Home / Georgia / Most Prominent Politicians (IV): Georgia

Most Prominent Politicians (IV): Georgia


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.

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  • shah8

    Bill Hartsfield is a more significant politician than Talmadge.

    • Plus he’s an airport! Or maybe just half of one these days?

      • shah8

        Seriously, though, if you understood southern mayors like Hartsfield, you understand a great deal about how the process of desegregation happened, and you’ll also understand Bill and Hillary Clinton as politicians far more…

  • So it’s “politicians” rather than “political figures”? Because, um, national holiday named after him, y’know?

    Benjamin Franklin’s list of offices held is not really a major part of his legacy; same for Robert Morris. Food for thought.

    • mark f

      So it’s “birthplace” rather than “political prominence”? Because, um, Montgomery bus boycott and Birmingham campaign, y’know?

      John Lewis is not really a major part of the segregationist movement’s legacy; same for Andrew Young. Food for thought.

      • I don’t understand how this comment makes any sense. Every president and senator conducted his most important work in Washington, DC, but we don’t list them from there. We place them in the state where they came from.

        John Lewis is not really a major part of the segregationist movement’s legacy; same for Andrew Young. Food for thought.

        And this doesn’t make any sense, either. Is “the segregationist movement” supposed to be the equivalent of “a political figure’s legacy?” Because it’s totally not.

        Oh, and, uh, Not food for thought. An explicit description of a point.

        • mark f

          What a bunch of pointless malarkey. Doug’s implication was that Erik was overlooking MLK; I pointed out that that’s unlikely.

          • Sorry you couldn’t follow it.

            I know you were pointing out that Eric didn’t overlook MLK, and then I listed two reasons why your arguments don’t make any sense.

            It doesn’t make any sense to claim that MLK is not from Georgia (oh, and not just ‘place of his birth.’ That’s where his professional career was centered, too).

            And it doesn’t make any sense to point out that John L. Lewsis wasn’t prominent in the segregationist movement, because he was important elsewhere – just like Benjamin Franklin and Robert Morris were important in areas of politics other than high political office.

            • mark f

              Part of his professional career was centered in Atlanta; the boycott that brought him to prominence was in Montgomery, where he was a pastor and served on a committee of local African-American leaders, and where his house was bombed. Given that his other most successful activity was in Alabama, it’s perfectly reasonable to place him there. If he’s classified as a politician at all.

              For the second paragraph, I was just following Doug’s form. I didn’t intend for it to be a perfect analogue. I was merely pointing out that Erik, in not including King, was certainly not leaving out the Civil Rights movement since he had counted John Lewis (the congessman from Georgia, not the UMW guy) and Andrew Young.

              • Hogan

                Part of his professional career was centered in Atlanta;

                As well as most of his life. Born, raised and went to college there; lived there and served as co-pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church from 1960 to 1968. That’s where the SCLC was based. He led campaigns in a lot of places, including Chicago and Memphis, but Atlanta was his center.

              • the boycott that brought him to prominence was in Montgomery, …Given that his other most successful activity was in Alabama, it’s perfectly reasonable to place him there.

                And Jimmy Carter’s presidency took place in Washington,DC. So did Kennedy’s. So did Reagan’s. So did the Senate careers of every senator after the early 1800s. Come to think of it, the March on Washington, the largest and most famous event in MLK’s career, took place in Washington. Once again, does this mean we should talk about them as being from the District of Columbia?

                Of course not. Nationally-prominent political figures carry out actions across the country. That’s what makes them nationally-prominent.

                I was merely pointing out that Erik, in not including King, was certainly not leaving out the Civil Rights movement since he had counted John Lewis (the congessman from Georgia, not the UMW guy) and Andrew Young.

                OK. I assumed that setting up the parallel was meant to demonstrate a parallel, which, apparently, it wasn’t. But nobody claimed that Loomis was leaving out the Civil Rights movement. Doug was pointing out that politicians can have prominent roles outside of public office.

      • UserGoogol

        Martin Luther King was definitely rooted in Georgia, though. A big chunk of the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” consists of King addressing charges that “outsiders” from Atlanta were stirring up trouble in Birmingham.

    • Martin Luther King never ran for office. It’s different with the revolutionary generation because that’s a different world. But King was absolutely not a politician, whereas Franklin very much was.

      • pol·i·ti·cian (pl-tshn)
        a. One who is actively involved in politics, especially party politics.
        b. One who holds or seeks a political office.
        2. One who seeks personal or partisan gain, often by scheming and maneuvering: “Mothers may still want their favorite sons to grow up to be President, but . . . they do not want them to become politicians in the process” (John F. Kennedy).
        3. One who is skilled or experienced in the science or administration of government.

