Last month, Trump campaign aides Bill Stepien and Jason Miller alleged during testimony before the January 6th Committee that Rudy Giuliani was drunk when he urged former President Trump to claim victory on Election Night 2020. On this week’s Now & Then episode, “Alcohol in American Politics,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman discussed President Franklin Pierce’s drinking struggles, President Warren Harding’s hypocritical Prohibition enforcement, and Representative Wilbur Mills and former First Lady Betty Ford’s stigma-lifting 1970s alcohol reckonings. In 1979, Georgia Senator Herman Talmadge’s battle with alcoholism reflected the decade’s cultural shifts–and indicated how political scandal and drinking often interact.
On November 29th, 1977, political journalist Margaret Shannon wrote about Georgia Senator Herman Talmadge’s re-election chances in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s magazine: “It probably would take Talmadge to beat Talmadge: Some goof on his part (not considered likely); some startling disclosures about his private life or finances (a possible fallout from the divorce proceedings between him and Betty); or some breakdown in his health.”
Shannon’s assuredness in Talmadge’s durability spoke to the powerful coalition that his family had built in Georgia over the previous half-century. Herman Talmadge’s father was Eugene Talmadge, the white supremacist populist Georgia governor who relied on the support of rural populist “wool-hat boys.” The elder Talmadge was openly and vitriolically racist; he argued that Civil Rights funds were “Jew money for n_____s” in 1940 and was running to “restore the white primary” in Georgia when he died in 1946.
Given the elder Talmadge’s popularity, the Georgia State Legislature voted to replace him with the 35-year-old Herman–who had managed his father’s campaigns–rather than following the line of succession and installing the lieutenant governor. After 67 tumultuous days in power amid a growing constitutional crisis and a war of words between Talmadge and other gubernatorial hopefuls, Talmadge abdicated.
Young Talmadge, however, could not be kept from the governor’s mansion. He won a special election in 1948 and remained in charge until 1954. While not as openly racist as his father, Talmadge was a decided segregationist. He called the Brown v. Board of Education decision a “bald political decree,” advocated abolishing public schools altogether to resist integration, and published a polemical tome called You and Segregation in 1955.
As he had started to enter politics in 1942, Talmadge married Betty Shingler. He was 30 and she was 19. They moved to a plantation in Lovejoy, Georgia that many believed was the inspiration for the O’Hara mansion, Tara, in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. During Talmadge’s governorship, Betty grew a nascent ham-curing business into a regional powerhouse. By the time Betty sold the business in 1969, it was worth some $3.5 million.
When Georgia voters elected Talmadge to the Senate in 1956, Betty and Herman were the talk of Washington. Betty became an ally of Lady Bird Johnson, while Herman–who often boasted of his 18-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week work schedule–became a powerful voice on both the Senate Agricultural and Senate Finance Committees. Herman’s racism continued to show through the Johnson administration; he boycotted the 1964 Democratic National Convention in opposition to the Civil Rights Act.
By 1973, however, Herman had quieted his opposition to equality, relishing legislative victories like an expansion of the National School Lunch Program and a massive rural development bill. His most visible achievement came that summer, when he served on the nine-member Senate Watergate Committee, offering barbed dressings-downs of Nixon aides.
Shortly after this moment of triumph, things began to go wrong. On Memorial Day 1975, the family’s maid woke Talmadge up at his home in Lovejoy with terrible news: his son, 29-year-old real estate agent Robert, had drowned while swimming in Lake Lanier. “I touched his cold forehead and knew that I had awakened to a nightmare,” Talmadge wrote in his 1987 memoir.
Two years later, Talmadge filed for divorce from Betty. He did not alert her beforehand, and she found out while watching TV at Lovejoy, with Herman in the house. Betty’s cross-petition and a series of divorce-related depositions revealed a bevy of Herman’s financially-questionable habits, alleging that Herman hardly ever wrote checks and kept excess cash from fundraisers in the pocket of an overcoat. Betty also claimed she was entitled to $750,000 in land that Herman had purchased with stock and had initially put in Betty’s name.
