Reviewed by Calvin Kytle
Vol. 14, No. 3, 1992, pp. 33-35
The Politics of Change in Georgia: A Political Biography of Ellis Arnall , by Harold Paulk Henderson (University of Georgia Press, Illustrated, 1991, 345 pages)
When World War II ended, my generation came home to a Georgia in which for the first time in our memory gallus-snapping Eugene Talmadge did not personify the state’s politics, “Woolhats” and “Rednecks” did not constitute the voting majority, and appeals to white supremacy did not dominate State Capitol rhetoric. In letters from the States, in the pony edition of Time, and occasionally from bulletins on Armed Forces Radio, we had learned bits and pieces of what had been going on in our absence. (That most of the news from Georgia, unlike that of only few years before, was of a kind to be read with pride rather than embarrassment had been especially appreciated by those of us quartered overseas with Ivy League Yankees.)
It was not, however, until after conversations with older friends who’d been on the home front and seen the reforms roll out of the Capitol that we began to realize just how and to what degree Georgia had changed, and in what ways it had not. However briefly, we were exhilarated by the assurance that the change were permanent and all to the good, and that the climate was receptive for more.
The man largely responsible for this “new” Georgia was Governor Ellis Arnall, whose rise and rejection are documented in this overdue and welcome biography by Harold Paulk Henderson.
Ellis Arnall’s honored place in Georgia history is confined to a period of about six years. In 1942, at age 35, he was the beneficiary and aggressive exploiter of the worst political mistake Eugene Talmadge ever made—a quarrel with the Board of Regents that brought loss of accreditation of the university system. Elected governor shortly after a constitutional amendment extended the term from two to four years, Arnall proceeded to push through a legislative program without precedentfor sweep and reform. With the help of an obliging General Assembly, he restored accreditation and established a teachers retirement system, incidentally increasing salaries by 50 percent.
He lowered the voting age to 18, abolished the poll tax, paid off the state’s debt, created Georgia’s first comprehensive planning agency (the State Agricultural and Industrial Board), and, as the centerpiece of an entrepreneurial approach to economic development, led an ultimately successful battle against regionally discriminatory freight rates. Although considerably short of his objective, since it left the state’s basic political structure in place, he also won approval for a new state constitution. On the platform and in the press, he conveyed the impression of a confident, intelligent, generous-spirited, refined but scrappy young politician, in such contrast to his predecessors that national media inevitably embraced him as the spokesman for a New South, as they had Henry Grady a half century before. In 1946 Northern liberals began to promote him seriously as a contender for the vice presidency.
During this time, it was tempting to sentimentalize Arnall’s achievements and, particularly on the race issue, to extrapolate expectations that were in fact little more than wishful thinking.
It was commonly said, for instance, that his victory over Talmadge once again proved the decisive role of gubernatorial leadership; that the same electorate that could respond to “one of us” could respond even more enthusiastically to a leader “better than us.” It was also widely assumed that Arnall’s acceptance of a 1945 federal court decision invalidating the white primary would open the political process to re-consideration of all forms of racial discrimination.
In 1947 a series of bizarre events shocked us back to
the old Georgia. Thanks to the then operative county unit system, Eugene Talmadge won the gubernatorial primary, despite the fact that his chief opponent, James Carmichael, got 16,000 more popular votes. Then, a month after the general election and only a few weeks before the scheduled inauguration, Eugene Talmadge died. The constitution made no provision for the death of a governor elect and in the ensuing controversy Talmadge’s son Herman, backed by leaders of the legislature, forcibly claimed the governor’s office. Anticipating his father’s death, Herman had managed to get 600-odd faithfuls to write his own name on the general election ballot.
By this time, Ellis Arnall’s political career was over. His last official act, performed with as much dignity as he could muster in an appallingly humiliating circumstance, was to resist the Talmadge takeover by filing for a Supreme Court ruling; it finally came after 63 days of chaos and effectively seated the lieutenant governor-elect, M.E. Thompson, as the legitimate successor.
Ellis Arnall moved to the sidelines and into the shadows. The conventional wisdom held that he had become too liberal, that he had catered to the national media and enhanced his own image at the state’s expense.
But Ellis Arnall went on, of course. He was president of the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers from 1948 to 1963.
