Walkin' Lawton by John Dos Passos Coggin
(Florida History Press, Paperback, 513 pp., $24.95)
Reviewed by Bob Morison
Lawton Chiles was a little-known-outside-Tallahassee state representative when he literally walked his way into the U.S. Senate in the 1970 election. He covered over 1,000 miles on foot from the Panhandle to the Keys, introducing himself to Florida and much of Florida to himself. (His campaign, operating on shoestring, managed to afford five pairs of boots.) Eighteen years later, and frustrated with the backroom ways of Washington, he retired from the Senate and not long thereafter got the job he really wanted – governor of Florida. After two terms, and within weeks of retiring, he passed away in the Governor’s mansion “with his boots on.”
John Dos Passos Coggin takes us every step of the way in Chiles’ career. Schooled at the University of Florida and working as a small-town lawyer, young Lawton was treading a predictable career path when he ventured into politics and won the first of many elections against far-better-financed opponents. He won the state legislature seat in part because he took the unusual step of campaigning in the predominantly Black sections of Polk County.
Chiles was unknown in most of Florida and predicted to be an also-ran in the Democratic primary for the Senate nomination when “The Walk” put him on the map. Along the way, people and local media became curious about the candidate, and he became more concerned about the issues Floridians faced, from taxation to the exploitation of migrant workers to the Vietnam War. He was still polling low when he reached Miami and a street corner “honk and wave” campaign lifted his spirits and his chances. The walk was an exercise in meeting people and listening to what they had to say. He connected with people because he treated no one as ordinary.
In Washington, as in Tallahassee, he worked closely with like-minded colleagues (former Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia wrote the introduction to Walkin’ Lawton), but he butted heads with the power structure. In both places, he fought for political reform and governmental transparency through “sunshine” laws. Early in his career he took up what became permanent causes: education, housing, health care, equal rights, reducing poverty, senior citizen services. Pre-natal and infant care became a focus when his grandson, Lawton IV, was born prematurely.
As Governor, Chiles enjoyed controlling the agenda, but it wasn’t always a popular one. You couldn’t tell his party from his positions, as he worked for deficit reduction, tax reform, simplifying regulations, ethics reform, and campaign finance reform. Chiles never accepted large donations and so was never beholden to special interests. He never really took on Big Sugar, but he engineered Florida’s landmark financial settlement from Big Tobacco. He took the most heat for vetoing a law authorizing school prayer.
Coggin shows us the inner Chiles through the recollections of others. He was family man, devout Christian, practical joker, hunter, loner. He was restless. He was loyal to a fault. He suffered bouts of clinical depression. We also meet Chiles through his own sometimes cryptic expressions. “Let that ox stay in the ditch.” “The cat’s on the roof.” And we see how Chiles defined himself in contrast with his political opponents. During the general election campaign for the Senate seat, the Republican held a $1,000 a couple cocktail party featuring Attorney General John Mitchell. The Chiles campaign set up camp a few miles away, hired some country music, and gave away 1,576 boxes of chicken.
Chiles wrote very little aside from everyday notes to colleagues. Coggin tells the story with the help of news accounts and over 100 interviews with family and friends (political enemies are under-represented). The book seems a labor of love – perhaps too much love. Every action is worthy, every setback a valiant effort. Coggin praises Chiles for getting the Federal government in gear when the initial response to the devastation of Hurricane Andrew was slow and inadequate. Those of us in Miami at the time recall weatherman Brian Norcross having to first get Lawton Chiles in gear. Chiles himself would find the pedestal he’s put on a bit uncomfortable.
Chiles’ one lengthy opus was his diary of published “progress reports” during The Walk, which is included as an appendix. It reveals mental as well as physical progress. Early entries are daily and full of detail about places stopped, people met, things discussed, food eaten, and the condition of his feet. Later ones cover more time and territory, and include much more musing on campaign tactics and public policy.
Walkin’ Lawton includes a gallery of 40 photos, an appendix with four Chiles family recipes, a bibliography, and 888 footnotes, but no index (which would have helped given the large cast of characters). Cutting is difficult when you like your subject, but the book would be better if shorter. The topic changes abruptly in some places, the reader is left hanging in others (what happened to Lawton IV?), and the book doesn’t quite live up to its billing in the Preface. But if you’re a fan of Lawton Chiles, or interested in Florida politics, or curious about how to gain political office on a shoestring, you’ll enjoy your stroll through Walkin’ Lawton.
