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Lending Chiles a hand


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 15, 1998

I once helped Lawton Chiles out of a bind, and it will always be my fondest memory of the governor, who died unexpectedly Saturday just three weeks before he was to leave the office he had held for eight years.

Lawton Chiles
Here's the story:

Some years ago, when I was a Washington-based reporter and he was a U.S. senator, I came to Florida to write a piece on his re-election campaign. I had heard about his folksy way of campaigning and wanted to see him in action. I was not disappointed. He was one of the best campaigners I had ever seen, and I began to understand why it was a mistake for an opponent to underestimate him. The U.S. Senate is full of men who take themselves too seriously and lack a sense of humor. But here was Chiles, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, traveling around rural Florida, talking Cracker and not appearing to miss the Washington scene one bit.

Somewhere in rural Florida -- I don't remember where -- the senator's caravan pulled into a small town and was greeted with the news that one of the town's leading citizens and a longtime Chiles supporter had died. If he hurried, there was just enough time to get to the cemetery to attend the burial service. "It would mean an awful lot to everybody if you could just drop by," one of his local organizers told the senator.

The only problem was Chiles was dressed more appropriately for hunting than for a funeral. As usual, he was wearing his trademark khakis and boots. He didn't even pack a coat and tie for this campaign swing.

So Chiles turned to me and asked if I would mind lending him my blue blazer and tie so he could he could attend the burial service. In those days, I was on the heavy side, probably close to Ted Kennedy's present weight. I couldn't imagine Chiles, a rail of a man, slipping into a blazer large enough to hold the egos of at least two U.S. senators. But I took off my coat and handed it to the senator. It swallowed him like a whale. He wore it to the funeral and no one seemed to notice or care.

Later, when Chiles returned my coat and tie, he smiled and said, "Well, Gailey, at least I didn't ask for your pants."


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