Another element of Betty’s accusations concerned Herman’s drinking. She cited Herman’s “habitual intoxication” and revealed that he had been hospitalized at Walter Reed Medical Center multiple times due to alcohol-related health problems.
Talmadge shook off the claims at first. “Exaggerated stories about my drinking never really bothered me, because that was part of the image and legend for the Southern politician,” he wrote in his memoir, before citing other legendary operators who openly enjoyed alcohol, from former Alabama Governor “Big” Jim Folsom, to 1930s Louisiana demagogue Huey Long.
While Herman played defense, Betty Talmadge was becoming a rising star. In late 1977, she published a cookbook, How to Cook a Pig and Other Back-to-the-Farm Recipes, complete with a foreword by First Lady Rosalynn Carter. And several months later, she announced that she would be running for Congress, quickly assembling an all-star campaign staff, featuring Bill Pope, who had run Jimmy Carter’s successful 1970 campaign for governor of Georgia. She courted the press aggressively and was not afraid to talk about Herman. “If I won, I’d be Herman’s congresswoman,” she reminded the Washington Post’s Myra McPherson in a wide-ranging profile titled “The Metamorphosis of Betty Talmadge.” “Isn’t that ridiculous?”
Betty finished third in the crowded Democratic primary. The winner in the general election was none other than a young Republican history professor named Newt Gingrich.
As Betty Talmadge campaigned, the Washington Star was digging into her financial claims against her ex-husband. In May 1978, the Star, helped out by an angry former Talmadge aide named Daniel Minchew, detailed far more potent allegations against the Senator. Minchew insisted that he had opened a secret account for Talmadge and had helped to orchestrate some $50,000 in Senate reimbursements for non-existent office supplies. Matters were not helped by Herman’s dismissive attitude. “Wherever I go [in Georgia], people entertain me, lodge me, give me small amounts of money,” Herman explained to the paper, practically begging them to dig up further tax and reporting improprieties. By August, Minchew was meeting with Senate Ethics Committee lawyers.
Talmadge continued his work, even dramatizing his early-morning jogs in the press to show his level of focus. As 1978 came to a close and the Ethics Committee came closer to holding hearings on Talmadge’s misdeeds, however, the Senator’s incidences of public drunkenness began to multiply.
First, a group of Florida farmers had called for a strategy call with Talmadge from his perch as Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee and told a local paper that they believed Talmadge was drunk on the call.
Then, on January 14th, 1979, Talmage flew back with President Carter on Air Force One from the Atlanta ceremonies to mark the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. and to signal support for the creation of a federal holiday honoring King. Talmadge had three double scotches on the plane. The next morning, Talmadge was scheduled to be to the Senate early to swear in Georgia’s Junior Senator Sam Nunn for his second term. Talmadge walked unsteadily alongside Nunn, leaning against desks for support.
Finally, on January 22nd, 1979, Talmadge allegedly fought with his 25-year-old close aide Paul Slappey, who tried to stop him from driving. Some reports suggested that the Senator may have even pulled a pocket knife, a charge the aide denied. Slappey, who lived with Talmadge–and who seemingly attempted to monitor his drinking–consulted with other close Talmadge friends and checked the Senator into the Naval Medical Clinic in Bethesda, Maryland, for alcohol treatment that same night.
Two close colleagues who had also struggled with alcoholism, the aforementioned former Arkansas Representative Wilbur Mills, and a fellow dynastic Southern Senator, Louisiana’s Russell Long, visited Talmadge in Bethesda and encouraged him to check in to the Long Beach Naval Regional Medical Center’s Alcohol Rehabilitation Center in California. “Taking their advice probably saved my life,” Talmadge wrote in his memoir.
On January 25th, the White House orchestrated a Air Force C-140 jet to fly Talmadge to Long Beach. Slappey, seemingly having forgiven the fight, accompanied his boss and stayed with him for moral support throughout his month-long stay.
