1. Archive

Herman Talmadge, Ga. governor, senator

Herman Talmadge, the former governor and U.S. senator who went from staunch segregationist in the 1950s to a moderate who drew strong support from Georgia's poor black population two decades later, died Thursday (March 21, 2002) at 88.

The Southern Democrat was part of a father-son dynasty that dominated Georgia politics from the Depression through Watergate and Jimmy Carter's presidency.

He played a prominent role on the Senate Watergate Committee, but a few years later his career spun out of control with alcohol abuse, an investigation of his campaign and office expenses, and denunciation by the Senate.

"He grew up in an era when segregation was the law of the land, but as times changed, he changed and served the state well," said former Gov. Carl Sanders.

Mr. Talmadge died at his home in Hampton after years of failing health. He underwent open heart surgery in 1997 and had a cancerous tumor removed a year earlier.

Mr. Talmadge was governor from 1948 to 1955 and senator from 1957 through 1980.

"He was one of the old classic Southern Democrats," said Emory University political science professor Merle Black. "He was an important governor because he really oversaw the transition from the politics of his father to the modern South. But he'll always be associated with segregation."

After the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed school segregation, Gov. Talmadge predicted "blood will run in Atlanta's streets." He voted against the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

But a state sales tax he pushed through in the 1950s was cited by many as the first modern step toward improving Georgia's schools and roads. Before that, "we were looking up at Mississippi," Democratic state Sen. George Hooks said.

Others hailed his chairmanship of the Senate Agriculture Committee, from which he shepherded the Rural Development Act.

And throughout the 1970s, some of Sen. Talmadge's strongest support came from poor blacks throughout Georgia. In 1975, he was named Man of the Year by predominantly black Morris Brown College.

"One of the things he regretted, I know, was that he had that segregationist past," said state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, a veteran civil rights activist. "But he was a man who delivered for Georgia. He brought the bacon home."

In 1973, Sen. Talmadge was responsible for one of the most memorable moments in the Watergate hearings. He questioned White House aide John Ehrlichman about the break-in at the office of Vietnam War critic Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist, asking if he remembered the principle that "no matter how humble a man's cottage is, that even the king of England cannot enter without his consent."

"I am afraid that has been considerably eroded over the years, has it not?" Ehrlichman replied. Said Sen. Talmadge: "Down in my country we still think it is a pretty legitimate principle of law."

In 1979, the tables were turned when the Senate Ethics Committee looked into irregularities in Sen. Talmadge's campaign and office expenses.

His ex-wife told the committee he kept large amounts of money in the pocket of an overcoat in their hall closet. The senator said the money was small contributions from supporters who knew he would spend it on personal expenses.

Sen. Talmadge ultimately was denounced by Senate members. He narrowly lost re-election in 1980 to Mack Mattingly, the first Republican elected to the Senate from Georgia since Reconstruction.

Mr. Talmadge's father, Eugene, was a farmer who later became a lawyer and went on to serve as governor from 1933 to 1937 and from 1941 to 1943.

The younger Mr. Talmadge also became a lawyer, and served in the Navy during World War II. His political career began in 1946, when his father died after winning a fourth gubernatorial election.

The Talmadge machine maintained that the Legislature should pick the new governor from among the losing candidates, including the younger Mr. Talmadge, who had received some write-in votes.

Mr. Talmadge won the legislative vote but was kept from the governor's office by outgoing Gov. Ellis Arnall, who contended Lt. Gov.-elect M.E. Thompson was his rightful successor. When Arnall departed for the night, Talmadge supporters took over the governor's office and mansion, and Arnall found his way blocked by state troopers.

The state Supreme Court eventually ruled in favor of Thompson, but Mr. Talmadge beat him in a special election in 1948.

Survivors include his wife, Lynda; a son, Herman Eugene Talmadge Jr.; and several grandchildren.

Mr. Talmadge's body will lie in the Georgia Capitol on Monday before a funeral the same day in Hampton.