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Voice of passion at Jim King memorial reminds us what's missing in Tallahassee

Public speaking is largely a lost art in Tallahassee, a place where politicians talk more than ever and say less.

The state capital has become a place of talking points and scripted sound bites, too often devoid of real humanity and spontaneity. There are exceptions, but not many.

The reality of this rhetorical void hit home last week during the memorial service for Jim King, the former Senate president from Jacksonville who recently lost his battle with pancreatic cancer.

At the service Tuesday in the House chamber, one voice stood out above all others. It belonged to Rod Smith, the lawyer and former state attorney and state senator from Gainesville who ran for governor three years ago.

For 15 minutes, Smith held the audience in the palm of his hand. He was funny without being glib, sentimental without being maudlin. He had enough respect for King, his family and his audience to take time to prepare a speech that he delivered with emotion and humor.

"As much as my heart aches, I have to tell you I cannot think of Jim King for very long and not want to smile or just break out in a laugh," Smith said. "He was one of the most memorable characters many of us have ever known.

"He was a political figure with all of our foibles, but all of our best instincts exaggerated to the proportion of his girth."

With his infectious giggle, King retained "the spirit of joy of childhood," Smith said. "Wisdom isn't limited to the reserved and austere among us."

Smith lost the Democratic nomination for governor in 2006, and it would be easy to dismiss him as a sharp-tongued plaintiffs' lawyer.

But his speech so impressed his audience that for the next couple of days, people were asking how such a gifted politician got only 41 percent of the vote against Jim Davis.

Smith captured King's tendency to buck GOP orthodoxy at key moments, as he did in the Terri Schiavo case and on former Gov. Jeb Bush's 2003 push for "hard caps" on damages in medical malpractice cases. He recalled how, whenever King strayed, the editorial page of his hometown paper, the Florida Times-Union, would punch him pretty hard.

Recalling the time a group of GOP women, "appropriately attired in pink and red," demanded that King's job was to do what Jeb Bush wanted, Smith said: "As I reflect upon it, I accept Sen. King's two-word response (pause for gales of laughter) as a summation of his views on the importance of our separation of powers."

After which, Smith said with impeccable comic timing, King's rapid response team insisted that what he said was "Thank you."

Smith also recalled an important but much-overlooked detail, that King was among the leaders in raising the threshold for passage of constitutional amendments in Florida to 60 percent.

Smith tossed in a bit of wisdom to the many term-limited lawmakers seated before him: "After you leave this place, the votes aren't something you're going to remember. Whether you got it right doesn't become any clearer. What you remember is the character of the people you served with.

"Jim was unique: He was a character who had great character," Smith said. "He never stopped laughing."

Voice of passion at Jim King memorial reminds us what's missing in Tallahassee 08/08/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 8, 2009 9:09pm]
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