See also: Sorry, He's not "Skink"
A Talk with Reubin Askew
by Jan Godown
In the 1950s, a Florida State University undergraduate student studying
public administration had the job of picking up dirty dishes from tables
in a clattering campus cafeteria.
The student was no raw kid. At 15 he had joined
the Florida Guard in Pensacola, a military first stop before jumping from
the maw of airplanes as a teenage paratrooper. Now he studied government
on the G.I. Bill at FSU, pocketing $28 a month from Air Force ROTC while
holding down other jobs-busboy, clothing salesman-for cash.
He was the youngest of six children from an Oklahoma
Depression-era family. Alberta Askew divorced and took her brood home to
Pensacola to finish raising them while she supervised maids in a hotel
and held other jobs.
Some 30 years later, Florida State Sen. Reubin O'Donovan
Askew, D-Pensacola, Alberta Askew's youngest, raised his hand a few blocks
from where he had picked up dirty dishes for pocket change and pledged
to faithfully execute the oath of office as the State of Florida's 37th
During the 1970 campaign to reach the governor's
office, his opponent, the incumbent Republican, Claude Kirk Jr., had called
Askew "...a nice, sweet-looking fellow, but being governor is a tough job
and being a mamma's boy won't get the job done."
Kirk hadn't studied Askew. In 1958 at age 29 in
his first bid for public office, Askew asked for votes in his conservative
North Florida Panhandle district. At a political rally, a heckler had called
Askew a "niggerlover." The former paratrooper replied "Yes, I hope so.
The trouble is that I don't love them enough. The difference between you
and me is that you're satisfied with your prejudices and I'm trying to
He won that first campaign and continued in the
Legislature 12 years, beginning at a time when private political slush
funds, closed meetings and open bars in the Capitol were still the shadow
government custom of Florida's conservative "Pork Chop Gang," a good-ole-boy
clique that didn't begin to lose control until 1965, thanks to a reapportionment
plan authored by Askew.
In taking on Kirk in 1970, the relatively unknown
Askew tied his political future to an overdue corporate tax reform, facing
furious objections of financier Ed Ball, heir to the world-shaking DuPont
family, plus most of the rest of Florida's business community, which for
decades had enjoyed massive tax breaks at the expense of the public.
Askew soundly beat Kirk and then took his tax reform
package to voters, winning an astonishing 70 percent ratification. Armed
with this support, he arm-twisted the Legislature into passing the state's
first serious corporate profits tax.
In the summer of his first year in office, on the
eve of the start of a new federal bussing plan for schoolchildren, Askew
received information that attempts would be made to blow up some Florida
school buses in the middle of the night in a few counties. As opening day
for schools neared, in a University of Florida commencement speech that
would attract national attention, Askew-who personally disliked bussing-forcefully
told parents and school superintendents of his expectations for peaceful
desegregation of Florida's schools-with bussing. The schools desegregated
Askew later blunted effects of a divisive straw
ballot against bussing, which he had failed to halt in the Legislature.
He prevailed in adding an equal education section to the ballot. Leading
up to the March 1972 vote, Askew stumped the state for equal education,
facing pickets shouting "Bus Askew! Bus the (expletive) back to Russia!,"
among other choice phrases. Voters went against bussing as expected. They
also endorsed his equal education question.
Other successful key crusades or events led by Askew
while governor included establishment of a merit retention system for judges,
along with a streamlined court system; creation of Florida's first bond
program to buy environmentally endangered and recreational lands; water
management overhaul; and laws mandating coastal construction setback lines
and a new growth policy for Florida. Askew also led a successful fight
against the first casino gambling crusade Florida would see; he appointed
the South's first black state Supreme Court justice and-perhaps his most
astounding effort-he got the Sunshine Amendment tacked to the state constitution
by an overwhelming 80 percent of voters. This provision, which required
public officials to disclose sources of income and net worth, earned Askew
the wrath of old and new enemies alike in the Legislature. Some politicians
sued and others resigned, rather than let voters see who was paying them.
But as governor, he failed in his effort to streamline
the Cabinet system, something he still stumps for today. His leadership
also wasn't strong enough to push through legislative ratification of the
Equal Rights Amendment for women, another disappointment.
Throughout his time in office, Askew was called
"supersquare" by some critics of his somewhat churchly personal habits.
Presiding in a time of social experimentation, he was known for spurning
alcohol, tobacco, suggestive movies, and for never straying from fidelity.
