And now we get to the South. Between reelecting their legislators until they die and defending segregation, southern states have played a powerful role in American politics from the beginning of the republic to the present. Georgia is possibly above average compared to the region and certainly two Georgians have played key roles in the last 40 years.
1. Newt Gingrich. One of the 5 most important politicians of the past 20 years and Georgia’s most important. The Gingrich-led Republican Revolution revolutionized American politics. Sure, it was for the worse. Many of the terrible problems we face today come from Gingrich and his allies. But that only reinforces his importance.
2. Jimmy Carter. A remarkable figure in so many ways. Carter survived the segregationist era to become the Democratic candidate for president in 1976. His administration wasn’t particularly successful (though this had much to do with white backlash and the rise of the New Right, conditions completely out of his control). Along with John Quincy Adams, the most successful and eventful ex-president in American history. Richly deserved his Nobel Peace Prize.
3. Alexander Stephens. Vice-President of the Confederacy. It’s hard to imagine Gingrich wouldn’t be the most loathsome of the top 3, but in Georgia’s case, the competition for most disgusting is very strong.
It’s pretty easy to string out a top 10 for Georgia, with some strong candidates left over. Briefly:
4. Tom Watson–the Populist leader started his career as a champion for economic rights and ended it as a race-baiting supporter of the KKK in the U.S. Senate
5. Richard Russell–U.S. Senator from 1933-71, leader of the Senate’s segregationist wing.
6. John Lewis–Possibly I’m overstating his role, but given his powerful presence in Congress for many years and his pioneering role as a post-civil rights movement African-American legislator, plus his amazing career in the movement, and it’s clear Lewis deserves this spot.
7. Carl Vinson–the first person to serve more than 50 years in the House of Representatives, Vinson was very important in creating American naval policy in the mid-20th century. Of course, he was also a staunch segregationist.
8. Andrew Young–another pioneering African-American politician. Young was a congressman, mayor of Atlanta, and the first African-American U.N. Representative.
9. Herman Talmadge–Another long-serving segregationist leader of the mid-20th century. I swear, it seems like Georgia had 5 senators during these years.
10. Sam Nunn–One of the most powerful Democratic leaders of the late 20th century. Played a major role in defense policy and is still influential today in retirement.