September 28, 2007

"I have to look at myself in the mirror"

When reporters at the Palm Beach Post asked Lawton Chiles why he stubbornly stuck to his campaign limit of $100 a person in the last and toughest election of his career against Jeb Bush, he was firm.

"I won't do it. I have to look at myself in the mirror."

He must have been pretty sure he could catch magic in a bottle one more time, after doing it so many times before.

In his first bid for the governorship in 1990, he and running mate Buddy MacKay raised $5.2 million from 75,000 contributors who gave an average of $70 each.

To give a sense of perspective, top fund raiser Mitt Romney (R) in his bid for the White House 2008 has so far (since the last disclosure on July 15) raised about $34 million from only about 21,000 individual contributors.

And Chiles was only running in one state!

Government in the Sunshine

In the Florida state legislature, and later in the U.S Senate, Lawton Chiles fought for "government in the sunshine" laws to open more and more government meetings up to public scrutiny.

While Florida governor, he fought for limits on campaign contributions and public financing of state elections.

Thanks to public financing, he raised enough money to compete and win an upset re-election to the governorship against Republican Jeb Bush in 1994.

Jeb Bush called the financing "welfare." Most Floridians saw different. Chiles won in a walk.

Now, John Edwards (D), on a presidential level, seeks public financing.
We'll see how Americans feel about that. Whether billion dollar presidential elections are what we want.

September 27, 2007

The Rush of Early Victory

Lawton M. Chiles Jr. got his start in public office on Primary Day, September 9 1958.

"Yellow dog" Democrats ruled the political doghouse in Polk County, and Chiles faced no opposition in the general election. Most folks in Fort Meade, Bartow, and Lakeland would vote for a yellow dog before they'd vote for some carpetbagger, lily-livered, phosphate-hating Republican. But Polk County was changing. Young progressive professionals were more and more tiring of the well-fed Pork Chop legislative majority in Tallahassee. Young doctors, lawyers, and businessmen in Lakeland and Bartow placed their hopes in a 28-year-old lawyer named Lawton Chiles.

Chiles, Reuben Askew, and other upstart populists brought new ideas to the legislature and pushed it from the spittoon 'n cracker politics into something resembling modernity. Some called them the Lamp Choppers in contrast to the Pork Choppers and fat cats. Some called them nuts.
I imagine some were just glad to see something new in Tallahassee.

Election Night that November must have been special, since he could be at home with his family, put his feet up, and watch the Democrats win a landslide victory in the race for U.S. Congress--including his hero Florida Senator Spessard Holland. Soon, the country's reaction to the Eisenhower Era would culminate with the narrow election of John F. Kennedy to the presidency.

The Lakeland Ledger editorial gushed with praise for the young walking state representative-elect who "got out and shook hands all over the county, giving everybody a warm smile and asking everybody to vote for him. Voters like such attention. It is a human factor that comes ahead of everything else in politics. Each voter, no matter what his station in life, likes to feel important, and is important, especially on election day.

"It is simply not in Surles' nature to loosen up and shake hands all around in the spontaneous manner of an extrovert, as he and all his friends have recognized. He had amply proved himself over the years as an able and thorough lawyer and legislator but the people wanted personal attention during the campaign season, and so Surles' accumulation of 10 years of seniority in the Legislature was erased by a neophyte in politics who had the valuable knack of communicating himself to voters in a personal way.

"It is a personality factor that can carry Chiles far in politics..."

September 26, 2007

An Archiving Question

Here's a question to drive your research into Florida history:

If you're aiming for regional balance in press coverage, which papers would you choose? I guess the answers abound. Not sure what the right answer is.

So far I've mostly collected from the following:

Sun-Sentinel (South Florida)
Palm Beach Post
Tallahassee Democrat
Orlando Sentinel
Miami Herald
Tampa Tribune
St. Petersburg Times
Bradenton Herald

Most of the best coverage--the detailed tick-tock that reporters love--has come from the Miami Herald and St. Petersburg Times.

For some reason the Pensacola News-Journal isn't coming up in my searches on the state library archive. Don't want to ignore the Panhandle. To me, the most important time for diversity of coverage is during the Walk--spring and summer 1970. I want to get lots of good yarns from the trail at each location of the walk, as momentum grew bit by bit.

But I suspect you never know when the variety of voices will matter in the writing.

