Alabama Gov. George Wallace swept the Democratic field, claiming over 40 percent of the vote and winning every county in the state. Floridians, in Dyckman's words, "could vote simultaneously for and against segregation, which is what they did on March 14."
Askew was fighting on several fronts. He also lobbied hard for significant environmental legislation. The environmental report card of the 1972 Legislature is striking: protection for Central Florida's Green Swamp and the creation of five water-management districts.
Gov. Askew earned the nickname "Reubin the Good," but the same cannot be said for several Supreme Court justices and cabinet officers during his term. Lt. Gov. Tom Adams, Justice Hal Dekle and Commissioner of Education Floyd Christian resigned because of ethical issues. Characteristically, Askew urged legislators to pass Florida's Sunshine Amendment ensuring financial disclosure.
The first Florida governor to serve two full terms, Askew presided over the construction of a new state capitol building, the writing of a new state constitution and debates over the role of the state cabinet and passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. He resolutely fought a proposed casino gambling amendment and exulted when three out of four voters rejected the proposition in 1978.
When Askew left office in 1979, he left an extraordinary legacy. Perhaps most remarkably, Dyckman points out, "Askew cultivated both sides of the aisle," bringing together a working coalition of Democrats and Republicans for a common cause.
In retirement, Reubin Askew has continued to serve Florida with dignity. He holds a chair in Florida government and politics at Florida State University and has taught a class at every Florida university. In 1984, he made an unsuccessful run for the presidency, and he flirted with a run for the U.S. Senate in 1988.
Several questions haunt this must-read biography. If, as Dyckman contends, Askew helped usher in a "golden age of Florida politics," why did Floridians allow successors to dismantle so much that he stood for? What is the proper role of the state in citizens' lives? Or to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, "Are Floridians better off than we were 40 years ago?"
Gary R. Mormino holds the Frank E. Duckwall professorship in Florida history at USF St. Petersburg. His most recent book is "Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams."