Bill Shipp, irascible political journalist, dies at 89

A young Bill Shipp: The newspapers' political editor jointed the reporting staff of The Atlanta Constitution in 1956. (Billy Downs/AJC staff) 1956

Credit: AJC staff

Credit: AJC staff

A young Bill Shipp: The newspapers' political editor jointed the reporting staff of The Atlanta Constitution in 1956. (Billy Downs/AJC staff) 1956

Bill Shipp, a journalist who amused Georgians and tormented politicians for more than half a century with his acid-dipped pen, died Saturday, July 8, a family member confirmed. Shipp was 89.

William R. “Bill” Shipp, was a newsman when The Atlanta Journal and The Constitution — then separate afternoon and morning newspapers — were read from north Georgia’s mountains to the Florida line and newspaper columnists were the media rock stars that are found now only on the internet. Shipp saw politics as a contact sport and delighted in writing out loud what most Georgians were thinking or maybe saying only in personal conversations — calling legislators “dirty rats,” castigating them by name and by legislative event for dawdling, wasting money or floating bone-headed ideas. Or, sometimes, he patted them on the back and peddled their ideas if he thought they were good ones.

“I will tell you that before there was such a thing as Google that Bill Shipp was the Google of Georgia politics and its institutions. He knew everything about everybody,” said former state legislator and Governor Roy Barnes.

Shipp was shaped by living and writing his way through some of the most momentous events moving the nation and the state — from the civil rights movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. to the rise of Jimmy Carter, the space age and the Republican revolution. And after leaving the paper he stepped into the 21st century, starting one of the earliest online political news sites and newsletters.

“He was fearless,” Barnes continued. “He would take the hide off my back every once in a while. I’d call him up and say, ‘That was rough this morning,’ and he would laugh and say, ‘Well, you were wrong.’”

Shipp was born in Cobb County and attended the University of Georgia before returning home to spend his entire career in Atlanta. He showed his proclivities in 1953 as the 20-year-old managing editor of the UGA campus newspaper, The Red & Black. He urged the university’s segregated law school to admit Horace Ward, a Black applicant. Ward went to law school elsewhere and eventually became the first Black federal judge in Georgia.

Shipp was fired from The Red & Black for advocating integration and encouraged to leave the campus. He joined the U.S. Army, served in Germany and returned home with a bride, Renate Reinhold, of Heidelberg. He joined The Atlanta Constitution in 1956, working his way up before devoting himself to the political beat.

Shipp’s jabs gained him friends, enemies and frenemies.

Jimmy Carter felt Shipp’s barbs — but also relied on the newspaperman to put out the early word about his presidential ambitions.

Shipp is credited with a scoop on news that then-Gov. Jimmy Carter would run for president, reporting in a front-page story in July 1974, months before Carter’s formal announcement, “Gov. Jimmy Carter is seriously considering seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976, it was learned Monday.”

Then-Constitution editorial page editor Reg Murphy responded with a column headlined “Jimmy Carter is running for WHAT?” Carter announced his candidacy in December 1974.

Carter’s successor as governor, George Busbee, gleefully pushed the columnist, fully clothed, into the swimming pool at the Governor’s Mansion.

And on the day in 2002 after his election, Sonny Perdue, the first Republican governor of Georgia in 130 years, barred members of his staff from speaking with the Democratic-leaning Shipp, who noted that the incoming governor had just told all of Perdue’s enemies who to call with their information.

Former governor and U.S. Senator Zell Miller once stalked up to Shipp’s glass-walled newspaper office and threatened to whip the writer’s rear. At one meeting, after Shipp had castigated Miller, a Democrat, for endorsing the re-election campaign of Republican President George W. Bush, Miller told Shipp he hoped to outlive him just so he could urinate on his grave.

But Miller and three other former governors were among the notables who showed up at Shipp’s 80th birthday party in 2013. And in a last meeting between the two loyal combatants in 2018, shortly before Miller died, he gripped Shipp’s hand and told him “I love you,” and Shipp replied that Miller was the best thing to ever happen to Georgia.

“He had a pretty sharp pen, and he had a pretty good historical perspective,” said Keith Mason, Miller’s former chief of staff. “That is what made him such a good journalist with a lot of influence. He knew where all the bodies were buried and provide some of the analysis to that when things occurred.”

In their on-and-off relationship, Miller, as an unnamed source, would also fill Shipp’s ears, and thus his columns, with ideas that Miller wanted to float and get a response on before going public, Mason said.

Shipp also appeared on TV after the late Dick Williams, Shipp’s rival editorial columnist on The Atlanta Journal, invited him to be part of “The Georgia Gang,” the televised public affairs program that Williams hosted on WAGA-TV Channel 5.

Shipp ended his long career at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1987, and struck out on his own, starting “Bill Shipp’s Georgia,” one of the earliest political publications in the digital world.

“That’s what I’m proudest of,” Shipp said in a 2006 interview. Shipp sold the venture in 2000 but continued his twice-a-week columns, which were carried in 60 state newspapers, for years.

“Shipp was the old timey news reporter,” Barnes said. “I mean, he had ink in his blood and he was hard drinking, hard living, and he knew everything.”

Shipp would pump him for information whenever he could, Barnes said. As he recalled that, Barnes laughed and said, “but he always knew more than I did. I’d tell him something, and he’d say, “No, that’s wrong.”

“But you couldn’t help but like Shipp. I don’t care what he said about you and how hard a time he gave you, he was such a likeable soul and you knew he was doing what he thought was right,” Barnes said. “He was such a likeable fellow you couldn’t fuss at him much.”

“His passing is really the passing of an era.”

Visitation will be held Friday at 1 p.m. at Mayes Ward Funeral Home on the Square in Marietta, 180 Church Street, N.E., followed by the service at 2 p.m.