Saturday is the anniversary of the death of Sen. Herman Eugene Talmadge Sr., of the Talmadge Machine of Georgia. To generations of Georgians he was known simply as “Hummon.”
Talmadge’s father, Eugene, was elected governor of Georgia four times. The younger Talmadge spent six years as governor, 24 years as U.S. senator, and several years sweating an ethics investigation. He was censured by the Senate in 1979 for improper use of an overcoat.
I’m just kidding. Talmadge was censured for “improper financial conduct.” Talmadge’s wife Betty learned from a TV news show that her husband had filed for divorce. They had been married 36 years. Three years later she famously testified before the ethics committee that the senator kept large amounts of cash in the pockets of an overcoat. It was one of Georgia’s most memorable gotcha moments.
During Talmadge’s last term in the Senate (1975-81) I was the twenty-something editor of the newspaper in Dublin, Ga. The previous editor had been a stalwart Talmadge man. Hummon and I had a chilly relationship.
Locals knew the event simply as “Dr. Smalley’s” and who better to procure an ample supply of bull testicles?
As a cub reporter I covered the event and grabbed a photo of the senator shoveling a fork load of pulled pork into this face. I thought it was a photojournalistic masterpiece that revealed a national leader in an relaxed moment.
Talmadge differed. “Boy, don’t ever put a picture in that paper of me with my mouth wide open eating barbecue.”
At our next meeting I took a shot of Talmadge with his lips tightly sealed and a glass of whisky in his hand.
You see, Hummon didn’t only have a financial conduct problem, he also had a liquidity problem.
I first met Talmadge when I was a student at the University of Georgia. Friends and I were watching the Dogs play Florida in the Gator Bowl. A row behind sat the junior senator from Georgia. We were feeling lubricated ourselves so we engaged in several jovial exchanges with the distinguished gentleman from Telfair County. The Dogs suddenly scored and everyone was jumping and yelling and hugging each other. My buddy blurted, “That was a f**king fine play, wasn’t it, Senator?”
Talmadge, still sitting, looked up slowly and spoke in a honeyed southern drawl, “I concuuurrrr.”
After the whisky photo, Talmadge paid a visit to the local sportsman’s club. The newspaper was not invited to write up his speech but my sources said it was classic Hummon.
The senator reportedly regaled the crowd, waving a copy of the newspaper: “I just bought a Courier Herald and it cost 25 cents. When they had a real man editing this paper it cost a dime. Now they got a boy editor it costs a quarter, but it ain’t worth a dime.”
He was showered with laughter. I would have laughed too. After all, I laughed when Jesse Jackson called me Bubba. That’s another story. For years to come I proudly referred to myself as “boy editor.”
One reason Mr. Talmadge never had a serious contest until 1980 was unfailing attention to constituents. A former aide, Daniel Tate, said today that Mr. Talmadge required ‘every letter from Georgia had to be responded to or at least acknowledged within 24 hours of receipt.’ Mr. Tate, now a Washington lobbyist, recalled being reprimanded for getting behind on the mail. In defense, he said, ‘Senator, the letters still on my desk really should not be answered at all. Each is from a nut.’ Mr. Talmadge replied: ‘Every constituent, including those you think of as nuts, expects and deserves a response from his United States senator.’ Then the senator said, ‘Just remember, nuts vote. And if you lose the nut vote, you’ll lose the election.’” – Obituary, The New York Times, March 22, 2002
If I ever had any chance at reconciliation with the senator it ended on April 9, 1980. That’s the day I published a column entitled “Talmadge’s strategy.”
Talmadge was facing a tough re-election. He went to Hawkinsville, Ga., to test his campaign message before a small gathering of supporters. There were no other reporters. A friend invited me to attend. I took my tape recorder.
The somber Talmadge recounted his travails: his divorce, the death of a son, a scandal involving one of his trusted aides, and “the trouble I’ve had with the ethics committee.”
“Some of the problems were quite difficult,” he said. “To be frank, instead of taking some of them to my Maker, I took some of them to the bottle.”
He said he was a new man and wagered the editors of the Atlanta Journal would have to eat crow after he won re-election.
Durwood McCalister, the editor of the Journal, read my column and phoned me.
“Doug, did he really say that stuff?” he asked. I responded that I would send him the recording and I did.
That November Hummon lost the first election of his career. He was replaced by a typewriter salesman.
Talmadge died in 2002 at age 88.