Friends and relatives who know I work at the state Capitol often ask these questions: How can you stand it there? Don’t you just hate it?
My reply is there’s no other job that gives you such an opportunity to watch the zany characters who comprise so much of Georgia politics.
For example, there was Roscoe Emory Dean Jr., one of the loopiest persons ever to serve in elective office.
Dean, a state senator from Jesup during the 1960s and 1970s, was a politician convinced of his own importance, to an unusually high degree. He was an easy target to poke fun at, in part because his round-bottomed physique made him look like a penguin waddling about the Capitol.
The jowly, slick-haired Dean was everybody’s stereotype of an old-time southern politician, sticking a long cigar in his mouth as he walked the floor of the Senate.
Bobby Rowan of Enigma, who served alongside Dean for 10 years, can tell many stories about Dean.
Dean wanted to give a speech to the Senate on some agricultural topic, most likely price supports, but wasn’t sure he was up to the task. He enlisted the erudite Rowan, who had been a school teacher before entering politics, to help him draft some remarks.
Rowan and another senator, Frank Sutton of Norman Park, cobbled together a speech that consisted largely of political gibberish, such as this immortal phrase: “Nepotism is no excuse for extemporaneous frivolity.”
They were convinced Dean would see through the joke, but Dean delivered the speech exactly as written. Dean stuck so closely to the text he even read the stage directions out loud, at one point declaiming, “Fellow senators — now tell a joke!”
Dean’s political hero was Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who was such an inspiration that Dean recorded “The Ballad of George Wallace” after the 1972 assassination attempt on the governor. You can still find the recording on YouTube if you look long enough.
It was also in 1972, after George McGovern chose Sargent Shriver as his vice presidential running mate, that some of Dean’s Senate colleagues played another of their many tricks on him.
The senators left a note on Dean’s desk saying that Shriver wanted to talk to him. Someone pretending to be Shriver also called Dean’s office and left a message for Dean to call back. The word got back to Dean and he called the McGovern campaign offices, demanding that Shriver be put on the phone. “I have no idea who you are,” Shriver told Dean.
Dean later found himself in deep trouble when he filed bogus mileage expense vouchers claiming that he was making several round trips a day between Jesup and Atlanta. A jury acquitted him on that charge, prompting Dean to double down in front of the cameras: “I am innocent and not guilty.”
If that brush with the law concerned him, he never showed it. Dean had his eye on higher office and in 1978 decided to make a run for governor against George Busbee, a popular incumbent who was going for a second term.
Dean knew he’d have to raise a ton of money to take on Busbee, but wasn’t sure where to get it. At the same time, that was a period when the Georgia coast was teeming with drug dealers trying to bring their goods into the country.
The inevitable happened: the GBI set up a sting in which Dean negotiated with an agent posing as a Colombian drug lord. Dean promised he would allow the smuggling of “funny cigars” into the U.S. in return for contributions to his gubernatorial campaign.
Dean lost that Democratic primary race to Busbee and was later indicted and convicted in federal court on a charge of conspiracy to smuggle drugs.
That court case ended Dean’s political career and ruined his family financially. He lived out the rest of his life in Jesup, going into a”slow decline,” as one observer put it. Last week, at the age of 80, Dean left this world.
He was a person who took several wrong paths in life, but his passing is a reminder of a time when politics was a lot more fun to write about.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report.