Monday, January 3, 2011

My Conversation with Garrett Epps

Virginia Gentleman: Let me say first that I loved your book, the Shad Treatment, and I do believe it is a must for anyone interested in Virginia politics.  Your book really captured the spirit of the Byrd era. 
 How long did it take you to write the Shad Treatment?

Garrett Epps: I began it in late 1973, when I suddenly quit my job as political correspondent of THE RICHMOND MERCURY and finished in late 1975, while working at the copy desk of THE RICHMOND AFRO-AMERICAN. 

Virginia Gentleman: As a child growing up in Richmond what is your earliest political memory?

Garrett Epps: I remember watching TV with my mother.  I was 4 and I asked her how that man on TV was, and she said, “McCarthy.”  It was scary.  I also remember at the age of 6 running to my mother to repeat a neat rhyme I had heard at school: “I like Ike.” My mother frowned and said “That makes you a Republican!” I didn’t know what that meant but I ran to my dad and said, “Mom said I was a Republican.” My dad said, “I know some very nice Republicans,” so I felt better.

Virginia Gentleman: When asked about the existence of a “Byrd Machine”, Harry Byrd said “All I do is offer a little advice now and then”.  He went on to say, “We are a loose organization of friends, who believe in the same principals of government.”  How would you describe the Byrd Machine?

Garrett Epps: The Byrd Machine or Organization ironically was a stepchild of American Progressivism, which emphasized the need for specialized or qualified people to make decision. Virginia took this to extreme, having an extremely small number of state officials (“the short ballot”) selected by a very low number of voters.  (VOKey said of Byrd era Virginia, “by contrast, Mississippi is a hotbed of democracy.”)  The governor of the Commonwealth was so powerful that local officials had to remain in line; and Sen. Byrd picked the governors.   A far better description of it is in Judge Wilkinson’s marvelous book

Virginia Gentleman: In your book you describe the treatment a legislator receives when his bill is summarily killed.  You call it the Shad Treatment.  Can you explain the origin of that expression?

Garrett Epps: It’s my understanding that it was coined by Sen. Robert Whitehead, a famous maverick who was gone from the scene by 1973, when I came on it.  Whitehead was from Tidewater and so piscatorial images came easily to him.
Virginia Gentleman: When do you think the Byrd era officially died?  Would it have been with the election of Linwood Holton?

Garrett Epps: No, it ended with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which signaled that Richmond would no longer be able to keep the voting rolls small and all white.  Things went south for the organization the next year with the election of Sen. William Spong.
Virginia Gentleman: Your book really captured the feel of a campaign.  Have you ever worked on a campaign?
Garrett Epps: I was a campaign volunteer a number of times, beginning with J. Sargent Reynolds in 1963 and David O. Satterfield in 1964.  I worked quite hard for Jimmy Carter in 1976 but of course that was after the book had been completed though before it was published.


Mark J. said...

The book looks interesting. I might have to check it out.

The Virginia Gentleman said...

Thanks for the comment Mark. Yes, it was a great book. Just like F.Scott Fitzgerald captured the Jazz Age in his novel the Great Gatsby, so Epps has captured the Byrd era in the Shad Treatment. I can't seem to find my copy though, I fear the Virginia Gentlelady gave it away..

Bwana said...

Whitehead was actually a delegate from Amherst, but I also understand he was the one who coined the phrase.