He played marbles for fun with his family on the Governor's Mansion rug
and kept his ecclesiastical ties (before governor he was a Presbyterian
During his eight-year tenure, the University of North Florida and Florida
International University opened, the University of South Florida medical
college began and the veterinary and dental schools started at the University
Despite his unpopular stand on the bussing issue,
Askew's approval ratings among Floridians stayed high through his second
term, a fact that Life magazine linked to his novel notion that "leaders
should lead." Few doubted he could have won a third term had the Constitution
When his peers said goodbye to him at a National
Governor's Association conference in Boston, the cheering was so enthusiastic
some stood on their chairs. Later, Harvard University's John F. Kennedy
School of Government named him one of this century's top 10 governors,
alongside Theodore Roosevelt, Earl Warren and Woodrow Wilson.
The leader who had turned down an offer to be George
McGovern's running mate left Florida to become a Cabinet level official
for Jimmy Carter, as U.S. trade representative. In 1979-80 he implemented
the Trade Agreement Act, a tariff-reducing agreement involving 99 countries,
and brokered trade deals.
After globe-trotting during the Carter administration,
Askew visited each of the 50 states during his Iowa and New Hampshire-dashed
quest for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984. Four years later,
he disappointed voters and Democrats when he abandoned the U.S. Senate
race, as Democratic front-runner. Republican Connie Mack took the seat
and some Democrats blame Askew to this day.
In his private years, as a partner in the Miami
law firm of Greenberg, Traurig, Askew, Hoffman, Lipoff, Quentel and Wolff,
Askew earned needed income for his family (he had refused to make added
investments during his years of Florida public service). In 1989, he took
up an early love, begun in the military as a part-time lecturer on currents
events, of teaching- first at Florida International University and then
at Florida Atlantic University. In 1995, he returned to Tallahassee and
his alma mater.
At FSU, Askew is professor of public policy within
the Askew School of Public Administration and Policy, renamed in his honor
in 1994. He also is a senior fellow at the Tallahassee-based Florida Institute
of Government, a public institute that studies government issues.
In his institute office, accented with two chocolate
brown leather sofas, the walls are lined not with photographs of Askew
and famous people, but with plaques that state and national citizen groups,
community clubs, world organizations, business groups, children and others
have showered upon him with affection.
On a cool day in the spring of his 70th year, Askew
settled back and talked to Research in Review about his childhood, his
days at FSU, his love of teaching, the nature of leadership and his life
in public service.
RinR: Were you very young when you went into military service?
Askew: Actually, I went into the military, the Florida State
Home Guard, when I was 15. And I value--I highly value my military training.
RinR: Your mamma let you?
Askew: Yes, but she didn't want me to go into the paratroopers.
A young man from Pensacola got killed on a freak accident up there when
I was on duty and I came home for his funeral and she really tried to talk
me out of it, because I hadn't gone to jump school, yet. It was just something
I had made up my mind, I wanted to do.
RinR: You've said your mother had the greatest impact on your
Askew: She did, by far. She was a wonderful, strong, Christian
woman. My father wasn't sending the cash he was supposed to send. There
was a store, half-way down the street. At that store, my father had to
pay the grocery bill. My mother was a real entrepreneur. So what she did
was--she was a great, great baker. Everybody called her Miss Berta. She
would charge everything at the store to my father, and make pies and I
would deliver them and that's how she got hard money.
My father was a supervisor in the motor pool unit
for the Oklahoma National Guard. Later he became a plumbing contractor
in California. My mother and father were divorced when I was two.
She became an assistant housekeeper at the old San
Carlos Hotel (in Pensacola). She worked with a large number of black women
struggling with children and she related to their struggles.
In Oklahoma, my oldest sister, Molly, worked and
so did my oldest brother, Leo Jr., who was 10 years older than I was. When
I started working, by the time--I was nine or 10 years old--I'd built up
the largest magazine route in Pensacola. My responsibility was the water
bill, which happened to be about 50 cents a month. I was making maybe $2
a month, something like that. My mamma always used to say, "The only way
to have change in your pocket is, don't spend it." I'm proud to say she
lived to see me become governor. And she enjoyed it.
RinR: There's a story that you once lead a student protest at
Askew: No, there wasn't a protest. When I was president of the
student body at Florida State, I think it was the spring of 1950, I attended
a meeting at the University of Florida that had representatives from Florida
A&M and possibly Bethune-Cookman. There was a resolution that I actively
supported calling upon the authorities to desegregate the institutions
of higher learning in Florida. It was my feeling that--particularly on
the graduate level--black students just didn't have an opportunity and
to me it made no sense to force black students to go out of state for their
graduate education. So I felt strongly that we should do this. Now this,
of course, was four years before the Brown decision.
