COMMENTARY | Last night, the best statesman not to become the president of the United States of America passed away at the age of 85 on March 13, 2014. His name was Reubin Askew, the two-term governor of Florida.
That’s exactly what Florida voters asked themselves when this state legislator upset the state’s attorney general, then trounced Republican Governor Claude Kirk in the 1970 gubernatorial election. He became the first Florida Governor to serve two full terms, and one of only two, with his reelection by a 2:1 margin in 1974.
How did he do it?
At a time of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, and Watergate, Askew pushed for honesty in government, leading to the passage of the “Sunshine Amendment” that led to transparency in the political system by limiting lobbying gifts and public servants becoming lobbyists immediately after leaving office.
At a time of racially-charged politics across the country, Askew worked hard for integration. He appointed African-Americans to key office positions before it became a big trend in later years.
At a time of rampant crime, he pushed for a reformed death penalty after the moratorium, but had two individuals wrongly convicted of murder pardoned.
At a time when schools across the country were decaying, he took the lead on education reform, working with states to achieve change.
At a time when it was normally swept under the rug, he had alcoholism recognized as a disease, owing to his experience with his father.
At a time of growing partisanship, he sought to work with politicians on both sides of the political aisle. He was pro-life when it came to abortion, publicly supported Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada and opposed the nuclear freeze.
At a time of international turmoil in trade negotiations owing to the recession, he ably served as the United States Trade Representative after being term limited, negotiating the Tokyo Round of GATT with our economic allies to build unity against communism, one of the bright spots of Jimmy Carter’s administration.
It’s no wonder that the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University rated him one of the greatest governors of any state, not just Florida.
But being a good statesman doesn’t mean being a good politician. He didn’t take PAC (Political Action Committee) dollars in his long-shot presidential bid in 1984 because he feared the corrupting influence of such poorly regulated campaign cash. Plus, no one wanted someone who agreed with Reagan on a few issues. As a result, he finished seventh out of nine candidates in the Democratic Primary. He also took a pass on a Senate race because he refused to play the shadowy money game in politics.
Askew wasn’t just a great statesman. He served in the military as an Air Force intelligence officer during the Korean War. He stayed married to his wife for more than 50 years. And he loved working with students. From FAMU to University of West Florida and the University of North Florida to Florida Gulf Coast College, to the University of Florida Gators and the Florida State University Seminoles, he taught classes everywhere.
My last memory of former Governor Askew came as I cleaned out my mailbox, having finished my graduate studies at FSU. I saw a light on in the conference room that night, and peered in. There he was, teaching a nighttime class for 15 students with day jobs. He looked up at this obscure, bearded, gangly graduate student, smiled and gave a goodbye wave. I’ll never forget that he cared about those he taught. I just wish America got to have the chance to experience his leadership.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.