BY DAVID LEE MCMULLEN Special to The Tampa Tribune Published: March 16, 2014
Reubin Askew’s death will undoubtedly provide an abundance of stories about his political career, his accomplishments as governor during the 1970s and his reputation as one of Florida’s most popular governors. We will remember his honesty, sincerity and commitment to building a better Florida. But he should also be remembered for being a genuinely nice guy.
Gov. Askew was midway through his first term when I graduated from Florida State, his alma mater. He was the first FSU graduate to be elected governor. Not long after my graduation I went to work for state government, where writing speeches and proclamations for the governor’s office was among my responsibilities.
I still remember the first speech I wrote for Gov. Askew. It was short, perhaps five minutes in length, commemorating the planting of a tree on the capitol grounds in honor of those missing in action during the Vietnam War. The speech referred to the MIA bracelets that many people were wearing at the time. These metal bracelets were engraved with the names of individual soldiers who were missing in action. As he delivered the speech, Askew veered from the prepared text, holding up his arm and adding, “just like the one I am wearing.” By the end of that speech, the governor was in tears. He was a veteran of both the Army and the Air Force, serving during the Korean War, and understood the suffering of those who did not know the fate of their loved ones.
That speech was one of the moments when the man behind the public figure emerged. He was someone who cared sincerely about his fellow human beings, and he was courageous enough to reveal his own emotions. For me, it was the most memorable speech I ever wrote.
Years later, the first year Florida State joined the Atlantic Coast Conference, I was living in Charlotte and attended the ACC basketball tournament. At the tournament each year all of the universities erect hospitality tents outside for their supporters.
Upon entering the FSU tent, I was delighted to see several familiar faces, including a tall, thin man with a full head of snow white hair. It was Gov. Askew. I approached him and said, “Governor, I am not sure if you will remember me, but I used to write speeches for you.”
With a very serious face, he looked at me and asked, “Were they good speeches?”
“I thought so,” was my response, at which point his stern demeanor turned into a broad smile, followed by a hardy laugh as he reached out to shake my hand.
This Everyman aspect of the governor could be seen in a variety of ways. According to a friend of mine who served on his security detail, the governor’s favorite place to eat when he traveled was not a fancy restaurant, but McDonald’s. One day when I was walking to the capitol in the rain, sharing one umbrella with two other men, the governor’s limo pulled up beside us, and the governor put down the window, told us how funny we looked and then offered us a ride.
Living in Chicago in the 1980s, I worked on Askew’s short-lived exploratory campaign for president. For years I kept a box of “Askew for President” buttons and bumper stickers just in case he changed his mind. He would have made a great president.
Others will remember Reubin Askew for his political accomplishments. Yes, he was one of Florida’s greatest governors, but I will remember him for being a genuinely nice guy.
David Lee McMullen is a writer and historian at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, where he teaches about modern Florida politics.