Successful political trailblazers, much like their change-agent counterparts in the business world, are usually a special breed. They enjoy being different. They relish the challenge, the battles and the hard-fought victories. And more often than not, they’re respected, if not loved, by friend and foe alike.
Clarke Reed fit the bill during his years as a power in Mississippi and national Republican circles. The Greenville businessman never ran for public office, but he was a critical force in creation of the modern-day Mississippi Republican Party, and by extension in converting the South from yellow-dog Democrat country to reliable territory for the GOP.
Thad Cochran, Haley Barbour, Roger Wicker and all the other Republicans who have won statewide elections in Mississippi owe much, either directly or indirectly, to Reed and the groundwork he laid in those early days of the two-party system in Mississippi when he served as state chairman and national committeeman.
Reed, now 81, was hospitalized after an automobile accident last week in Greenville in which the other driver was killed. Hearing the news brought hopes of a full recovery and a fresh memory from a couple of months ago in Reed’s hometown.
The Mississippi Delta, the Missouri native Reed’s adopted home, is a place where lots of people have come to do missionary work through the years, and the Delta Democrat-Times newspaper drew more than its share. Many of them gathered a couple of months ago for a reunion of DD-T staffers spanning the 1960s, the height of the paper’s national reputation, through 1980, when the Hodding Carter family sold it. I was one of them, having started my post-college newspaper career in Greenville in the mid-1970s.
The DD-T was known as a place where aspiring young reporters from all over could learn a lot about journalism and experience the rush of pushing a bit against ingrained injustice. First it was the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorials of its patriarch, Hodding Carter II, in the 1940s that attracted attention. Then in the civil rights era the DD-T stood out as a beacon of editorial reason and aggressive reporting in tumultuous times for the Delta and Mississippi.
The recent reunion brought a graying horde of one-time youthful idealists back to the scene of their mutual efforts and occasional misadventures, and story-swapping and reminiscing abounded. Near the conclusion of the weekend, Hodding Carter III – son of the paper’s late elder statesman and its leader for a decade and a half before taking off for political Washington – marked his 75th birthday at the home of his daughter and son-in-law. Among the few DD-T “outsiders” present at that gathering was Clarke Reed.
Reed and Carter, though of the same generation and living in the same town in earlier days, were and are miles apart politically. Reed is a conservative Republican who helped shape the Nixon Southern Strategy, Carter a liberal Democrat active in the earliest stages of biracial politics in Mississippi and later State Department spokesman in the Jimmy Carter administration. But they’ve always been friends, and that friendship and mutual affection – expressed through light-hearted put-downs of each other on this occasion – transcended political differences.
Part of it is that both men are convivial social creatures who love a party and a story well told, staples of the Delta culture that surrounded them. But I suspect there was also a respect grounded in the knowledge that each, like the other, was going against the grain – Carter in battling political and social apartheid in Mississippi, Reed in challenging a one-party system that had not served the state well.
Both were state and even national figures of a sort, and they were rarely if ever on the same side. But it has been clear through the years that each saw the other as well-intended and equally interested in the good of Mississippi.
There’s a lesson there for these polarized political times when political disagreement is so often translated into personal animosity, when not only the ideas but the motives and integrity of the opposition are routinely besmirched, and where a Ronald Reagan and a Tip O’Neill – or a Clarke Reed and a Hodding Carter – sharing a drink and swapping stories after fighting it out seems a strange anomaly.
Reed at the DD-T reunion toasted both Carter and his motley band of former reporters for their work in earlier days. The feeling, it’s safe to say, was mutual.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal