By Bill Minor
Mitt Romney’s attempt to validate his Mississippi visa with some “y’alls” and his declared new love for grits (cheesy grits?) was nice, but not genuine Magnoliaese. However, millionaire Willard Mitt Romney deserves credit for joining the thundering herd of Republican presidential hopefuls and to make political history down here.
Had you were expected some important phone call last week, you had to wade through a ton of robocalls from Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich attacking each other and President Obama as the ultimate devil.
All of the above underscores the fact that even Mississippi, long the spare tire on the political map is not just a fly-over state, certainly for Republicans who now claim the state as their happy hunting. No top-of-the-ticket Democrat, certainly not President Obama, is going to spend any time here, which is sad.
Looking back it had been over a century since a presidential candidate campaigned in Mississippi, when in 1960 Richard Nixon landed in Jackson, though it was only for a couple of hours on the airport tarmac. I noted in a piece I wrote at the time that Andrew Jackson way back in 1828 had been the last to campaign here.
John F. Kennedy, the eventual winner in 1960, didn’t personally campaign here, but he did send his running mate, Lyndon B. Johnson on a campaign train trip across the lower third of the state. Practically all the state’s leading Democrats made the train trip. Known as the “LBJ Special,” it became a monumental event in state politics because the Democratic office-holders who rode the train later were targeted for defeat by the politically potent white Citizens Councils.
Ironically, though defeated by Kennedy in 1960, Nixon would rise from the ashes in 1968 to win the presidency, with a virtually unknown running mate named Spiro T. Agnew. In Agnew’s VEEP years – though short-lived – he had one memorable 1969 appearance in Jackson, delighting a crowd of Mississippi Republicans with his bombastic attack on the national news media, which he called “nattering nabobs of negativism.” Three years later, Agnew had to resign rather than be tried for bribery and extortion during his earlier years as Maryland governor and county executive.
Some Mississippi Republicans today may find it hard to believe, but I made a point of covering Ronald Reagan and even Barry Goldwater when they came into the state to speak to the party faithful (sometimes small groups) in various towns in the 1960s and 1970s. It was amazing to see the adoring GOPers treat Reagan with reverence.
A searing emotional split within the state party’s ranks broke out a year later at the Republican National Convention in Kansas City. Mississippi’s 34 delegate votes became a crucial factor in a floor fight for the presidential nomination between incumbent President Gerald Ford and Reagan as an insurgent candidate. I was there as both Ford and Reagan visited the Mississippi delegation, pleading for its votes. In the tense, emotional roll call that followed, the count went 18 for Ford and 16 for Reagan. That episode caused a permanent split between Mounger and former state Republican Chairman Clarke Reed, the two pioneers who helped build the Mississippi GOP from a “telephone booth” party into one of dominance today.
As history records, Ford later lost the 1976 presidential race to Democrat Jimmy Carter, the former governor of Georgia. Carter, the last elected Democratic presidential nominee to carry Mississippi’s electoral.
Ironically, I still have a poster announcing Carter’s speech on Capitol Street in front of the Governor’s Mansion in October, 1980, during his re-election campaign that he lost to, yes, Ronald Reagan. When Reagan was re-elected in 1984, he had opened his campaign in an outdoor rally at a beachfront park in Gulfport, drawing somewhere between 20,000 to 30,000 people, the largest crowd I ever saw for a political event in Mississippi.
Since Mitt Romney discovered the delights of grits during his Mississippi sojourn, it would be fitting that we of the Hospitality State give him a big ration of grits to take home with him. Which home is that, again, since he has several around the country?
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.