Tom Crawford: "David Nordan knew a lot about Georgia politics and was one of the best political writers this state ever had."
David Nordan, chronicler of Georgia politics
By Tom Crawford, Capitol Impact
David Nordan was one of those persons who fit the classic stereotype of the hard-drinking, bar-closing, two-fisted newspaper reporter who was the bane of the politicians he wrote about and the curse of the editors who tried to supervise him.
He acquired a national reputation during the 1960s and 1970s as the Washington correspondent and political editor of the Atlanta Journal, in part because he was one of the first to report seriously that an obscure governor from the South named Jimmy Carter had a shot at winning the presidency.
While other Georgia journalists like Reg Murphy ridiculed the notion that Carter would even think of running for president, Nordan wrote perceptive analyses of the Carter phenomenon and how it would play in the political landscape - including what was probably the best analysis of the inauguration speech Carter delivered after he took the oath of office in 1977.
Nordan was just about the best there was at turning a phrase and capturing the color and essence of a story. He looked and acted like an old roughneck from North Carolina, but when it came to putting words down on paper, Nordan was unmatched.
Nordan also made his mark covering state politics and the Georgia General Assembly - he is credited by some with being the first journalist to put the name "Zig-Zag Zell Miller" in print.
"David was a first-rate writer and a tough competitor," said Bill Shipp, who went head-to-head with Nordan as political editor of the Atlanta Constitution. "David had an understanding of Southern politics that few of his peers possessed. When David performed at the level of which he was capable, no one was better."
"He also was one of the few reporters who could ask Gov. Zell Miller three consecutive negative questions without being tossed out - or frozen out - of the governor's office," Shipp added.
Nordan, like Miller, was raised in the Appalachian Mountains and he maintained a friendship with Miller and his sons over the years, working for a brief time in the 1990s as an aide to then-governor Miller.
"He was a great guy and he was a great writer," Miller said. "He wrote a story one time about a dog getting out of the governor's mansion that got run over that I wish I could go back in the archives and find it - a wonderful, funny, touching and tender story, which he could write."
Miller recalled the New Hampshire presidential primary of 1976, when Carter's "Peanut Brigade" spent long hours tramping through the snow, trying to convince New England voters to take a look at their largely unknown candidate.
"He stayed there at the hotel bar and didn't go out much in the cold weather himself," Miller said. "But everybody came by the hotel eventually to warm up, and he would interview them in the bar and get some wonderful stories."
Unfortunately, Nordan's talent for writing was held prisoner to an explosive temper and a tendency to have a few rounds too many at the local tavern. He fought and quarreled continually with the editors at his newspaper, and was finally fired after one booze-fueled fight with an Atlanta Journal editor in 1978. He returned to the Journal-Constitution in the mid-1980s for a brief spell as a feature writer, but was dismissed from that job as well after he was charged with DUI while driving a company car to a story assignment in south Georgia.
Neill Herring, a one-time journalist who now lobbies for environmental causes, tells this story about Nordan's prickly personality: "At Manuel's one night, David came up to me - he was drunk as a billygoat - and started barking at me: 'How come you're always picking on Miller? What did Miller do to you anyway?' I gave him four or five bullet points spelling out exactly why I was unhappy with Miller. About 15 minutes later, Zell walked into Manuel's and David went straight up to him and ran down my own talking points to Miller, he was really in Miller's face. Zell finally said, 'David, I wish I had you down at the capitol right now. You could help me pass a DUI bill.'"
In the years after he left the Atlanta newspapers, Nordan was an editor at Atlanta Magazine, a political reporter for the old Gwinnett Daily News, and a freelance contributor to numerous other publications. He also worked from time to time as a writing instructor at colleges around the metro Atlanta area.
Nordan passed away on April 12 at the age of 67 after being hospitalized for several weeks in the intensive care unit of Atlanta Medical Center. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, to its everlasting shame, would not allow any of its reporters to write an obituary of him.
It was left to dozens of his friends, acquaintances, and former co-workers to see him off at a memorial service at Manuel's Tavern, a place where the bartenders kicked him out many times but always relented and let him back in later.
"Let me just say that we're in a room tonight where David would come, get lubricated, and go back and make that typewriter sing and churn out the best political stories the state has ever seen," said commentator-turned-lobbyist Tom Houck. "David was always ahead of his time as a journalist. He was a breed of journalist, yeah, they drank their lunch, but they had a real feeling about what the world was. He loved the written word, and God knows, he could write."
"I had a double curse when it came to David," said Doug Teper, a former legislator from DeKalb County. "The double curse was being a drinking partner and having been an elected official at the same time with David, because David liked to aim his typewriter at elected officials, especially one he could sit and drink with, and let him know exactly what I was doing wrong - every Tuesday night for many years here at Manuel's."
"He could write," said Zell Miller, who may have understood Nordan better than anyone else. "He could spin words. He did that well."
© 2007 by Capitolimpact.com