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Johnny Vardeman: 100 years later, politics remain as divisive and bizarre as ever
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Elections 100 years ago, on state, local and national levels, are not so dissimilar from this year’s.

In 2016, both major parties are divided with Donald Trump and Ted Cruz insulting each other as they seek the Republican presidential nomination. Nor have Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders been too cozy as they run for the Democratic nomination. There has been talk, especially on the Republican side, about a third party other than Libertarian emerging from the chaos.

In 1916, there indeed was a third party presidential candidacy, though it fizzled before the election. Four years earlier, Theodore Roosevelt had bolted from the Republican Party to run as a Progressive Party candidate. The Progressive Party, encouraged by Gainesville’s Helen Longstreet, wanted him to run again in 1916, but Roosevelt declined, believing that his candidacy in 1912 had enabled Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win the presidency. He worried that the same might occur in 1916.

Wilson won anyway with more than 600,000 votes over former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Charles E. Hughes, but narrowly won the electoral vote.

This year, there have been some walkouts and protests at party conventions to name delegates to the national convention. In 1916, there were two factions among 9th District Republicans. One was called the “Henry Jackson faction” headed by Judge J.B. Gaston of Gainesville. The other was the “Walter Johnson faction,” led by Roscoe Pickett of Pickens County.

Gaston’s faction, favoring William Taft for president, wasn’t seated, but Pickett, for Roosevelt, was. Nevertheless, Gaston was accused of “steamrolling” the convention, and Pickett’s group walked out. Two delegations from the 9th District ended up going to the Chicago convention.

The stress might have been too much for Judge Gaston, a Lumpkin County native and two-time mayor of Gainesville. He died while at the national convention.

The same issue was evident in 1916 as it is in 2016, as those favoring the Progressives accused the “old-line” Republicans of manipulating the process. It ended up with Hughes listed on the ballots as a candidate both on the Progressive and Republican tickets.

The Democratic nomination for 9th District congressman was equally as contentious. Tom Bell, a White County native and Gainesville resident, was seeking his seventh term. His main opponent was Judge Richard B. Russell Sr., who resigned from the state Court of Appeals to run. Russell had held several public offices, but criticized Bell for having been congressman for so long. That prompted crochety Dahlonega Nugget editor W.B. Townsend to write, “That is very true, but not half as long as his opponent, who leaves sucking some kind of political teat for about 30 years, before moving to another.”

Bell won easily, carrying every county, even Russell’s own Barrow County. Russell’s son, Richard Jr., would have more success, later serving as Georgia governor and U.S. senator for 38 years.

Bell also won the general election handily against Republican J.E. Adams of McCaysville.

A Northeast Georgian, Dr. L.G. Hardman, also was on the 1916 ballot, as a Democrat for governor. Despite glowing support from the Gainesville News and other papers, Hardman lost to Hugh Dorsey, among a bevy of candidates that year. One of Hardman’s opponents declared his main strength in “beer saloons and locker clubs.” But the Barrow Times countered that “the least that can be said that it isn’t true.”

Hardman, whose former farm in Nacoochee Valley, is now a state historic site, would go on to serve as governor 1927-31.

Hall County Democrats marked their 1916 victories in a rousing celebration at the courthouse. They yelled and heard speeches from several politicians, including U.S. Sen. Thomas Hardwick. They then lighted torches and paraded around Gainesville’s public square.

• • •

This was the beginning of the era of Richard Russell Jr. and Walter F. George, who would become the state’s longtime U.S. senators. George at the time took Russell’s father’s place on the Georgia Court of Appeals. Russell Jr. was just beginning his law career with his father, but soon would rise in ranks in the Georgia legislature before becoming governor at age 33, then U.S. Senator, serving until his death in 1971.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.

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