Bob Morison is co-author of Workforce Crisis and Analytics at Work. He lives in Miami. More info at his website.
The Reluctant Republican by Barbara Olschner
(University Press of Florida, Hardcover, 142 pp., $24.95)
Reviewed by Dawn S. Davies
The Reluctant Republican by Barbara Olschner is an intriguing kiss-and-tell account of Olschner’s 2010 congressional run as a moderate Republican in the Florida Panhandle during the height of a conservative swing within the party. Not only does she lose the primary, she comes in last place, as Olschner admits at the beginning of the story, so the election itself holds no suspense. This is not a story about losing an election. Olschner’s Congressional District 2 is 34% registered Republicans, and among them are the state’s most socially conservative Republicans. A simpleton could predict that Olschner,as a moderate Republican with no political experience, would be headed for a pummeling before she even stepped into the ring. Let me say it again, this is not a story about losing an election. It is a story about an idealistic, yet reasonable person who finds herself immersed in the smarmy, sleight-of-hand world of politics.
As a recovering Democrat who became a Republican, and who now attends PAA (Political Aficionados Anonymous) meetings to recover from my Republicanism, this book helped me remember why I do not agree with a two-party system that selects for ideologue candidates who move down the campaign trail like wooden puppets armed with bullet points. This particular system leaves Olschner, a self-proclaimed pragmatist and a fiscal Republican, without a place to hang her hat. The Dems don’t want her — she’s too conservative— and besides that, with her belief in less taxation, individual responsibility, and limited government, she truly is a Republican. The problem is that the Republicans don’t find her conservative enough, and her pesky use of the law and knowledge of the Constitution appear to blow holes through some of their ideology. By Olschner’s account, during the height of an uber-conservative swing, refusing to toe the party line causes her to be seen as an afterthought, the barely-tolerated pretty gal who thinks she can play with the big boys. During a meeting with RNCC chairman Representative Pete Sessions, he hands her his personal cell phone number and tells her to “call him before she does anything stupid.”
Olschner’s interaction with the other candidates is the most delicious part of the kiss-and-tell. Much of the dialogue is alarmingly ridiculous and often funny. If her account is true, this congressional election veers into the comedic early, beginning with the only other female candidate who makes a habit of calling Olschner late at night, after seemingly “sucking down white wine with a straw,” reminding Olschner of the many ways she will not be successful in the race. During the Destin debate in July of 2010, candidate Steve Southerland, in referencing the Constitution, quotes the Declaration of Independence, and at some point during the evening, relatives of other candidates, and in one instance, a candidate himself, tell Olschner they would be willing to support her.
On a serious note, Olschner’s account of the debates illuminates her belief that “one of the glaring problems with the current Republican Party is the support and encouragement for candidates and leaders who use belief systems and agendas—rather than objective knowledge—to make decisions.” She learns that being reasonable has very little to do with being successful in politics. Olschner admits that she “thought that average voter, like the average juror, would respond to reason and logic.” As a trial attorney she should have understood more about the balance of rhetorical devices as they relate to political responsiveness and voters. Most of the candidates rely on the appeal to pathos to sway their voters’ emotions, rather than knowledge and reason. As she says, “political problems often evoke responses more visceral than rational.” Olschner falls for the sophomoric idea that all people really need is a candidate who tells the truth. She believes that logic and reason should prevail in every situation, when in the real world of political elections it does nothing of the sort. Politicians are not only trained, they are indoctrinated, often while in college, and they learn early how to evade questions, think strategically, and play the game. The sport of politics is an underhanded, back-alley one with unwritten rules that can leave a new player with bloody teeth. Olschner writes, “I was so out of step with the right wing of the party that I became a mere spectator to what amounted to a vulgar brawl.”
Olschner is an attorney who made an unsuccessful foray into politics, then wrote a book about it. All political books have agendas. This one didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already suspect about Florida politics, but it is a good story that serves a purpose, and in her heart, the author holds true to the essence of what her party is supposed to stand for and reminds us that any party, left or right, that is dominated by a single, narrowly defined ideology or agenda is not good for our country. I applaud Olschner for writing a story worth reading.
Dawn S. Davies was raised in Fort Lauderdale. She is the recipient of the 2013 Betty Gabehart prize for nonfiction, and has been published in Real South Magazine. She is the graduate coordinator of the F.I.U. Writers on the Bay Reading Series and the assistant fiction editor for Gulf Stream Magazine.