The 12-foot-high statue of Tom Watson that has dominated the western front of Georgia’s capitol for more than eight decades will be gone in just a few weeks.
The bronze figure of the fiery old populist shaking his clenched fist at the sky is being moved as part of a major renovation of the capitol steps. It will not be returned to that location when the work is completed.
The statue’s impending move from such a prominent spot is a reminder of how drastically a person’s political beliefs and place in history can change.
Watson has always been one of the most fascinating figures in Georgia politics. When he served in the Legislature and then in Congress during the 1880s and 1890s, the Thomson attorney was a liberal populist fighting for impoverished sharecroppers, both black and white, against the powerful business, banking and railroad interests.
He was able to get the nation’s first rural free delivery of mail instituted and in 1896 was the vice presidential candidate on the Populist Party ticket with William Jennings Bryan.
After the turn of the century, Watson’s views changed rather dramatically and he became a white supremacist whose newspaper published poisonous attacks on blacks, Jews and Catholics. His anti-semitic diatribes helped instigate the lynching of Leo Frank in 1915, one of the most shameful incidents in the state’s history.
Watson was elected to a U.S. Senate seat in 1920 but died unexpectedly in 1922, with his statue erected in front of the capitol 10 years later.
Civil rights groups often objected to the statue because of Watson’s history as a race-baiting bigot, but now it will move to a plaza across the street from the capitol, where it will stand near the statue of Herman Talmadge. Gov. Nathan Deal, to his credit, quietly signed an executive order Oct. 4 that authorized the relocation.
Watson’s career arc is similar in many ways to the path traveled by Zell Miller, the former governor and senator who is now living out his retirement years in the Georgia mountains.
While he was governor, Miller worked hard for such liberal goals as making a college education more affordable through the HOPE scholarship and giving more children access to health insurance coverage through PeachCare.
At the 1992 Democratic convention in New York, Miller delivered a moving speech that talked about the things government can do to give hope to struggling families.
“We can’t all be born rich and handsome and lucky,” Miller said. “My family would still be isolated and destitute if we had not had FDR’s Democratic brand of government. I made it because Franklin Delano Roosevelt energized this nation. I made it because Harry Truman fought for working families like mine. I made it because John Kennedy’s rising tide lifted even our tiny boat.”
A decade later, after Miller left the governor’s office and had been appointed to the Senate, his political attitudes changed greatly.
Miller became much more conservative and turned on the Democratic Party with a vengeance. He fully embraced the positions of President George W. Bush and denounced his former colleagues whenever he could get in front of a TV camera.
Where Miller had once devoted his energies to promoting education and healthcare for those who couldn’t afford it, he now was more concerned with enacting tax cuts for the wealthy.
Miller, like Watson, had done a back-flip in his political beliefs. He also had his own kind of Tom Watson experience.
At Manuel’s Tavern in Atlanta, where political activists have gathered for more than 50 years, a portrait of Miller was once displayed in a place of honor near the front bar.
After Miller launched a scathing attack on Democrats at the Republican National Convention in 2004, his painting was exiled to a less prominent location in a back room at the insistence of the bar’s patrons.
Politicians change, and the way we perceive them changes as well.
Every 100 years or so, Georgia’s political landscape seems to be dominated by an angry populist who veers sharply from one end of the ideological spectrum to the other.
We’ve had Tom Watson and Zell Miller stride across the public stage. I wonder who the next one will be?
(Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an internet news service at gareport.com that reports on government and politics in Georgia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)