Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Happy Birthday Mills!

Mills Godwin, the only man ever elected twice to the Virginia’s Governors mansion, was born on November 19th 1914; if he were alive today he would be 100 years old. In honor of his birthday my friend Frank Atkinson, who wrote my favorite book on Virginia politics, Dynamic Dominion, was kind enough to allow me to post several pages on Mills Godwin from his book.

Frank may not realize it, but I owe him a great deal. You see as a college Republican I read his book, which got me hooked on Virginia politics. It was such a good book that I read it in an afternoon. So whenever I start “nerding out” with tales of Virginia political history, Frank is, to some extent responsible. Who knows if I never picked up his book I might have developed other interests such as designing bridal gowns, or writing violin concertos, alas, that didn't happen.

Before I get to the passages from the book, let me add a few thoughts of my own about Mills Godwin. The first time I ever heard the name Godwin was in the late 1980’s. When I finished High School I enrolled at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale. At the time I was not ready for college, and not ready for the outside world, but fortunately there was the option of a community college, where I could study and prepare for a four-year college. Also, because the tuition was fairly inexpensive I could raise the money. So when I showed up to register at NOVA, I was told to go to the Godwin building. Well, as an 18-year-old kid I had no idea who Godwin was, but I later discovered that he led the effort to build Virginia’s community college system. That effort helped shape my life. In addition Godwin’s eight years as Governor helped transform our state.

Godwin was the only man twice elected
by the people of Virginia to the Governorship, one term as a Democrat, 1966-1970 and one term as a Republican 1974- 1978. But I am not sure Virginians truly appreciate the Godwin impact. As governor Godwin helped transform the state from a rural state to a vibrant suburban state. His policies kept Virginia business friendly yet made the necessary infrastructure changes and investments in education, which led to Virginia’s spectacular growth, both in terms of population and in terms of standard of living.

As Governor, Godwin was extremely prescient. He saw the changes that were coming and prepared Virginia. I do believe that if there never was a Mills Godwin Virginia would not be in the great shape she is today. One of my favorite Godwin quotes about progress:

“However mightily we may wish it were not so, it is time to shed the comfortable arguments, the warm familiar excuses, the pleasant encumbrances of the old ways – for we know in our hearts they will not – they cannot – serve us now.”

Former Delegate Lacey Putney, who was a freshman Delegate when Mills was Governor, said that when Godwin was in the building there was a sense of awe among the legislators. They would straighten their ties and in hush tones say, “The Governor is in the building.” Mills was in every sense of the word, a statesman. He always put Virginia’s interests above party interest. I'd like to think another word for statesman is a Virginia Gentleman. And Mills was that and more.

In the Governor's office, on the 3rd floor of the Capitol building, there is a painting of Patrick Henry. Godwin greatly admired Henry and loved the painting. Patrick Henry was Virginia’s first Governor, but Mills Godwin was Virginia’s greatest Governor.

Here are some excerpts from Dynamic Dominion.


"[A] little rebellion, now and then," wrote Thomas Jefferson to James Madison in 1787, "is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical." Judging from the dramatic change that his administration brought to the once-staid Old Dominion, it may be assumed that Governor Mills Godwin placed considerable stock in his predecessor's words.... The resilient Godwin seemed to sense that circumstance and initiative had colluded to make him the leader of the revolution coming to Virginia in the mid-1960s. As a young farm boy in Nansemond County (now Suffolk) with only sisters as siblings, he had found male playmates among the several African-American families who lived nearby. When he was a teenager, the Godwins had had moved a few miles down the road to the village of Chuckatuck (an Indian name meaning "crooked creek"), where the future "education governor" soon found himself literally surrounded by female school teachers (among them, his mother, sisters, and bride Katherine). Educated as a lawyer, Godwin had served as a counter-espionage agent in the Federal Bureau of Investigation during World War II and traveled widely before returning to his hometown to practice law. Politics had quickly beckoned, and although Godwin had overcome an aging Byrd organization loyalist in winning election to the House of Delegates in 1947, he made a point of maintaining genial relations with the conservative Democratic leadership in the legislature. Arriving in the Senate in 1952 and seated next to Senator Harry F. Byrd, Jr., Godwin had swiftly gained favor with the Byrd high command - and statewide prominence - through his high-profile effort on behalf of the Massive Resistance program. That role had catapulted him to the second spot on the Democratic ticket in 1961, but his segregationist stance, along with his strict adherence to Byrd fiscal codes, also had been blamed for the narrowness of Godwin's primary victory that year. The astute politician had sensed the changing mood of his party and his state, and his endorsement of Lyndon Johnson in [the 1964 presidential contest against Republican Barry Goldwater] had won him applause from moderate and liberal Democrats. Now, with the 1965 gubernatorial election at hand, Godwin made it clear he would pursue more progressive policies as governor than had his predecessors. The result was broad support for his candidacy within the Democratic Party - so broad, in fact, that neither he nor his running mates, state Senator Fred G. Pollard of Richmond and incumbent Attorney General Robert Y. Button, had any opposition in the primary elections.

