LLOYD GRAY: Perspective from political memories

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

Anytime we are tempted to think that politics in Mississippi is somehow more outlandish than in the past, we need to remember Cliff Finch.
Mississippi’s governor from 1976 to 1980, who died in 1986, resurfaced in the news last week when one of his daughters went to court to keep her 25-year-old niece from selling off items related to the Finch governorship. The daughter, Ann Finch Walker, said some of them might belong to the state.
The report didn’t say whether they included a lunch box or a bulldozer or a heart-shaped bathtub, but those are the things that immediately come to mind in recalling the late Batesville trial lawyer and district attorney.
Finch came out of nowhere in 1975 to defeat Lt. Gov. William Winter and win the governorship with a campaign based on nothing more than televised stunts toting a lunch box, driving a bulldozer and sacking groceries. He was the “working man’s friend.”
It was vacuous, shallow, unbridled populism – and the people ate it up.
Finch had no plan, no program and no idea what to do when he became governor except push for gubernatorial succession, and when that failed he set about running for higher office. First he ran for U.S. Senate in the middle of his term and got clobbered. Two-plus years of administration scandals and comically incoherent rambling had ended the honeymoon.
Undeterred, he decided to run for president. That’s when he drove an 18-wheeler across the country and his unadorned backside was photographed while seated in a heart-shaped bathtub at a supporter’s home in Arizona.
Finch had eclipsed Winter, but his four years in office made the political resurrection and election to the governorship of Winter possible the next time around. If nothing else, voters were confident Winter wouldn’t embarrass them in front of the entire world. So the Finch governorship did accomplish some good, given that Winter’s tenure began the long and still-in-progress turnaround of Mississippi’s historically neglected education system.
The Finch years were emblematic of Mississippi’s unfortunate historical tendency to choose entertaining demagogues over more substantive but less flamboyant politicians. The calamity that Ross Barnett, governor a decade and a half before Finch, brought to the state through his segregationist grandstanding was one obvious example of the damage that tendency wrought.
Compare these guys, and those in earlier times like Theodore Bilbo and James Vardaman, against a Phil Bryant or a Johnny DuPree and you certainly have less entertainment value today. But that’s not a bad thing.
Our gubernatorial candidates this year may have their flaws, but they are both intelligent men unlikely to be photographed in a bathtub. And each of them can speak reasonably coherently about issues they actually know something about.
We should be thankful for small favors.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.