Friday, September 27, 2013

Remembering Bill Tuck

Tomorrow would have been Virginia’s 55th Governor Bill Tuck’s birthday, so to commemorate the day I did an interview with University of Mary Washington Professor, and author of the definitive book on Tuck, “Bill Tuck: A Political Life in Harry Byrd's Virginia, by William Crawley Jr.

Virginia Gentleman: Why did you decide to write a book about William Tuck?

Professor William Crawley: “The book resulted from the confluence of two factors. The first had to do with the experiences of my childhood in Southside Virginia. Woodrow Wilson once remarked that all southerners were born with an interesting politics, and that seems to have been true in my case. The first politician’s name that I seem to recall hearing was that of Bill Tuck, who was elected Governor shortly after I was born and who served as Congressman during my childhood and adolescence—and, in fact, on through my years in graduate school. As my family was thoroughly supportive of the Byrd organization (as was basically everyone I knew at that time), Tuck was always spoken of with admiration. Plus, the fact that he was essentially a “local boy” from the neighboring county of Halifax (about 35 miles from my home in Pittsylvania County) only added to his stature.

The second factor was that when I arrived for graduate school at UVA, my mentor, Ed Younger (then dean of the graduate school) was encouraging his students to write their dissertations on Virginia governors since the Civil War—a project that eventually led to the 1982 publication of The Governors of Virginia, edited by Professor Younger and another of his graduate students, Professor James T. Moore of VCU. As Tuck’s governorship had not yet been covered, it seemed a natural choice for my dissertation. I subsequently added his congressional career for the biography that was published in 1978.”

Virginia Gentleman: What were some of your best sources for finding information about Tuck?

Professor William Crawley: “At the time of my research, there were virtually no secondary sources of any consequence save J. Harvie Wilkinson’s Harry Byrd and the Changing Face of Virginia Politics, which had only recently been published. Consequently, I had to rely almost exclusively on primary sources, the most important of which were newspapers, correspondences, and personal interviews with various figures of the time, most notably Tuck himself.

Interestingly (and surprisingly) Tuck had not yet turned over his personal papers to a repository. They were just stored in big cardboard boxes, which he gave to me and which I kept for a time variously in my parents’ home, my apartment in Charlottesville, and my car. They were cumbersome and, because they were not indexed in any way, tedious to use—but extremely helpful; I probably could not have done the project without them and Tuck’s permission to use them as I wished. Still I was relieved when Tuck decided to give them to the William and Mary Library. (He restricted them to my use for the duration of my research.)

I should also mention that he was extremely generous with his time, never once (as I recall) refusing an interview request. As a result, I met with him many times, mainly at his cottage in rural Halifax County, but also in Washington and other venues. I found him to be surprisingly outspoken—but, then again, that had always been his reputation. The only time he ever seemed guarded was on the one occasion when I taped the interview—this being on an old reel-to-reel machine. All the other times I simply took notes and found him to be much more frank and forthcoming.

I also appreciated his refusal to try to control what I wrote about him, even when it was unflattering. The only exception that I recall is when he expressed concern over my quoting any profanity. “It’s not so bad when you just say it,” he told me, “but it looks so bad when you see it on paper.”

Virginia Gentleman: Many people know Tuck for his enactment of Virginia’s Right-to-Work Law. Describe how that came about?

Professor William Crawley: “Enactment of the right-to-work law had its origin in the unprecedented labor unrest following World War II—not just in Virginia, but across the country. The key specific incident in Virginia that touched it off was a threatened strike by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers against the Virginia Electric and Power Company in the spring of 1946. Claiming that such a move would curtail power to much of Virginia, Tuck responded with the most stunning action of his governorship when he resurrected a long-dormant statute that allowed the government to employ what was called the “unorganized state militia” in time of crisis. Using this ploy, he had notices served on all VEPCO employees informing them that, if their union went on strike, they would be summarily drafted into the militia and ordered (on pain of court martial) to continue at their jobs. An eleventh-hour settlement precluded the draft from taking place, thereby mooting the question of its constitutionality. But it generated national headlines for Tuck and apparently was something of a template for President Harry Truman, who shortly thereafter made a similar draft threat (never effected) to address a pending national railroad strike.”

Virginia Gentleman: Tuck was also famous for Virginia's “Anti-Truman Bill”. What was that?

Professor William Crawley: “The genesis of this proposal lay in the hostility of Tuck specifically, and the Byrd organization in general, to the implications of Truman’s proposed civil rights program—the most comprehensive since Reconstruction. Tuck’s startling program, as originally drafted, would have kept the names of presidential candidates off the ballot (using only names of parties and electors) and, even more stunning, would have permitted a state party convention or a committee thereof to decide for whom the state’s electoral votes would be cast—even after the election had been held!

Bowing to widespread public outcry, the bill was eventually amended so that, even though the state party could still instruct its electors for someone other than the national party nominee, such a change, if made, would have to be announced at least 60 days prior to an election—else the electors would automatically be committed to the national ticket; moreover, the names of all candidates were to be printed on the ballot. The whole affair was the most bizarre event of the Tuck governorship and the one that provoked the most widespread opposition.”

Virginia Gentleman: It seems that Harry Byrd viewed Tuck with some skepticism and that it was only with difficulty that Tuck secured Byrd's support for governor in 1945. What were some reasons for Byrd’s Skepticism?

