'He-Coon' walked own path
By TIM NICKENS
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 14, 1998
e were flying over the sparkling Florida Keys during the 1990 campaign when the radio crackled in the tiny private plane.
The other campaign plane, carrying Lawton Chiles, was in trouble.
The problem turned out to be a minor malfunction. Both small planes safely landed near Miami, and Chiles walked out grinning. But he heard the anxiety in our voices as we asked him what had happened.
When we took off again, I sat across from Chiles in his plane. After a bit, the plane abruptly lost altitude. Again, I scribbled the time in my notebook and prepared for the worst.
Chiles, who had instructed the pilot to make the maneuver, silently watched me panic.
"Gotcha," he finally said with a grin.
The governor enjoyed that story. He made sure to bring it up at a recent luncheon for some reporters who covered him. The gathering was one of several going-away events he and Mrs. Chiles hosted at the Governor's Mansion in the past few weeks.
We expected to be talking with him for years to come.
With Chiles' death Saturday at age 68, there is a natural inclination to sum up the populist Democrat in political shorthand.
His dozen years as a state legislator, 18 years as a U.S. senator and nearly eight years as governor span parts of five decades. An older generation knew him as "Walkin' Lawton" for his 1,000-mile walk in 1970 to campaign for the U.S. Senate. A younger one knew him as "the Old He-Coon," from the classic Cracker line he used in a 1994 debate against Republican Jeb Bush.
The $100 limit on campaign contributions, the devotion to children's programs and the enormous tobacco settlement are among Chiles' greatest legacies.
But there was so much more.
Chiles had a mischievous sense of humor, symbolized by the "gotchas." During a rash of tourist murders in his first term, he traveled to Miami and was photographed wearing a bulletproof vest. It was a public relations faux pas of international proportions, and his staff felt terrible.
At a staff meeting later at the Governor's Mansion, the governor sent communications director Ron Sachs out of the room. When Sachs returned, he found everyone wearing bulletproof vests and grins.
"He never took himself or any of this too seriously," Buddy MacKay, who was sworn in to serve out the remaining 23 days of Chiles' term, said Sunday. "He was a fun guy to be around."
Chiles was the rare politician who liked to listen more than he liked to talk. Aides labeled his silences: mad silence, good silence, bad silence and just silence. Reading them correctly was an art.
But his willingness to hear others paid off, regardless of whether he was meeting with legislators or ordinary Floridians. It made him one of them, and his everyman image was sealed with the 1970 walk.
Chiles kept a daily journal during the walk, which one of his sons shared with me several years ago. One entry:
"Starting at Sanford about 7 a.m. Tuesday, I walked to Maitland by lunch time. . . . I looked up and saw a fellow walking toward me from about a quarter mile away and I could tell he had something in his hand. Well, it turned out to be Martin Peden and he's a Borden's milkman who lives in Orlando. He saw me walking and thought I might be hot and thirsty, so he stopped his truck, crossed over the highway and brought me a cold carton of milk."
Through it all, Chiles kept that comfortable familiarity with Floridians even as Florida was changing into a more diverse, more complicated place. That trait was never more evident than when he comforted victims of fires and floods, hurricanes and tornadoes.
Chiles led a line of politicians and emergency workers down a two-lane road after deadly tornadoes tore through Central Florida last February. At dusk, the caravan stopped in front of a small frame home blown to pieces.
As the others watched, Chiles hopped across a muddy gully, put his arm around a crying woman and whispered a few words. "I appreciate you coming out," Julie Myers told him.
To someone who suddenly had nothing, Chiles' genuine concern meant everything.
He could be incredibly stubborn, whether it was fighting the Legislature or refusing to provide straight answers to reporters. He could barnstorm the state for weeks to promote health care or school construction programs, then seem indifferent about all the other policy issues facing the governor of the fourth largest state.
He could butcher the names of legislators he had known for years. He couldn't recite from memory basic details of his personal finances, much less some state programs. Yet Chiles had a clear vision for his legislative programs and his direction for Florida.
There were other inconsistencies that made a solitary man with lots of friends hard to pigeonhole.
Chiles was a creature of a vanishing Florida, an image he reinforced with his Cracker sayings. He loved to hunt, kept the turkeys he killed in the mansion freezer and moved an old log cabin onto 210 acres of pine trees and hills he owned east of Tallahassee.
The same man would drag aides and reporters all over Miami looking for the best Cuban food. And he was always on the hunt for good sushi, whether he was in Washington or Tallahassee or somewhere in between.
With perhaps his best-written veto message, Chiles prevented a 1996 school prayer bill from becoming law. But he was a spiritual man who for the past 18 months or so led regular early morning Bible classes at the mansion for a small circle of friends and staff.
Chiles appointed more minorities to state boards and commissions than any other governor. But he also was sometimes criticized for relying on too many old friends in key government jobs and failing to jettison them when their performance lagged.
For the governor, there weren't many cards that could trump friendship and loyalty.
In 1995, the Republican-controlled Senate was gunning for Jim Towey, a longtime Chiles friend and the embattled head of the state's social services agency. Though Chiles pushed hard for him, the Republicans effectively fired Towey by refusing to confirm his appointment. It marked the first time in 20 years a governor had been handed such a defeat.
The confirmation vote was in the morning. Chiles invited Towey to lunch at the mansion, where the friends consoled each other. Walking out, the governor spotted the old state-owned Chevy that Towey drove.
"You're going to have to give up that limo," Chiles deadpanned.
Then it was on to a news conference in the Capitol. Angry and red-faced, Chiles defended his friend like a circuit-riding preacher, his voice rising and falling as he congratulated Towey for his accomplishments. Each line began, "I want to thank you . . . "
Towey, now head of the non-profit Commission on Aging with Dignity, learned of Chiles' death when he returned home late Saturday afternoon. Like other longtime Chiles aides and friends, he drove to the mansion, where he prayed with Mrs. Chiles.
"It just completely blindsided all of us," Towey said Sunday, recalling how relaxed Chiles seemed as he wrapped up his eight years as governor. "He was wonderful to be around. You felt refreshed to be around him. He was very much at peace with who he was. Rhea and I were just talking about how he was in full bloom."
Politicians who are a little unusual, but really not all that different from their peers, often are wrongly described as "unique."
For Lawton Chiles, the word fits as comfortably as old walking boots.