And when I got back (to FSU) there were some unhappy
people. Because, this meeting took place in violation (of segregation laws)
and I told (officials) that I was aware of the regulation and I still actively
participated in the meeting.
These were not happy times. And the whole idea that
a child could be denied what inherently should be their right to develop
their mind, was something that very early on in life bothered me.
RinR: What was it like in those Pork Chop Gang days when you
first served in the Legislature?
Askew: Leon County was a dry county when I came to the Legislature.
Bernie Papy-the dean and senior member of the House from Key West-his office
was a bar. He even kept a person there with a white coat on, to tend bar.
And Sen. Dill Clark, who was a well-respected banker, I think from Monticello,
that's where the Senate bar was. And the lobbyists kept all these members
One of the most important, significant, reforms
we got in the Senate initially was to require that a committee would not
meet without a live quorum. In the Senate, they would give each other all
these unlimited proxy votes. Everybody could vote everybody else's vote
in every committee.
I went to a committee meeting and the chairman was
Bart Knight, from Blountstown. Now the chairman usually voted last and
he said to me, "It's not a bad bill, son," and then he proceeded to vote
in favor of it. And then he voted six times against me, by proxy. I was
stunned. Of course, later I was able to replace that senator.
RinR: What are you proudest of as governor?
Askew: The biggest thing I wanted to do was to establish some
sense of responsibility and competence in the governor's office. I think
there wasn't much confidence in that office because of the antics of my
predecessor (Claude Kirk), who in many ways did some good things. But his
antics overshadowed so much of what he did, particularly with the Governor's
Club business. (The tenor of the Kirk Administration was perhaps best characterized
by a notorious, secret fundraising debacle, called The Governor's Club.
Gov. Kirk renamed it the People's Club after it was discovered and investigated
by the House of Representatives.-editor)
RinR: And you set a certain tone?
Askew: It sounds awfully corny for me to say this but my goal
wasn't (simply) to get elected governor. My goal was to get elected in
such a way as I could govern. There's a big difference. And I tell my students
this. So many people who run for office negotiate away all their options
in the pursuit of the office and they literally tie their hands on dealing
with the problems, by commitments.
When I was thinking of running for governor, there
were people who wanted to help me, but the way they wanted to help (was
a problem). One of them-one of the men I respected the most-was a very
substantial guy in the state who thought I'd make a good governor. But
he wanted me to move. He'd either set me up in Tampa or Miami, in law practice.
He said, "You can't win from Pensacola." So I looked at him and I smiled
and I said, "Well, I thank you, but I don't intend to be a horse in anyone's
RinR: Has the Sunshine Amendment-to open up public officials'
sources of income to public scrutiny-reduced corruption?
Askew: The law has stopped a lot of circuitous business transactions
in state and local government. To tell you the truth, people came to see
me, with the best of intentions and said, "Look, you know, you haven't
made any money, so really, why don't we sort of venture this group together?"
I made sure I never entered the first transaction of any kind.
Having to report your income is sort of an invasion
of privacy and yet, I felt, while it was extraordinary, I felt that it
was needed to give some sense of reassurance to the people (about their
elected officials). Who are they working for? Are they working for themselves
or for the people?
RinR: You don't think the press does a good enough job using
financial disclosure information?
Askew:: They just write up each year what everybody's net worth
is. The main thrust of financial disclosure was to see where the sources
of money were coming from and the growth of net worth.
RinR: Follow the money.
Askew: That's right. When people all of a sudden get a 25 percent
growth in their net worth (from the previous year), that's what you check
on. You just need to look at it completely differently.
RinR: Doesn't financial disclosure keep well-off people from
Askew: Phil Lewis (former state senator from West Palm Beach)
is one of my dearest friends, a great guy, and he has strong feelings about
that. And I appreciate that. But why is it we still have people who have
an awful lot of money running for and being elected to state and local
RinR: In 1970, R.J. Reynolds paid the state about $20 in corporation
taxes and, against stiff opposition, you changed that. How?
Askew: I found that in talking about a corporate profits tax-and
I thought I was making some fairly decent speeches-I didn't seem to be
making any headway. So I quit just explaining it and started telling stories.