        Seems like this could go either way, and that excluding figures like King or Samuel Gompers or Susan B. Anthony makes just as much sense as including them.

        • It is a somewhat artificial line to be sure–my basic standard is the holding of elective or appointed office with a somewhat broader definition for the revolutionary generation.

          • Yeah, you have to come down one way or the other, and your line makes as much sense as any other.

          • Fair enough. I was wondering how you would be dealing with people from the women’s suffrage movement. Not, apparently.

            • No, but someone like Jeannette Rankin will be very high on the Montana list.

        • Hogan

          Public officials and leaders of social movements interact in significant ways, but they’re not really doing the same thing.

          • Bingo.

            • partisan

              So, Eugene Debs would count as a politician since he ran repeatedly for elected office, and actually was briefly a Democratic state legislator. But no union leader who didn’t run would count. And only businessmen who served in politics or the cabinet would count (so Andrew Mellon, but not Andrew Carnegie.)

      • Jestak

        I can certainly see excluding King from a list of politicians, because that normally does imply holding some kind of public office. At the same time, no one on your list ever has (or, barring the scary thought of a Gingrich Administration, ever will) have the impact on our political history that King had.

  • CapnMidnight

    Maybe this is annoying, but we can we get a definition of “prominent?” There’s some tension between “widely recognized” and “influential.”

    In any event: Lester Maddox? Not that you need more segregationists, but the ax handle is a nice touch. And Zell Miller’s speech at the other party’s convention in 2004 was pretty amazing. And Saxby Chambliss will likely amount to not much, but his 2002 (I think) ad equating his war-hero opponent, Max Cleland, to Osama bin Laden was, at the time at least, a new low in Republican terror-trolling.

    • Glenn

      OMG, Lester Maddox! I grew up in GA and haven’t though about that loathsome crank in a long time, though as a child it seemed you heard about him constantly.

  • arguingwithsignposts

    I really hope you’re not ranking these in order, because that asshole Newt Gingrich surely can’t be more prominent than a former president.

    • I disagree. Particularly important legislators can be more important than particularly undistinguished presidents.

      Who mattered more in this country’s history: Ted Kennedy or Rutherford B. Hayes? I don’t think it’s even close.

    • You tell me what more profoundly changed America–the 1994 Republican Revolution or anything Carter did in office?

      • mark f

        By not Doing Something! about the hostage crisis Carter might as well have crashed a plane into the WTC all by himself and, as you know, 9/11 changed everything.

      • Glenn

        I kinda think the Camp David accords might have counted for something.

        • anonymoose

          Yeah, Gingrich is best known for riding a wave election to power and then spectacularly imploding in less than 5 years. He’s among the most overrated politicians in American history, even if you give him partial credit for “modern” political atmosphere (which as bad as it is today isn’t a patch on the sheer brutality of the 1950’s Red Scare days- just compare what happened to Leeland Olds with what happens today).

          Richard Russell deserves to be higher on this list, he was the most important Senator in America for over 2 decades, and while he was an evil racist cock he also totally destroyed MacArthur while MacArthur was trying to permanently shatter civilian control of the military.

      • arguingwithsignposts

        I don’t think the 1994 congressional takeover changed America that much, all things considered, since Reagan started that ball rolling in 1980. And look at what happened to Gingrich after he tried to shut down the government? He was hated by his own party members and drummed out of his position and the house.

  • TT

    Russell belongs in the top three. He practically controlled both the U.S. Senate and the entire defense establishment from the late ’40s until the late ’60s, and shaped both to his liking. He mentored LBJ and was solely responsible for him becoming Senate Democratic Leader after just four years. And, for worse and much worse, he was the chief defender of segregation at the federal level for almost a generation, wielding Senate procedure to block or water down all manner of civil rights legislation. A complicated, even tragic figure who history will justly never forgive.

    • TT

      I should also add that from the beginnig Russell believed that Viet Nam would be a disaster, but felt duty-bound to support Johnson. Had he gone public with his misgivings before the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, or privately informed Johnson that he would not support the war, history might have been very different.

    • David B.

      I’d put Russell 1, Carter 2, Gingrich 3. The man owned the Senate for nearly 30 years.

  • Nick

    Aaaaargh. You’re probably right about Newt’s rank over Carter, but I’m a Georgia native and I despise, despise, despise that loathsome little turd. I’ll temper my distress by pointing out that Gingrich may be more influential in US politics, but Carter has clearly had more – and clearly better – influence globally.