One thing is for sure, when you hear something like "The ole He-Coon walks just before the light of day" from the governor, it matters if you're an old conch sitting at a cafe in Key West, or a store owner in Havana, or an amusement park ride mechanic in Orlando, or a CEO in Tampa, or a visiting tourist listening to the radio on I-95.

Governors, Senators

One thing I've noticed in my archiving is the awesome volume of press clips amassed by the Florida governor. The clips for a U.S. senator are few.

Add to that the 1994 Bush-Chiles race, Hurricane Andrew, and the recession of '91-'92...and you've got a hell of a press archive.

Governors are like small presidents, and the buck stops with them when disaster strikes--rarely with the president or U.S. senators.

September 25, 2007

The Field of Battle

One of my English teachers in high school called 1066: The Year of the Conquest "the longest short book I ever read." I disagree.

The setting of scene for the Battle of Hastings--the decisive battle of the Norman Invasion--I especially like:

Given that a defensive battle had to be fought, this was a very good position which Harold or some other expert must have noticed long before. The cross-ridge is eight hundred yards long; its ends are protected by the steep valleys, and it cuts right across the only road out of Hastings. It rises sixty feet above the lowest point on the road, and about a hundred and fifty above the bottom of the marshy valley. The slope of it varies: it is not very steep anywhere on the south side, not more than one in fifteen, but steep enough to give defenders the upper hand. Part of the slope may have been cultivated then, but the top of the ridge was open heath and the edge of the forest was at Caldbec Hill.
In politics, the field of battle is important, too. Typically, incumbency is the best defensive position. But the thing is, the field keeps shifting in Florida.

Imagine if Harold's army scouted the field, then returned only to find that the ridge had flattened to a marshy plain, his army had lost every one of it professional warriors aka House-Carls, and suddenly William of Normandy no longer carried the Papal banner.

That would have changed the entire course of the battle. It gives you a sense of the continuing revolution affecting Florida from World War II to the end of the 20th century. From 1940 to 2000, an average of 2.5 million new residents settled in the Sunshine State.

That's at least a million new voters each decade; enough to keep a politician up at night wondering what exactly his or her state is gonna look like the next day, month, and year. Sure, incumbency matters. But if the field of battle changes every day, no palisade or buttress can be trusted for long. You can either constantly change strategy to each new set of surroundings, or you can muster something so dramatic, innovative, and soulful that the field of battle doesn't matter.

That's why we called him William the Conqueror. He made Harold's tactical advantage irrelevant by carrying the Papal banner. And that happens on the political battlefield, too. Again and again. Funny, one newspaper headline after the final Chiles-Bush debate of the 1994 Florida governor's race read: "Lawton the Conqueror."

September 24, 2007

Guessing at the Past

When writing about distant history, especially when nothing or very little is written down, you've gotta rely on some educated guesswork to give the reader a sense of place and time. I can think of no better example of this difficult work than the exposition of 1066: The Year of the Conquest by David Howarth. Even though there are more than a dozen written sources to look at in the research, nobody knows what really happened. Rather than give you a blank page before the action begins, Howarth focuses in on the small, the personal, and puts you right there in southern England, in the calm before the Norman Conquest:

Within his own village, an Englishman knew everybody and almost every tree and animal. He knew his rights and duties, the favors he could ask of his neighbors and the favors he could offer in return. He knew the view from the tops of the nearest hills, and the tracks to the neighboring villages, and from the sun he knew the direction of things, the north, south, east and west. He thought of himself and everyone he knew as English, and of England as the demesne of English kinds, surrounded by sea except where the faraway hostile lands of Wales and Scotland joined it...

...the news of the outside world that came into the village was vague, brought by pedlars, or filtering down from mouth to mouth from the house of the lord, or rumored at the occasional district meetings. The great events of the time were written down by monks in their chronicles and so became history; but to the men and women who were living in the villages of England then, they were only oral tales of distant happenings, more or less twisted in the telling. Battles, the deaths of kings and rivalries of earls, were only important if they seemed to threaten the stable tenor of the village life, and the mutual kindness and custom that held it together; or worst of all, if they suddenly threatened to bring ferocious strangers tramping through the place, burning and slaughtering like the Danish and Norwegian Vikings in the bad old days.

Then he focuses in on one village:

It is hard to describe any social system in general terms; the generalities get lost among all the special cases and exceptions. Besides, most people do not have to understand the whole of the social system they live under, on the bits of it that happen to affect them. For this ancient system, it is more illuminating to choose one ordinary village and see how the system appeared to the people were living there on that New Year's Day. With all England to choose from, I have picked the village of Horstede in Sussex...

