Book: The Three Governors Controversy: Skullduggery, Machinations, and the Decline of Georgia’s Progressive Politics 

Authors: Charles S. Bullock III, Scott E. Buchanan & Ronald Keith Gaddie 

Reviewed by: Glenn P. Hendrix, Chair, Arnall Golden Gregory LLP 

Glenn Hendrix

Gene Talmadge, nicknamed the “Wild Man from Sugar Creek,” won the Georgia governor’s race in 1946 but died before inauguration, leaving three individuals with colorable claims to the governorship.  

It’s a fascinating story, with colorful characters, layers of political intrigue, and convincing evidence of real election fraud. The Three Governors Controversy tells that story well, but that’s not the best part of the book. The broader social and political backdrop of the election makes for an even more interesting read. 

Some quirks in Georgia politics from that time are gone, like one-party rule (there was no Republican candidate for governor until 1966) and the “county unit” system, which functioned somewhat like the electoral college and allowed Talmadge to win despite losing the popular vote. But as the authors say, “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” The book offers lessons for current Georgia politics, at a time when Georgia briefly stands as the political epicenter of the nation. 

President-elect Joe Biden’s win in Georgia caused considerable surprise in the media, especially abroad. That might have something to do with the Talmadge era in Georgia politics, which — between Gene and his son Herman — covered much of the 20th century. Gene Talmadge was an unapologetic racist with a demagogue’s cult following. 

But there’s also a longstanding progressive strand in Georgia politics. Ellis Arnall, governor of Georgia from 1943 to 1947 (and, I’m proud to say, one of the founders of my law firm), was liberal even by national standards, having supported Henry Wallace for vice-president in 1944.  

At the end of Arnall’s term, the Washington Post wrote that “Georgia’s little experiment with civilization has ended.” But it didn’t. While progressive politics in Georgia had suffered a major setback, Georgia continued on an uneven path as the most progressive state in the South. 

Read some of Mr. Hendrix’s previous reviews:

Books 2019: What Ancient DNA Tells Us About Humanity Before History

Books 2018: Music’s True Function Found in Old Greece

Books 2017: A Diary of Life’s Unpredictable Journey

Books 2016: Sagas of the Icelanders — And a Look at Their Communal Legal System

Books 2015: A Tribute to Those Fighting for Justice in Russia

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