  • Scott de B.

    Wait, you’re including Confederates? Are you also going to include Benjamin Thompson when you get to Massachusetts? He did serve as Bavarian army minister.

  • Murc

    You know, half the time I forget Newt is FROM Georgia. I just kind of associate him amorphously with the particular brand of Southern Republican politics he practices.

  • rea

    The oddly-named John Brown Gordon–Confederate general, later governor and senator. Klan leader, opponent of Reconstruction. Post-war writings made him one of the prime architects of the “Lost Cause” mythology.

  • Dean Rusk? Do people who hold appointed positions but never run for office don’t count?

    • I predict a knock-down drag-out fight over George C. Marshall.

    • Murc

      As far as I can tell from a cursory look at wikipedia, Rusk got the hell out of Georgia as soon as he graduated high school and never returned to either work or live until he retired. His entire military and political career took place elsewhere, and only his post-retirement academic career took place there.

      This makes him a ‘native son’ rather than a prominent Georgian politician, especially since he was career civil service. If he had, say, been a Congressman or Senator from Georgia who developed an expertise in foreign policy and then been appointed SecState, different story.

    • Jestak

      Having read Erik’s posts at Alterdestiny, I know that he is including appointed officials as well as elected.

  • Bill Kurtz

    In fairness, it should be added that Richard Russell pleaded with LBJ to get out of Vietnam before Johnson escalated US involvement, warning that the situation there was beyond saving, and that a major US role would be a disaster. This did not come to light until 30 years after Russell died.

    • anonymoose

      Russell was a monster of history and a hero of history at the same time. It boggles my mind that the same guy who created the school lunch program actively sought to keep murderers from being punished in his own hometown.

      He’s an excellent example of a guy who did a lot of really solid work and, deservedly, will go down in history because it’s all overshadowed by his gigantic, epic, mind-bending moral failings.

  • ScottC

    I’d say the top 3 should be Gingrich, Russell, and Carter. Sure Stephens was prominent before the war and did some diplomacy, but if we are going with Georgians of that era I don’t see how he is more influential than, say, Howell Cobb.

    • John

      Howell Cobb and Robert Toombs would both be reasonable candidates for the top ten, I think.

  • HairyApe

    Gene Talmadge was a more significant figure than Hummon. The Wild Man from Sugar Creek had a national profile opposing Huey Long. The only mark Hummon left on DC was when he missed the cuspidor.

  • Jestak

    One other name to toss in for at least Honorable Mention consideration is Abraham Baldwin. Baldwin was the most significant member of Georgia’s delegation to the Constitutional Convention. A former native of Connecticut, he worked closely with Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth in developing the Great Compromise on representation. He then spent the rest of his life representing Georgia in the House and Senate.

    There are some heavyweights here, but Baldwin at least should be mentioned.

  • Don

    I must be the oldest guy here, because I remember Jimmy Carter’s administration, and it wasn’t the stuff for which you’d generally award a Peace Prize: supporting the brutal Shah in Iran against a popular revolution, and supporting the even more brutal Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua against a popular revolution, both come to mind.

    • Hogan

      And he didn’t get the Peace Prize for what he did while president.

      • Don

        If you were the enemy of peace when you were the most powerful person on the planet, and now do good works as a private citizen, I don’t think that on balance you have a Nobel Peace Prize coming. (I admit there are others who got the prize who didn’t deserve it either, e.g. Kissinger, Obama.)

        • Hogan

          enemy of peace

          Ah. Well then.

          • Don

            What words would you use to describe politicians who prop up brutal dictators?

            He was 100% behind the Shah, despite the political prisoners, despite the torture and murder of dissidents, despite the fact that the Iranian secret police were allowed to operate in this country. What’s a less inflammatory description of that policy?

            He was 100% behind Somoza, well past the point where everybody knew Somaza was murdering civilians, until some of Somoza’s troops shot an American reporter dead in front of TV cameras. Does the Peace Prize come to mind when you think of that episode? I saw the film, it sure doesn’t for me.

        • People who have been “enemies of peace” – ahem – are generally the people who are in the best position to make significant contributions to it.

          Do you have any idea how many people are dead because of George C. Marshall?

          • Don

            Powerful people have power. This is not surprising.

            We were talking about whether this particular powerful person deserves a price for peacemaking, when he did so much to help violent rulers kill their own people.

  • MikeyC

    Hey, could you set up links to the series of posts on this topics? It would be great to compare different states easily, especially as you get deeper into the list!

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