...Horstede was on the slopes of a shallow marshy valley. To the north and east, and to the west beyond the valley, it was sheltered by the great forest of Andredeswald, stretching forty miles northward towards the town of London and over a hundred miles from east to west, a natural self-sown forest untouched by man, of native oak, beech, chestnut, ash, birch, and holly, and conifers where they were favored by the soil. To the south from Horstede, down to the river valley, the land was more open, and you could see the bare grassy ridge of the chalk hills that run otu to the cliffs that are now called Beachy Head. The hills hid the sea, which was twelve miles away as the crow flies.

Horstede is still there, named Little Horsted to distinguish it from another Horsted farther north. Now, a line of electrical pylons marches straight across the ancient village and the valley; but shutting one's eyes to that, it is still the kind of verdant scene that English exiles dream of. And now on a summer day there is always the distant hum of traffic which is hard to escape in the southern parts of England; it is an effort to recall the native silence of the fields and woods, broken only by the hum of bees, the sounds of birds and animals, familiar voices, the wind in the trees, or the almost equally natural sounds of an axe in the forest, or a sickle being sharpened in the fields.

Bowling Alone

In 2000, author Robert Putnam penned a book Bowling Alone, that bemoaned the decline of "social capital" in America--mostly referring to the lack of civic and community participation. To me, the decline of Civitan Clubs, Key Clubs, Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis, Jaycees, Elks Lodges, Mooses Lodges, and all the rest is clear.

In his 1958 bid for state rep, Chiles got little press. He got an article in the Lakeland Ledger when he filed, an article for this speech at the Civitan Club of Winter Haven, and of course a mention in an editorial when he actually won. Then the Ledger eased up and wrote a nice profile on Rhea Chiles and her impact on the campaign.

I don't think there is any doubt now, with the internet and television, that the road to political office no longer goes through the Rotary Club. I wonder if its bad or good.

September 23, 2007

The Crab Feast

The political culture of Maryland's rural Eastern Shore revolves around the local Democratic and Republican clubs and central committees in each of the 9 counties. In the old days--before the Bay Bridge was built from the "Big Cities" of central Maryland to the chicken farms, fishing villages, and antique shops of the Eastern Shore--if you wanted to politick on the Shore for a state senate or delegate race or race for the U.S. Congress 1st District you didn't knock on strangers' doors, you went to a crab feast. You went to a crab feast because the number of crabs in the Bay doubled or trebled the number of voters on the Eastern Shore.

You brought your mallet and bashed a barrel of blue crabs with your buddies, hoping that you got a couple dozen votes by the time the summer sun or the stink of rotting crabs got to you--whichever came first.

The crab feast culture worked because pretty much everyone went to the feast, and a glad-handing politician could meet almost everybody in town. He or she could give a quick nod to their pals, then sit down with the ones they didn't know and talk about which part of the crab they preferred, whether they liked Old Bay spice or not, and maybe even whine about the ever-escalating price of crabs compared to last season--and blame all of it on Pennsylvania.

Today, even the aspirants for attorney general, comptroller, and governor come to the Tawes Crab Feast in Somerset County, Maryland since it draws upwards of 3,000 folks every year.

The regular Shore crab feasts, for campaign events, for teachers' union meetings, for just about any old summertime meeting still go on. But the politicians are chasing more and more voters and fewer and fewer crabs. The more hardened suburbanites from New Jersey, New York, and Montgomery County settled into newly carved suburbs on the Shore, the more the crab feast culture becomes a museum piece just like the old oyster work-boats in harbors from Port Deposit to Crisfield.

The fewer votes you can get at the feast, the more you've gotta scrape out of a massive, blistering, all-consuming walkathon door-knocking campaign to reach everyone who doesn't go the the crab feasts.

In the Florida Panhandle, circa 1970, you had much more than a crab culture--you had the Washington County possum festival, watermelon festivals, chicken feeds, fish fries, and pig and bull roasts.

Lawton Chiles went to them all in his first bid for U.S. Senate in '70, and could have gone home and slept well at night because he got lots of votes. But he wanted to win. So he went to the watermelon festivals, chicken feeds, fish fries, and pig roasts and then walked 10 miles and talked to a few dozen more people each day.

To me that defines political risk: going an extra mile after the crab feast.

The more extra miles, the more the legend grows.