Long Beach was an 83-bed unit that opened in 1970. The center specialized in treating Navy pilots and doctors. By the time Talmadge arrived, around 5,000 soldiers and several dozen celebrities or high-ranking politicians–with personal approval by the Secretary of the Navy–had received treatment at Long Beach. Betty Ford also spent time at Long Beach the previous year, and Jimmy Carter’s brother Billy would check in less than two months after Talmadge’s arrival.
The facility, headed by Captain Joseph Pursch, boasted an 80% success rate for permanent recovery from alcoholism. Pursch required each patient to run a mile a day, alongside three hours of group therapy in the morning, an afternoon session of role-playing activities, and evening off-site trips to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Pursch also often prescribed the anti-alcohol drug Antabuse, which caused nausea when combined with alcohol.
Talmadge emerged from Long Beach on February 26th to meet the press. “I’m not drinking now. I hope it will continue forever,” he revealed. “I probably took my personal problems to the bottle rather than to my maker.”
Talmadge also contextualized the stay as a renewal of his commitment to politics: “The admission to Long Beach was a move to take control of my personal life, to strengthen myself spiritually, mentally, physically and to meet the challenge of my responsibility as a United States Senator.” He even began to gear up for his 1980 Senate re-election campaign.
Less than two months after leaving Long Beach, on April 30th, the Senate Ethics Committee began a 12-week Senate “trial” into Talmadge’s misdeeds. The most dramatic moment came on June 12th, 1979, when Betty testified against her ex-husband, revealing that for decades she had fished spending money that Herman had taken from fundraisers out of the pocket of an overcoat left around the house. “It was a way of life,” Betty admitted. Even with the damning overcoat evidence, Betty and Herman, who had not seen each other since the divorce, treated each other cordially during the hearing. “I am not a willing witness,” Betty admitted at the start of her testimony, referencing her Senate subpoena.
As the Senator’s ethics probe dragged on, his candidacy for re-election suffered. In Georgia, one primary opponent, Lieutenant Governor Zell Miller, vociferously attacked Talmadge on both his financial mismanagement and his alcoholism: “If you are a drunk, a drunk rich enough to pay $250 a day, you can go take the cure under the auspices of the United States Navy in the high-rent district of Long Beach, California. And you will probably be able to make a tidy profit off the experience by appearing on talk shows or writing a book about it. If you are a United States senator, the president will have you flown out there in an Air Force plane at the taxpayers’ expense.”
On October 11th, 1979, the Senate voted 81-15 to “denounce” Talmadge, a new vocabulary word to describe a very similar form of punishment heaped on Connecticut Senator Thomas J. Dodd for similar crimes a decade earlier. Talmadge went on to narrowly lose re-election to Republican Mack Mattingly a year later. In his memoir, Talmadge recounted thinking, upon his loss, “What the hell? That’s all behind me. No use playing it back in my mind or brooding about what might have been. I entered politics dramatically and I guess I’m leaving the same way.”
Forty-odd years after Talmadge’s spiral, the role of alcohol–and general human frailty–in the polarized politics of 2022 remains just as explosive as when Talmadge’s problems burst onto the front pages.
Check out Herman Talmadge’s fascinating memoir, Talmadge: A Political Legacy, A Politician’s Life. And for more on the racist role that Talmadge and other Southern Democrats played in the political life of the 1960s, read Robert Sherrill’s 1969 Gothic Politics in the Deep South: Stars of the New Confederacy.
And head to the Twitter account of author and Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.
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Catch up on some recent Time Machine’s deep dives into history:
- ‘Liberty Cannot Bloom Amid Hate’: The Retirement of Justice Thurgood Marshall and the Rightward Drift of the Supreme Court
- ‘Do Away with Me!’: Thomas J. Dodd’s Senate Censure Hearings and the Evolution of Political Accountability
- ‘A Large-Scale Hangover from a Speculative Orgy’: The Pain of the Mid-1980s Computer Slump