SID SALTER: Lessons from the death of a congressman

SID SALTER

SID SALTER

Politics has always been – and will likely always be – a full-contact sport and in no venue is that more evident than in the South. Some of my earliest political memories are of listening to incendiary speeches under the Founder’s Square Pavilion at the Neshoba County Fair.

In its current incarnation, politics has come to be dominated more by digital attacks than by those echoing off tin roofs during stump speeches. Door-to-door campaigning has for the most part been replaced by email blasts, social media campaigns and YouTube postings.

Increasingly, the digital rhetoric is beginning to mirror the vitriol in the stump speeches of old.

But a casual conversation last week with a close friend brought to mind a bit of perspective from my own career covering politics and politicians.

The state electorate’s history of investing in seniority for members of the state’s congressional delegation has kept the number of people who have represented Mississippi rather small since the 1940s. Only death or scandal interrupted what were usually two-, three- or four-decadeslong careers representing the state in the U.S. House or Senate.

Occasionally, congressional careers end for purely political reasons. The late Democrat Arthur Winstead of Philadelphia was swept out of office in 1964 after a 22-year career in the U.S. House when Mississippi voters abandoned Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson in favor of Republican Barry Goldwater – which swept Republican Prentiss Walker into office.

Two years later, Walker – the first Mississippi Republican election to Congress since Reconstruction – became a one-termer when he lost to Sen. Jim Eastland in 1966 and was replaced in Congress by Democrat G.V. “Sonny” Montgomery. A misdemeanor morals charge for illegal behavior inside the U.S. Capitol ended the career of the late U.S. Rep. Jon Hinson of Tylertown in 1981.

On Aug. 13, 1989, freshman Republican U.S. Rep. Larkin Smith of Gulfport – a career law enforcement officer – was seven months into his term in Congress. He and Montgomery, then a wily veteran and arguably the nation’s leading veteran’s advocate, met to participate in the formal opening of a Dixie Youth World Series baseball event in Hattiesburg.

When it was over, Montgomery got in his car and drove back to Meridian. Smith got on a private plane bound for Gulfport. The plane would crash in a remote area in rural Perry County, killing Smith and pilot Chuck Vierling.

Smith had defeated then-Democratic state senator Gene Taylor of Bay St. Louis for the seat in Congress in the 1988 elections. Taylor won the special election to succeed Smith after the accident and held the seat until he was defeated by current 4th District Republican U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo. Taylor is now challenging Palazzo in the 2014 GOP Primary.

Campaigns always produce fiery rhetoric and passion. The 2014 campaign is no exception. The give and take between the candidates has been strident and their supporters continue to swap verbal punches in virtually every possible digital venue.

But as was the case 25 years ago with a 45-year-old father and grandfather named Larkin Smith, life reminds us politicians are just men and women with hopes and aspirations. They are as frail as those of us who vote for or against them. They are mortal and as fragile as we all are.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 507-8004 orsidsalter@sidsalter.com.