By BILL MAXWELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 16, 1998
n light of Gov. Lawton Chiles' death and the recent election of Jeb Bush to replace him in January, I am reminded of a news story, Chiles' native tongue speaks to a new state, published during the 1994 gubernatorial campaign.
Now, with Chiles' passing, I realize anew, as the article suggested, that people born in Florida before the 1950s are fast becoming cultural outsiders in this vanishing paradise that we natives call home.
Everything is changing, altering our lives in ways that diminish the natives' sense of who we are. Many natives are mourning the passing of Chiles and, with his death, the virtual disappearance of one of our most colorful traditions: Florida Crackerdom.
After all, our governor-elect, a 45-year-old Texan, speaks fluent Spanish.
The term Cracker has several definitions. Most Floridians prefer the one claiming that the original Crackers were white cowboys who cracked whips as they drove cattle across the peninsula. Another version states that Crackers were the poor Georgia and North Florida whites who pounded or cracked corn to make grits, flour and meal.
For our purposes, Crackers are whites descended from Scotch-Irish frontiersmen in the South, especially in Georgia and North Florida. Unfortunately, because the South is associated with racism, Cracker has taken on derogatory connotations everywhere except among those who consider themselves members of the group. Blacks, for example, have always used Cracker as a racial epithet.
Their greatest chronicler in fiction, Majorie Kinnan Rawlings, had a love-hate relationship with Crackers when she lived among them at Cross Creek. "These people are "lawless' by an anomaly," she told Maxwell Perkins, her editor. "They are living an entirely natural, and very hard, life, disturbing no one. . . . Yet almost everything they do is illegal. And everything they do is necessary to sustain life."
They hunted out of season and fished beyond the limit. They didn't believe in licenses of any kind. The earth was theirs to pluck -- without government interference. This is the same paradoxical stock from which Gov. Chiles was cut. He was born and reared in Lakeland, where Jim Crow felt right at home. Yet Chiles was no racist. He appointed more African-Americans to office than any other Florida governor.
Most natives are not ashamed to say that they miss Chiles' Cracker wit and are already thinking of some of his gems nostalgically.
During the first gubernatorial debate in 1994, for example, Bush tried to blame the buildup of national debt during the 1980s on Chiles, who had been chairman of the U.S. Senate Budget Committee. "I know you have a lot of firsthand knowledge about the federal debt," a sarcastic Bush said, having forgotten that his father, George Bush, had been vice president and president during that period -- and had never once submitted a balanced budget to Congress.
A Beltway-wise Chiles replied, "Gosh, it seems like there was somebody else above me sending those budgets. Jeb, there's a Cracker saying: Never mention rope in a house where there's been a hanging."
Here are other Crackerisms that have been cited in this newspaper:
"It's a sorry frog who won't holler in his own pond."
"A cut dog barks."
"Even a blind hog will root out an acorn once in a while."
Chiles spoke his most famous Crackerism, which earned him a new nickname, during the final debate on Nov. 1, 1994, at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. The Bush campaign was ahead in the polls by a few percentage points and his supporters had been crowing.
Warning Bush and doubting journalists that he would pull victory out of the jaws of defeat, Chiles described himself as the embodiment of one of Florida's most cunning and hard-to-capture wild creatures: "The old he-coon walks just before the light of day."
Bush was confused and so was the overwhelming majority of the audience. Crackers, especially coon hunters who watched the debate on television, laughed. They knew exactly what their brother, that "sly old Lawton Chiles," was saying. Who speaks for these Crackers now?