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Gov. Chiles dies
His legacy as a politician is that he had hope and faith in politics. He created that hope and faith in others.
Some of those who eulogize him will naturally feel the urge to de-politicize him. They will say: "In these bitterly partisan times . . ."
But that is saint-making again. He loved a no-holds-barred fight like few others, especially for what he believed was a good cause.
Remember, this is a man whose biggest triumph, the victory over Big Tobacco, was made possible because his side of the fight sneaked some midnight fine print past the Legislature.
He would grin with gleeful mischief when he had the enemy on the run. He took it as a personal affront when he was on the losing end of a battle.
If there was a difference between Chiles and many modern politicians, it was that he did not have hate or contempt for the other side. He knew that on a future day, today's opponent would be his friend, and that when the cause was just, being Republican or Democrat didn't matter. For his opponents, he held out the hope of redemption, and welcomed them like a long-lost brother if they joined him.
But don't try to starch the politics out of him. He stocked the government with his buddies, even when they didn't deserve to be there. He rewarded loyalty even when it hurt him. That was part of the package.
When Chiles ran for governor in 1990, two years after retiring from the U.S. Senate, he inspired a hope in his supporters that was every bit as evangelical as the JFK phenomenon.
Yet for all the lofty rhetoric, Chiles, like JFK, was first and foremost an accomplished politician. They both used everything in the book to accomplish what they wanted to accomplish.
It so happens that what Chiles wanted to accomplish was, for the most part, the right thing, whether it was doing the lonely, hard work of trying to balance the budget in the Senate before it became trendy, or whether it was giving new hope and a second chance to the children of Florida who needed it most -- which might be his greatest legacy.
You felt good around him, too. Even when things were tough, as in his narrow 1994 re-election over Jeb Bush, he would give a lopsided grin as if to say, Everything is going to be all right. He seemed to worry a lot less than all those around him, and he usually was right.
One source of that serenity was Chiles' faith in the people of Florida. He always believed that if he took his case to the people, the people would do the right thing. He was at his best when he was declaring war on one special-interest group or another, flying around the state to whip up public sentiment for some cause or another.
For sure, he had rocky times as governor. His campaign rhetoric had raised expectations too high. He learned, and not very fast either, that the Legislature was not impressed with his press clippings. His tough re-election in 1994 led to the only real blot on his distinguished career, his campaign's use of "scare calls" against the Republicans. His ballyhooed limit of $100 on campaign contributions masked systematic bundling. Flying got him in trouble, whether it was taking state airplanes to Gator games, or accepting free travel without reporting it.
But the plus side of his ledger dwarfs these trifles. Lawton Chiles believed in the people of Florida, he believed in politics, he believed that government was capable of doing more right than wrong, and on those beliefs he built his career. We do not need to make him a saint; what he was, was far, far more than enough.