A short gift list for the nerd in your life: Four new books on Georgia politics

That holiday crisis is bearing down, again, and the impossible decision looms: What to get the political nerd in your life.

Amazon.com and I are here to help, with a quartet of new books that delve into the arcane field of Georgia politics – the good, bad and downright ugly. And you’re welcome:

“The Best President the Nation Never Had: A Memoir of Working with Sam Nunn,” by Roland McElroy. (Mercer University Press. $30.)

But here’s why “Best President” is worth your time: Unlike many of his contemporaries, Nunn has had no interest in documenting his own place in Georgia political history. We know of at least one other biography in the works, but we’re told it focuses on the senator’s role in military and foreign policy of the 1980s and 1990s. (Nunn left the Senate in 1997, and remains co-chair and a founder of the D.C.-based Nuclear Threat Initiative.)

McElroy’s book documents Nunn’s beginnings with details you won't find elsewhere, and is likely to serve as a foundation for more detailed works in the future.

The book includes tidbits like this: Nunn was a staffer on the House Armed Services Committee, chaired by his great-uncle, U.S. Rep. Carl Vinson, D-Ga., when he met the woman who became his wife in Paris in 1965. The woman whose name is now Colleen Ann O’Brien Nunn was a CIA employee at the time.

McElroy was a witness to the origin of Nunn’s breach with then-Gov. Jimmy Carter, over his Democratic primary challenge to David Gambrell, whom Carter had appointed to fill the unexpired term of U.S. Sen. Richard B. Russell. The mutual wariness would follow both men as their careers moved to Washington.

The Nunn campaign of 1972 was one of those strange hybrids that could exist only in a South still in the midst of fundamental change. One measure: He was endorsed by both Julian Bond, a Georgian then emerging as an intellectual heavyweight in the civil rights movement, and former Gov. Lester Maddox, a segregationist.

McElroy tells of blind, late-night appointment during the campaign with a “friend of a friend” who led him and Nunn deep into southwest Georgia and across the Florida border,  into a pasture lit by a roaring fire that flickered on a dozen white men sipping whiskey and showing off their firearms.

Maybe it was merely a clannish event. Maybe it was a klannish event. McElroy still isn’t sure. But you’re not going to find that tale anywhere else.

(Small confession: McElroy was one of my first adult bosses, when I was a Nunn intern in ’77. In one of life’s great ironies, McElroy’s far more liberal brother-in-law, George Bennett, was pastor of my parent’s church in metro Atlanta and presided over a marriage in which I had a particular stake. Forty years later, my wife and I remain one of Bennett’s great success stories.)

“Citizen Newt: The Making of a Reagan Conservative,” by Craig Shirley, Harper Collins, $29.99)

Georgia politics produced three world-changing figures in the 1970s. Jimmy Carter was one, Sam Nunn another. The third was a Republican.

Like the Nunn tome, “Citizen Newt” is a biography built with the cooperation of its subject. Shirley cut his teeth on the earliest days of the conservative movement sparked by Ronald Reagan, and has produced four separate books on the life of the former president.

Gingrich’s fall from grace five years later, his unsuccessful presidential runs, and his re-emergence as an explainer of Donald Trump will be more complicated tales to tell.

Shirley is a fluid writer – always an advantage when a topic requires nuance. He’s a Washington-centric author, at his best when telling tales of the swamp – Gingrich’s break with President George H.W. “Read My Lips” Bush over taxes, for instance.

Nor is Shirley shy about pointing to Gingrich’s pioneering work in the debasement of national politics: “Gingrich produced the now-famous GOPAC memo for House Republicans on words to use and not to use – at least in a political context….Gingrich had come up with 133 nasty idioms to hurl at the illiterate, vile, and disgusting Democrats.”

But the author slips when it comes to the political milieu of Georgia in the 1970s and ‘80s, and careful readers will have to look past a few obvious inaccuracies. Moreover, this is a biography of Newt Gingrich, not the story of the Republican party in Georgia. Party-builders like Paul Coverdell go unmentioned.

The period under study spans two of Gingrich’s three marriages, and Shirley handles them with discretion. Marianne Gingrich, wife No. 2, comes off somewhat badly. She was not interviewed by the author.

“Play It Again, Sam: The Notable Life of Sam Massell, Atlanta’s First Minority Mayor,” by Charles McNair. (Mercer University Press, $29.)

Now that the recent hostilities that erupted during the recent race for mayor of Atlanta are over, at least mostly, it’s worth looking at the man who served as the fulcrum in the city’s shift from white to African-American rule.

He was and is Jewish, ran as a liberal Democrat, and from 1970 to 1974 served as the bridge between Ivan Allen, the last white Protestant mayor, and Maynard Jackson, who began the electoral dominance of African-American voters in Atlanta – a trend that was continued earlier this month with the election of Keisha Lance Bottoms as the city’s 60th mayor.

While neither an autobiography or an as-told-to, Massell cooperated closely with the author to produce the book. In many instances, this is a handicap – particularly if the subject is still active and has irons in the fire that might be affected by this revelation or that. But one does not get the sense that Massell is holding back.

Early in his administration, Massell hatched the idea of annexing all of unincorporated north Fulton county into the city, while expanding the city limits of College Park to include all of unincorporated south Fulton.

Intensive lobbying won a favorable vote in the state House. But in the Senate, the measure died, on instructions from then Gov. Lester Maddox.

Revenge comes in different forms. Massell’s arrived when he was asked to sign a girder during the construction of the Omni. The mayor of Atlanta wrote the name of Lester Maddox, preceded by a four-letter verb of Anglo-Saxon origin.

Unfortunately, the Omni turned out to be one of Atlanta’s many disposable sports arenas, and so far as we know, the girder does not survive.

“Ten Dollars to Hate: The Texas Man Who Fought the Klan,” by Patricia Bernstein. (Texas A&M University Press, $30.)

On the same day I appeared with Sam Massell at a book festival last month, I ran into Patricia Bernstein, who kindly bent my ear about her work.

“Ten Dollars” is indeed a Texas-oriented history of the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1900s, built around a Texas district attorney who brought the organization to heel in his state.

Bernstein does that.

The second reason to read this book is the role that two characters in Atlanta played in reemergence of the Klan – a focus of the early chapters in “Ten Dollars.”

Bernstein tells us of William Joseph Simmons, a failed Methodist preacher and con man who created the rituals of the modern Klan. But the real power behind the re-birth of the racist vigilante society, Bernstein shows us, was his partner Bessie Tyler, the operator of a number of “sporting houses” – i.e., brothels – in Atlanta’s red-light district.

She was known as the “Queen of South Pryor Street,” and Bernstein credits Tyler with greatly expanding the Klan’s (paid membership) reach. “Whereas Simmons’ bigotry had been focused almost exclusively on blacks,” the author writes, “Tyler…expanded the list of those the Klan opposed to Jews, Catholics, the foreign-born, and violators of a moral code that could be modified to suit the needs of the moment.”

In essence, the Atlanta madam created the franchised hate group, which could be adapted to suit regional prejudices from coast to coast.

That tidbit alone makes “Ten Dollars” a necessary read.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.