Living history with three former governors

By Staff
April 22, 2001
BILOXI  Fordice, Waller and Winter showed up. Allain and Mabus didn't. That commentary, it would seem, applies literally as well as figuratively as one considers this state's living former governors and their place in Mississippi's evolving history.
Sharing a charter plane flight from Jackson to the Gulf Coast for a scheduled appearance before the Mississippi Association of Planning and Development Districts convention, former Govs. Kirk Fordice, Bill Waller, Sr. and William Winter each made it clear that they haven't retired from relevance in Mississippi politics and that each in his own way still has the fire in the belly to lead that brought them to power at critical junctures in the state's history.
The MAPDD had scheduled a Former Governors Forum that was to have featured all the state's living past governors, but association officials said Allain and Mabus bailed on the project at the last minute.
No matter. It was  and I as moderator had the best seat in the house a heck of show.
Conversations
This writer hadn't engaged in a long conversation with Fordice, now 67, since the uncomfortable first press conference following the 1996 auto accident that almost claimed his life. But the caricature of Kirk Fordice as the angry politician going through a too-public divorce was not the man I encountered across from me on the plane.
Kirk Fordice remains combative, intimidating and ready to rumble on issues in which he has strong beliefs. His tendency to speak loudly and lean into it it being your nose still prevails.
But in retirement, Fordice has made peace with himself and with the public image that he loathed and blamed on the media. He is now thank you very much a happily married, physically healthy retired father and grandfather.
Still flies his plane. Still rides his horses. The back hurts from the wreck, but he can live with it.
And the most astounding attribute of the feisty conservative in retirement is how much laughter he can bring to a conversation.
On stage
While on stage in Biloxi, Fordice was "on" tearing into a recitation of his beliefs and opinions like a pit bulldog. He openly challenged Gov. Winter's position on the state flag and pointed out the differences he believes exists between Democratic and Republican ideals in state government.
But privately, Kirk Fordice was friendly, deferential and gentlemanly in his exchanges with Winter his political antithesis.
For his part, the 78-year-old Winter seems never to lose his zeal for public service  no matter how stiff the political winds are against him at times. At this stage of his career, one has to question the sanity of Winter subjecting himself to the public drubbing that has accompanied his leadership of the effort to change the state flag.
But Winter has never seemed more engaged, more committed and more convinced that he is fighting the good fight. Still in fighting trim and supremely healthy, only Winter's hearing has begun to fail him.
Like Fordice, Winter's political passions run deep. Like Fordice, his political philosophy is unwavering. But in terms of style, Winter is professorial and measured in delivering his message while Fordice raises the roof.
History and the economy are conspiring to be kind to Fordice. He left office with a growing economy and $265 million in the state's "rainy day" fund. And he is quick to remind the MAPDD crowd that when he took over from Mabus, "the state treasurer told us the state only had $5,200 left in the bank."
Education
Winter led the fight for education reform during his tenure as governor. Fordice demanded fiscal responsibility and oversaw a clean, scandal-free
administration of the introduction of casino gaming into the state. One a liberal, one a conservative, they both love Mississippi.
But while the political dichotomy of Fordice and Winter is always interesting and intriguing, the diamond in the rough on this afternoon plane ride is a few minutes to talk politics and government policy with Bill Waller Sr.
Underrated and under-appreciated as governor, Waller's legacy lies on two fronts he brought the corridor road program to fruition and he made the first significant appointments of black bureaucrats into state government.
Today, at 74, Bill Waller, Sr. is a hard-working attorney, erstwhile fisherman, doting grandfather and possessed of one of the keenest political minds in Mississippi. His off-the-record conversation during our round trip to the coast for the MAPDD event reminded me of listening to his speeches under the Founders Square Pavilion at the Neshoba County Fair.
Waller's state flag posture  he supported keeping the old flag  is as pure as it gets. How can one question the civil rights credentials of a man who had the guts to try to convict Byron De La Beckwith of the murder of Medgar Evers in the mid-1960s.
Fordice, Waller and Winter continue to be valuable resources for the people of Mississippi. They maintain contact with their constituencies. They stay on top of the issues and they still care what happens to the people of this state.
For the record, all three former governors passed on an opportunity to offer an on-the-record assessment of the Musgrove Administration.
Sid Salter is publisher/editor of the Scott County Times in Forest. E-mail him at salternews.aol.com.

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