Today Rhonda Cook has a great write-up in the AJC
on the present condition of former House Speaker Tom Murphy and how the once-powerful politician is coping with life after a stroke. The article is entitled "House's former voice of power now can barely speak."
Rhonda's article brought to me a 12-8-04 post
that was another Bill Shipp classic, a real keeper, about Speaker Murphy, a legend in his own time:
In the autumn of 2002, a slightly bent, bespectacled and balding old man went from door to door in his West Georgia community asking people to vote for him for state representative.
"They didn’t know who I was. They just wanted to know if I was Republican or Democrat,” he later said. “When I said Democrat, they slammed the door.” On Election Day, a Republican defeated him in a newly configured House district populated by strangers who had never heard of Tom Murphy.
So ended the political career of House Speaker Thomas Bailey Murphy, easily one of the most important figures of 20th century Georgia.
Last week, Murphy was back in the news briefly. The Bremen lawyer was admitted to Emory Hospital, apparently suffering further complications from a debilitating stroke some months earlier.
The news item about 80-year-old Murphy brought back a thousand memories, a few of them funny. Throughout much of Murphy’s long career in the House, your humble commentator thought the Haralson County legislator was — well, there’s no other way to put this — just awful.
Murphy wore a Stetson-style hat with a brim as big as a tabletop and a pair of worn-out zip-up cowboy boots that must have predated Buffalo Bill. Murphy kept in his mouth an unlit fat cigar. He spoke in the manner of a perpetually angry backwoods lawyer. A lifelong Democrat, he despised most Republicans with a passion that most of us reserve for venomous snakes and football rivals. To many of us, Murphy was a caricature of a Southern yellow-dog political boss.
Murphy served as Gov. Lester Maddox’s irascible House floor leader and spoke for Maddox on several nutty propositions.
Later, Murphy was in a constant state of conflict with Jimmy Carter or Zell Miller over everything from gasoline taxes to governmental reorganization. Murphy fought nonstop with much of the then-aggressive political press.
When he saw he was losing a public relations battle with the newspapers, the speaker would take the well of the House to orate sorrowfully on how he was misunderstood and mistreated. Before his speech ended, he would often burst into tears.
In the press gallery, and a couple of reporters, including this one, would nearly fall down laughing at what we saw as an Irish ham’s overacting. Seated with us in the press box, columnist Celestine Sibley would immediately leap to Murphy’s defense, scolding us “ignorant, arrogant a----” for ridiculing the put-upon speaker. That was years ago.
As Murphy’s reign as speaker and lawmaker neared an end, most of us came to realize that, even with all his hardscrabble idiosyncrasies and intolerances, Murphy was a powerful force for advancement.
He also has been a steadfast believer that government was meant to protect those who cannot fend for themselves.
Space is too limited to review in depth Murphy’s 28 years as speaker. Just leave it at this: Because of Murphy, Georgia thrived. Georgia’s higher education system flourished because Murphy wanted it to. Economic development and jobs creation blossomed as never before, partly because Murphy helped create a go-go business climate. Atlanta received untold state aid because Murphy believed helping the capital enhanced the entire state.
At the same time, he served as a brake and monitor on six governors. He was a restraining influence on the worst instincts of many of his fellow legislators. Murphy never quite broke the bad Southern white male habit of speaking condescendingly to women and black lawmakers. Yet he protected and broadened the rights of both groups. In fact, he may have been the stoutest defender of women’s rights ever to hold a position of power in Georgia.
“Everybody knows that I am a fiscal conservative,” he said repeatedly. “But when it comes to old folks, little children and the mentally ill, I am a bleeding-heart liberal, and I don’t care who knows it. There are still folks we have to look after, and I have always tried to do that.”
In today’s new political order, fiscal conservatism is a joke. State and federal budgets are drowning in pork-barrel projects and profligate waste, even as the leadership calls for belt tightening on government aid for impoverished children and the aged sick.
To say Murphy never engaged in pork-barrel politics would be untrue. Still, he was a piker compared to today’s big-spending self-described “conservatives.”
As a new generation of legislative leaders takes its place, some of these neophyte commanders might profit from a detailed review of Murphy’s era. Sure, at times, his tenure was loaded with wrongheaded partisanship. More often, however, Murphy’s policies and positions helped elevate Georgia into a pacesetting Southern state.
When The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer’s Richard Hyatt wrote his 1999 biography, “Mr. Speaker,” Murphy told him, “I just want to be remembered as a man who didn’t steal and told the truth.”
Murphy ought to be remembered for much more than that. Dedicated Democrat though he was, he serves as an example for all those, regardless of party, who aspire to succeed him. Before his final exit, he should be recognized for his valuable contributions. The Capitol lawn is dotted with imposing statues of much lesser men.