Review: John Dos Passos Coggin's new biography focuses on 'Walkin Lawton' Chiles

A new biography delves into his love of vanishing rural Florida and long-term policy goals.
Published January 19 2013

Gov. Lawton Chiles' death near the end of his second term in December 1998 marked the end of an era in Florida. He was the last Democrat to be elected governor, and he most certainly will be the last politician to win statewide election by emphasizing old Florida roots and limiting campaign contributions to $100. There also is a good argument to be made that Chiles was among the last governors to look beyond the next election and pursue public policies that would benefit Floridians for generations.

Chiles' love of a vanishing rural Florida and his passion for long-term policy goals are the twin threads that bind together Walkin' Lawton, a compelling new biography by John Dos Passos Coggin. For longtime Floridians, it is a pleasant walk down memory lane with a legendary figure, to a time when there were far fewer residents and far more political characters. For newer residents, it is a valuable history lesson about a politician whose life stretched from an era when the Ku Klux Klan was a powerful force in Florida to the dawn of the Internet age and Florida's emergence as a culturally diverse melting pot.

This is not a polished narrative written in the authoritative styles of recent biographies of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson, or of the biographies of former Florida Govs. LeRoy Collins and Reubin Askew by former Tampa Bay Times associate editor Martin Dyckman.

Walkin' Lawton is more of an oral history, with long direct quotes from Chiles' family members and friends, staff members and journalists. The book is thoroughly researched and footnoted, and Coggin conducted more than 100 interviews (including a short telephone interview with me). While the result resembles listening in on a conversation around a campfire, a more selective use of the quotes would have quickened the pace. More from Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, a couple of key aides and a few independent sources and a little less from Chiles' wife and children would have provided more balance.

Coggin traces Chiles' life from his birth in 1930 in Lakeland through his years at the University of Florida, where young men made the connections through fraternities and Blue Key that would propel them to success in politics. At just 28 years old, Chiles was elected to the Legislature; he served 12 years in Tallahassee before running for the U.S. Senate in 1970. That is the campaign that earned Chiles his nickname for his Quixotic 1,003-mile walk from the Florida Panhandle to the Keys. Coggin painstakingly recreates the walk and helpfully includes in an appendix the progress reports that Chiles dictated to an aide as he made his way south and gained more attention.

Chiles served 18 years in the Senate and abruptly decided not to seek re-election in 1988. Coggin recounts some of the highlights of the Democrat's time in Washington, from rooting out low-level corruption as a junior senator to pushing for more open meetings to rising to chair the powerful Senate Budget Committee. Chiles' frustration with Congress' failure to control spending and reform entitlements comes through. But the account of the Washington years lacks the detail and drama of policymaking and political fights that are more thoroughly recounted in chapters about Chiles' two terms as governor.

The bulk of the book faithfully chronicles Chiles' two campaigns for governor and his accomplishments in Tallahassee. Many of those changes are still in effect today, from the reorganization of social services departments to a $500 campaign contribution limit to children's health programs. Coggin recounts how Chiles wrestled with his decision to veto a school prayer bill, and he devotes appropriate space to the Democrat's most important legacies: establishing Healthy Kids to provide health coverage for children and Healthy Start for pregnant women and infants, and pursuing a lawsuit against the tobacco companies that resulted in a landmark settlement and billions of dollars that the state will continue to collect for years. Coggin concludes that Chiles belongs in the same elite league as governors such as Collins, Askew and Bob Graham. That is a reasonable conclusion, although Collins will always rank first.

But Walkin' Lawton is first and foremost a well-rounded examination of Chiles' personality. It recounts his love of small towns and the outdoors, of practical jokes and eclectic food tastes from wild game to sushi, and of old country sayings ("the old he-coon walks just before the light of day") and legislative maneuvering. It offers some minor revelations about his reluctance to manage staff and fire longtime aides, the depths of his depression that drove him from the Senate and gave him second thoughts about running for governor, and the impact of his religious convictions that became stronger later in life.

This is a rich account of Lawton Chiles' roots and personality traits that made him a unique figure in Florida politics. There is still room for a more complete, objective history of his accomplishments in public office, particularly regarding his work in the Legislature and the U.S. Senate.

Tim Nickens is editor of editorials of the Tampa Bay Times. He wrote often about Lawton Chiles as a reporter in the Miami Herald's capital bureau from 1990 to 1995, and as political editor for the Times in 1998.