My short list of liberal politicians I admire is shorter by one with the death Thursday of Reubin Askew, Florida’s governor from 1971 to 1979. Askew not only provided competent leadership in difficult times for a growing state, he did so with absolute integrity. Personally he was always civil and humble and treated all he encountered respectfully. Character counts, and Reubin Askew had it.
Askew died Thursday in a Tallahassee hospital of complications from pneumonia and a stroke. He was 85. He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Donna Lou Askew, and two children.
Askew was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, but moved with his mother to Pensacola, Florida, when Reubin was nine. After high school Askew spent two years in the Army as a paratrooper, being discharged as a sergeant. After college at Florida State and law school at Florida, Askew again served his country, this time as an Air Force intelligence officer during the Korean war. After this it was the practice of law and one of Florida’s most remarkable political careers.
After 12 years in the Florida Legislature, Askew surprised everyone, including the supposedly savvy political handicappers, by coming from the back of the pack to win the Democratic nomination for governor. Pensacola, then as now, was not a great political power base. He retail campaigned hard and effectively enough to come from obscurity to an unlikely win. He then pulled the same trick in the general election, turning back Claude Kirk, Florida’s first Republican governor, in Kirk’s attempt for a second term.
It would be hard to find a contest between two individuals less alike than those two. Kirk was outgoing, flamboyant, a natural back-slapper. Askew was reserved, not solemn, but serious. Askew was a teetotaler, while Claude liked to loosen up. Askew never swore. Kirk was a great story-teller. Kirk had his share of accomplishments during his four years, and was by the standards of the day a moderate on race relations, which were evolving in Florida and the rest of the South. While Kirk was favored to win early on, Floridians eventually chose quiet competence over charisma by a 57-43 margin.
Askew repaid the confidence of Florida voters. He provided a steady hand in moving toward racial equality in Florida without, as is so often the melancholy practice today, playing the race card. He helped reform the good-old-boy, who-you-know method of choosing judges in Florida. He made government more open. His successes and his forthright style allowed him to win re-election in 1974. He left office in 1979 with his integrity and his popularity intact.
At the outset of this column I referred to Askew as a liberal, but that is probably not accurate. He was only a liberal as these things were measured in 1970. He was a Democrat when being a Democrat, especially of the Southern variety, did not require one to be a full-spectrum leftist. He was pro-life, fiscally responsible, and a peace-through- strength patriot who respected his political opponents and did not stoop to name-calling. Former Florida Congressman Andy Ireland, for whom I worked in the early Reagan years, phrased it this way, “He was not a my way or the highway kind of guy. I didn’t always agree with him, but his principles were always right.”
What Askew did was public service. What so many elected officials who natter on about public service today engage in is more along the line of servicing the public, in the animal husbandry sense of that expression.
After his years in the governor’s mansion, Askew served as United States Trade Representative under President Carter. He made a brief run at a presidential race in 1984, but never got much traction. The entire Democratic Party had lurched to the left since Askew’s political career had begun. Askew had not. In addition to the disqualifiers for office as a Democrat listed above, Askew was against the then-popular nuclear freeze, against the equal rights amendment, supportive of Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada, but not supportive of the homosexual political movement’s agenda. He dropped out of the race after bombing in New Hampshire. Today’s Democrats would likely consider him a right-wing extremist, unfit for public office.
Askew was part of the class of “New South” governors who came to office in 1970, the others including Jimmy Carter in Georgia, Dale Bumpers in Arkansas, and John C. West in South Carolina. That it was Jimmy Carter who made it to 1600 but not Reubin Askew is one of the sadder facts of American History.
RIP Reubin Askew. A man among men.