Professor William Crawley: “The reason for Byrd’s skepticism did not lie in any significant difference of political opinion; the two men shared the same fundamentally conservative philosophy as reflected in the Organization’s “pay-as-you-go” fiscal policy. The reluctance was rooted instead in their personalities. Byrd’s staid demeanor reflected his political reserve; Tuck, on the other hand, could scarcely have been more different: gregarious and fun-loving, with a tendency toward boisterousness. Not surprisingly, Byrd was more comfortable personally with more decorous organization stalwarts such as Colgate Darden, who preceded Tuck as governor, and John Battle and Thomas Stanley, who succeeded him.”

Virginia Gentleman: Most every picture I have seen of Tuck shows him with the big grin and a cigar in hand. My impression of him is as a old time good old boy politician. How would you describe his demeanor?

Professor William Crawley: That impression is largely correct, though it tends to obscure the fact that Tuck was by no means devoid of intelligence or unable to behave with decorum as the occasion required. At the same time, he was undeniably a country boy—both by birth and by preference. His culinary preferences tended toward chitlins, collards, and cornbread—often preceded by an ample quantity of “bourbon and branch.” Utterly unaffected by the trappings of high office, he was capable of some decidedly “un-governor-like” escapades, such as firing a pistol in the night air outside the Governor’s Mansion in a playful impromptu test of Capitol security or inviting unsuspecting passersby to have cocktails in the Mansion or to accompany him to the Old Dominion Barn Dance, a popular Richmond hoedown of the period. It was thus with good reason that the adjective most frequently applied to Tuck—and certainly most accurate one—was “colorful.” He was perhaps the closest the Commonwealth ever had to a folk hero in high office.

Virginia Gentleman: What were some of Tuck’s accomplishments as Governor?

Professor William Crawley: “In conformity with the conservative, small-government philosophy of the Byrd organization, the Tuck administration was far from activist, especially in terms of social programs. Still, there were modest increases in appropriations for education, mental and physical health facilities, welfare, and highways, although Virginia’s support in these areas still ranked near the bottom nationally. Although the Tuck administration could not be called reformist, it did produce some program innovations, however minimal. These included creation of an agency to control water pollution (anticipating by several decades the popular concern for the environment); some salutary changes in the prison system, including outlawing corporal punishment and phasing out the use of chains in road camps; institution of a small tax increase; and a semi-successful effort to streamline the state bureaucracy. There was even a movement toward eliminating the poll tax, though the plan was coupled with other suffrage restrictions that would probably have negated its impact; in any event, the effort, even limited as it was, failed -- and the tax remained in effect in statewide elections until outlawed by Supreme Court decision in 1966.

In short, the Tuck administration gave most voting Virginians essentially what they wanted at that time—which was very little. The operative term was “voting Virginians” because, given the restrictions such as the poll tax, as well as the existence of a culture of political apathy, political participation was limited to a small and essentially homogenous group of mostly white middle- and upper- class Virginians.”

Virginia Gentleman: Former Governor James Battle and Tuck both were eyeing the Senate seat if Byrd chose not to run for reelection in 1958. And my understanding is that Byrd reluctantly ran for re election to avoid the political infighting that would result from a Battle-Tuck primary fight. Is this true? Did he really feel such a fight would destroy the organization?

Professor William Crawley: “Certainly Tuck, who had been elected to Congress from the Fifth District in a special election in 1953, was keenly interested in the ‘58 Senate race. He was on the verge of announcing his candidacy when Byrd reversed himself and announced that he would seek reelection after all. (Tuck later noted it was the only time he ever knew Byrd to change his mind after making a public statement.)

In any case, the likelihood of an intra-organization contest between Tuck and Battle probably did influence his decision to run again, since it would have likely divided the organization in a serious way. It is impossible to know what the outcome would have been between Tuck and Battle, both of whom had their organization adherents. Tuck later ventured that he would probably have been supported by most of the older leaders such as Darden (who was by then president of UVA), while Battle would have drawn the younger ones, more of whom would have worked with him as governor. Tuck later suggested that he believed that Byrd would have eventually supported him, but was by no means certain of it.

As it turned out, Tuck’s name surfaced twice more, briefly, in regard to a potential Senatorial candidacy—once in ’64 when Byrd’s term expired (Byrd ran for reelection) and in ’66 as a potential independent challenger to the moderate William Spong, who had upset incumbent A. Willis Robertson in the Democratic primary for the Commonwealth’s other Senate seat. Neither came to fruition, and Tuck spent the remainder of his career in the House until his retirement in 1968.”

Virginia Gentleman: What about Tuck’s post-retirement career?

Professor William Crawley: “He was 72 when he left Congress, whereupon he returned to his native Halifax. He never again sought public office and, in fact, took little role in politics, preferring to focus mainly on his South Boston law practice. His activity further declined as he was slowed by various infirmities of age that included a stroke in 1976 that compromised his mobility. His views apparently changed very little, although he did come to accept school integration (which he had fought vigorously as a congressman), though he continued to oppose busing to achieve it. He died in 1983.”

1 comment:

A fellow Virginia Gentleman said...

"While the dignified Darden was once hailed by a political opponent as 'the noblest Roman of them all,' Tuck was a brash good-timer described by the Richmond News Leader as having 'the comfortable appearance of a man who has just dined on a dozen pork chops.'"