At President Truman’s invitation he served for six months as chief of the Office of Price Stabilization during the Korean War. He founded an insurance company, thrived on the national lecture circuit, and enjoyed a prosperous law practice. In 1966, at 59, he decided to run again for the governorship. As Professor Henderson points out, “the county unit system, segregation, and black disfranchisement had collapsed under the pressure of federal intervention,” and Arnall was convinced that his progressive record would now win popular support. He lost in a runoff to segregationist Lester Maddox. His error, according to a columnist for The Atlanta Constitution, was that “he assumed that Georgia was basically different from the state of twenty years ago; it simply had not altered that much.”
Henderson, a professor of political science at Abraham Baldwin College in Tifton, Ga., has told Arnall’s story with faithful attention to the record and in a prose style that departs from the academic mainly by being blessedly free of jargon. The book’s structure is one common to textbooks, which is to say that every chapter ends with a summary of what the reader has just been told, often in the same words, a formula that may verge on the boring, depending on the reader’s attention span, but one that has the virtues of clarity and emphasis.
Despite an annoying amount of redundance (for one thing, Professor Henderson seems to be mortally afraid of losing antecedents, so that names are repeated in too many places where the reader is anticipating a pronoun), this is an easy book to read. It can be recommended as a modest but valuable contribution both to our understanding of twentieth-century politics and to the increasingly impressive list of titles from the University of Georgia Press.
In fairness to Dr. Henderson, I have to remind myself that this is “a political biography,” as he is careful to make clear in his sub-title. I take this to mean that he has sought to deal almost exclusively with Arnall’s influence on the political process and public policy.
Therefore, except for early references to his well-to-do-family, readers can expect to find in these pages very little about the influence that other individuals had on Arnall himself, and even less about his indebtedness to various civic, religious, and public interest groups that in the mid-thirties served in their separate ways to promote more rational and humane consideration of social problems.
There is, for example, no mention of the campaign led by John A. Griffin and Glenn Rainey to abolish the poll tax, or of the so-called [Philip] Weltner movement in 1936 that, by advancing the anti-Talmadge candidacy of Judge Blanton Fortson, became an early warning of those deficiencies in the university system that exploded so dramatically five years later. Josephine Wilkins’s Citizens’ Fact Finding Movement is mentioned only in passing, whereas Arnall himself once credited his election and many of his administrative reforms to the spirit the movement evoked.
Similarly, an exclusively “political biography” leaves one to wonder what really moved Arnall, who majored in Greek as an undergraduate at Sewanee, to become a politician in the first place and, perhaps more important, what made a liberal of him. Henderson says only that Arnall’s family background “preordained” him to be a
politician, that his father was pleased when young Ellis decided to get a law degree, and that before he was many months at the University of Georgia Arnall was telling his classmates he expected to be governor one day. There are in Henderson’s telling a few clues to Arnall’s personality (which inclined to the cocky), and enough episodes to suggest that one of his problems in the exercise of leadership was that, like many bright and privileged people, he found it hard to suffer fools gladly. There is, too, enough here—particularly in those passages dealing with Arnall’s treatment of the race issue—to illustrate how agonizingly difficult it was in the milieu of his times to stay ahead, but not too far ahead, of his followers. But for any true and indepth insight into motives and character, a reader will have to look to a biography as yet unwritten.
Regrettably, Dr. Henderson’s otherwise splendid work does not satisfactorily answer the fundamental questions: Was Ellis Arnall a political opportunist or was he instead—that rarest of activists—a skillfully practical idealist? Was he a sincere, committed progressive with a coherent program whose behavior in office introduced a new and higher standard for political conduct in Georgia, or was he essentially an intuitive and expedient reactor to issues as they surfaced?
Was his 1966 defeat attributable to the tenacity of old racial fears or was it rather the result of some flaw of personality, a matured arrogance perhaps, that made it impossible for him to recognize and appeal to the no less real changes in the Georgia electorate? Some, all, or none of the above?
In 1948, as Governor Arnall departed and the Talmadge era resumed, Calvin Kytle wrote for HARPER’S magazine a prophetic article titled “A Long Dark Night for Georgia.” Educator, businessman, acting head during the Johnson administration of the Community Relations Service, and publisher, Kytle now lives in Chapel Hill.