Today? Well, Let’s Just Say It Is Different
REUBIN ASKEW AND THE GOLDEN AGE OF FLORIDA POLITICS
Hearken Back to the Days When Political Leaders Brought Florida Into the 20th Century
Written by Al Hutchison. Last updated Sunday May 1st, 2011
By Al HUTCHISON
Reubin O’D. Askew And The Golden Age Of Florida Politics, by Martin A. Dyckman. University Press of Florida. $29.95.
Any Florida journalist who closely followed state government from the late 1960s to the late 1970s will tell you that in those days there were numerous able and highly respected public-spirited politicians toiling on the public’s behalf in Tallahassee.
From that era - the one that author Martin Dyckman labels “the golden age” of Florida politics - surely no political figure enjoyed higher esteem than Reubin Askew, a strait-laced legislator from Pensacola who won the governor’s race in 1970 and was reelected four years later. If he was not the best governor in Florida’s history, he was in the same distinguished league as LeRoy Collins before him and Bob Graham and Lawton Chiles after him. (Having drawn favorable attention from the national press, Askew ran, unsuccessfully, for the Democratic nomination for president in 1984.)
In terms of morality, the deeply religious Askew always occupied the high ground, even in the rough-and-tumble battles he was forced to fight with the state’s often recalcitrant legislature which, at the time, had just emerged from its long domination by what the Tampa Tribune’s James Clendinen labeled “the Pork Chop Gang” of rural lawmakers. One of the most gifted capitol reporters, Martin Waldron, once joked that “a Pork Chopper is any politician who thinks downtown Sopchoppy is congested.”
When the United States Supreme Court mandated legislative reapportionment in the mid-60s, the small-town lawmakers suddenly found themselves outnumbered, thus shifting the balance of power to those elected from more populous - and, at the time, more politically liberal - parts of the state. Askew was poised to lead these reformers to higher ground.
In his new book about those long-ago days, Dyckman quotes one freshman legislator as finding him to be “one tough cookie ... his was the most resolute mind I ever met.” Also, Tallahassee’s own Mallory Horne, long a powerful figure in the state senate, described Askew in Dyckman’s book as “absolutely intractable ... If he ever felt it was a moral issue, it was not negotiable.” That certainly was, and remains, the prevailing assessment of this remarkable politician.
Now retired and living in North Carolina, Dyckman was back then part of an aggressive and assertive capitol press corps, comprised of an impressive array of top-flight reporters for the state’s largest newspapers (and a few television stations). To the best of their ability, these journalists kept Floridians informed of what was going on in the state capitol. Several were outstanding reporters and Dyckman was among the best. His long experience in covering state government for the St. Petersburg Times gave him the knowledge - and, importantly, the sources - to write a truly splendid and exceptionally detailed history of that era.
A word of caution, though: Dyckman’s book is in some ways so rich in detail (especially in describing not just the wheeling and dealing that’s so much a part of state government but the many individuals of both parties who were so deeply involved) that those readers who don’t have a deep interest in government or politics may find parts of it a bit of a slog. But this book is not written to amuse. It is written for historians, political scientists and elected officials who take their work seriously. In fact, it would be a useful textbook for aspiring politicians and political journalists.
But in a broader sense, Dyckman is a describing a remarkably admirable period in Florida’s turbulent political history and lamenting the passing of that era when genuine public service was taken so seriously by so many. In that sense it is eminently instructive. Floridians observing today’s political antics in Tallahassee could learn a thing or two about genuinely noble, selfless, public-spirited aspects of public service by reading Dyckman’s book.
Nowadays, unfortunately, anyone watching the proceedings in Tallahassee could not be faulted for remembering Ambrose Bierce’s cynical assertion that “democracy is four wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.”
One highlight of this volume involves Askew’s last-minute decision in 1971 to address (without a prepared script) the Council of 100, “a who’s who of Florida business leaders” (the author’s words) that had been created 10 years earlier to advise Florida’s governors. Gathered in ritzy Palm Beach, this power-rich audience heard Askew, who was campaigning hard for tax reform, observe that “we don’t have too many poor people in this room tonight.” He noted the fancy setting for the gathering and reminded his listeners that not far away, in poverty-stricken Pahokee, “it isn’t so beautiful for a lot of other people and there’s no reason for it, Florida being so affluent as it is.”
Although he clearly was challenging the state’s fat cats to change their minds about opposing a pending statewide referendum on tax reform, he said also that “the last thing I would ever want my administration to be called is anti-business. I want it to be called a people administration, because it is ... And there’s no reason why this group, whether you choose to or not, cannot come forward and join us ...”
The governor also noted the fact his audience that night consisted entirely of white people, then declared “there’s no more serious problem facing this nation right now than our unwillingness to accept each other and live together.” Like Collins, Askew was ahead of most Florida politicians on the issues of race relations and human rights.
Those were bold words 40 years ago, but they were from the heart. Don Pride, Askew’s press secretary at the time, said the Palm Beach audience was “more stunned than receptive.” But the governor, backing up his rhetoric, soon followed up by naming the first two black members to the Council of 100.
It would be a mistake, however, to suggest that Askew’s tenure as governor should be remembered only for his many successes. He had enemies, many within his own party (he was a Democrat), and he suffered his share of defeats. Often he would recover by exercising his veto power, but not all of his vetoes survived legislative challenges. And several prominent politicians ran afoul of the law.
But, on balance, a lot was achieved during the years when the state was led by the likes of Collins, Askew, Graham and Chiles. It’s truly sad that since they left the state’s political stage the situation in Tallahassee has become rather tawdry. Dyckman blames the advent of single-member districts and term limits, among other factors. But it also seems reasonable to say that for too long Florida has simply not had any political leaders of the stature of Reubin Askew.
And, sadly, there’s no sign that either the voters or the politicians themselves are committed to returning to the high standards of that golden era.
(Al Hutchison is retired and living in Inverness, Florida. During his journalism career, he worked for nine daily newspapers in six states. For 15 years, he was the publisher of The Recorder, a small daily in Greenfield, Massachusetts.)