In his fascinating account of the 1965 gubernatorial election, J. Harvie Wilkinson III examined Godwin's career to that point and concluded that he was "a master practitioner of the political art." Writing after Godwin's second term as Virginia's governor - he held office again, as a Republican, from 1974 to 1978 - Guy Friddell called him "a man for all seasons." Like a long distance runner in hilly country who must peer ahead and change course periodically in order to stay on ridges and avoid valleys, Godwin had an uncanny knack for discerning political trends and adjusting to them. It was a skill that served him well in a postwar political environment in which change often seemed the only constant in Virginia. Even in 1965, well before Virginia's political upheaval reached its climax and the extent of Godwin's versatility became apparent, many could see that he was a consummate politician.

Though some observers commented pejoratively on Godwin's agility, most recognized that his political realism and capacity for compromise complemented his guiding beliefs and principles. He seemed to have a natural instinct for leadership and a sixth sense for discerning the point at which effective politics and useful governance might converge. Godwin used those gifts to search for ways to advance both himself and his principles, and he avoided crossing the fine line between astute political leadership and self-interested opportunism because his stands invariably were rooted in conviction. Though critics would charge that expediency drove his evolution from "massive resister" to "education governor," the inconsistency was more apparent than real. Godwin had opposed public school integration primarily because he, like most Southside whites, had been convinced that it would upset the delicate relationship between the races and trigger a prolonged period of social strife. Though the rigid racial code of his region and insensitivity to African-American aspirations had prompted that stance, Godwin's position also reflected a genuine, if misplaced, concern about the impact of desegregation on the state's public education system. In the mid-1960s, when he moderated his image and became a leading proponent of educational advances and other improved public services, Godwin was responding to a political climate favorable to progressive measures he believed were needed. "[T]he people of Virginia were in the mood for a move forward," he later recalled in a conversation with James Latimer, "and I had a program to challenge them." If his progressive impulses seemed too long restrained, it was because, for Mills Godwin, politics was the art of the possible.

- The Dynamic Dominion, ch. 15

[In the 1965 gubernatorial campaign,] Godwin pledged increased teacher salaries, capital outlays for institutions of higher education, industrial development measures, improvements in mental hospitals, steps to combat pollution in the state's growing urban areas, and other initiatives. In so doing, he mimicked planks from the progressive state GOP platforms of the preceding two decades....

Those who knew Godwin well had little doubt he would follow through on his campaign pledges. Few, however, could have anticipated the sweeping nature of the initiatives the erstwhile die-hard conservative would propose.

From Godwin's inaugural address:

"[The people of Virginia] are expectant. They have given their assent in many places to the tapping of whatever new resources are necessary. They are able and they are willing to channel greater private means toward greater public service."We make a mistake, as their leaders, if we get too far ahead of our people. But we make a greater mistake if we fall behind them."

Godwin's inaugural message made clear his intention to "move Virginia forward everywhere." Schools, colleges, roads, hospitals, parks, and prisons - all would receive major improvement during his tenure. "If there is a watchword for our time," the governor declared, "it is to move, to strike out boldly, to reach for the heights." Education, however, was unmistakably his principal concern:

"If there is a universal enemy, if there is a main root to the excesses and to the inertia which get in our way, if there is a handmaiden to poverty and failure, it is ignorance. Let us marshal our resources against it."

The first step in the marshalling of resources for education and other improvements was adoption of a sales tax, and Godwin skillfully maneuvered the tax legislation through the 1966 General Assembly session. Doing so represented a dramatic about-face. Just six years earlier, he had joined state Senator Harry F. Byrd, Jr., and other Byrd organization stalwarts in defeating Governor Lindsay Almond's sales tax proposal. But times had changed; legislative reapportionment in 1966 had brought more urban legislators to the General Assembly; and escalating demands for public services could no longer go unanswered....


With the successor of his choosing [John Dalton] affirmed by the voters, Mills Godwin retired a second time to Cedar Point and the role of elder statesman. His second term had been marked, not by great advances as in his first, but by a succession of externally generated crises that had required a different sort of leadership. Inflation, recession, an oil embargo, discharges of deadly kepone pollution into the James River, and a series of natural disasters had necessitated a steady gubernatorial hand more than vision, and Mills Godwin had responded. He left office with a reservoir of popular affection and goodwill greater even than that which remained at the end of his extraordinarily progressive first term. In his final address to the General Assembly as governor on January 11, 1978, he compared his two terms as the Commonwealth's chief executive:

"From the vantage point of my final message eight years ago, we could look back on an incoming wave of public affluence and public expectations that carried us to new heights: major new accommodations at our state-supported colleges and universities; a new community college system; the first general obligation bond issues in this century for higher education and for mental health; a revision of our state constitution and other advances long delayed.

"Now, as we look back, we find that wave has receded, leaving behind during these last four years a real threat of deficits in our budgets; the first threat of cold homes and stalled automobiles; the first major contamination of Virginia's waters; the first restrictions on the use of drinking water in many, many years; and a succession of ten major floods and seven minor ones.

"I leave to history and to your judgment and that of the people of Virginia, the quality of our response.

"But in making that judgment, I would suggest that the real test of statesmanship is not how far we can ride an incoming tide, but how well we can keep the ship of state from running ground when that tide goes out."

As a satisfied and relieved Godwin prepared to leave public life, there was a broad consensus in the Commonwealth that he had been one of a handful of truly great Virginia governors. Even so, few understood the full extent or nature of the impact that this confident, often controversial, and occasionally contradictory "man for all seasons" had on the Old Dominion's politics during his three remarkable decades of public service.

- The Dynamic Dominion, ch. 30

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