At the time, they (R.J. Reynolds) were the biggest tobacco company
doing business in Florida, and as I recall, to the tune of about $30 million
worth of business. So I said, "All you pack-a-day smokers out there-and
I hope there's not many of you-do you know that you pay almost three times
more in direct taxes to Florida than the largest tobacco company in Florida?
Last year you paid us $56 in taxes on those cigarettes and they paid us
$20." People got angry.
A legislator, and I can't remember who it was, suggested
another idea, the Sears shirt. And Sears makes a fine shirt, but I got
on television with these two shirts, which I've given to the archives,
showing that if you bought it in Georgia it was even a little cheaper than
if you bought it in Florida because Georgia's sales tax was like three
percent and ours was four. Yet, they (Sears) were paying something like
$500,000 a year for the privilege of selling the same shirt in Georgia
and you know what they paid to us in Florida? Two thousand dollars! We
only had a capital stock tax on corporations and it was based on how you
structured the stock of your corporation. You could pay anywhere from a
minimum of $20 to a maximum of $2,000.
The people who were fighting us, led by Associated
Industries of Florida, their alternative for more money was more sales
tax. They were saying, "You don't want to vote for the corporate tax because
it's going to be passed on to you." But the alternative they were recommending-sales
tax-is always passed on a hundred percent. And the Sears shirt (from Georgia)
showed that the corporate tax wasn't being passed on.
RinR: At first you weren't for the corporate profits tax.
Askew: I wasn't for it at all. I had voted against it in the
Senate. But that's before we had our own staff analyses. What I came to
realize, we were depending upon the very people opposing the tax, to tell
us what the facts were. Which is why the Legislature should have the staff
they have and maintain a strong staff.
And so we passed it by a substantial margin. It was still difficult
to get implemented. I was very fortunate to have the legislative leadership
I had at the time.
RinR: In your first two years you spent a lot of time on the
desegregation of Florida's public schools.
Askew: There were a lot of parents who were bothered by bussing,
who simply were not racists. I hated segregation and I hated the hypocrisy
that went with it. I'd seen black children bussed in Pensacola for years.
It wasn't until we began bussing white children on a large scale that it
became a problem. That was part of the hypocrisy. It was an inflammatory
Many friends strongly advised me not to campaign
against the anti-bussing straw ballot. They got nervous. A lot of them
said I'd destroy my chances for re-election. (But) I said, "I'm not making
just a statement; I'm fighting for equality in public education."
At first the odds for the straw ballot (against
bussing) in some places were like 10 to one against bussing and I stumped
the state and I brought it down, to about three to one.
RinR: This all brought you a lot of national attention. Was that
Askew: I wasn't looking for national attention, but let me tell
you an interesting thing. My negative (rating) doubled but my overall rating
actually went up. Bill Hamilton, who ran the poll, said that he thought
it was because I wasn't judgmental. I went out and said, "I know you're
struggling with this issue."
RinR: On some other issues, not many people connect you with
the environment, today.
Askew: I guess not. They did when I was there, though. What
we came out with led to four pieces of (environmental) legislation in 1972,
and the biggest by far created the developments of regional impact process.
We needed some type of way to handle large projects. And then we also wanted
to start trying to save some of the very environmentally sensitive areas
of the state. We created the areas of critical state concern process. We
got the water resources (management) act. Water was the most important
problem then; it remains the most important problem today. Then the bond
issue, $200 million for land, which people said I was very foolish to stake
my name to because a few years before (former governor) Haydon Burns had
been defeated on a $300 million road bond issue. I felt really strongly
that if we allow environmentally sensitive areas to be compromised or filled
in, then Florida would lose much of its character and sustainability.
RinR: Any thoughts to share on your presidential quest?
Askew: By the last quarter of 1983, it was obvious to me that
the Democrats were rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The economy
was good and Reagan was very strong.
I didn't get very much money in the last quarter.
I spent some time developing what I thought was some very good television
that we weren't able to run financially. The others borrowed money in order
to make a better showing. I could have done that but I thought I could
stand a bruised ego a lot more than I could have taken a big deficit. And
so, we didn't do that well.
In New Hampshire all of us except Hart and Mondale
just fell apart. I spent two-and-a-half years in different hotel rooms
every night. I think we logged 360,000 miles.
I was the only one who went to every state in the
nation, which was probably a mistake on my part. But there was something
about-you want to be president, without having seen the whole country?
So I had at least one event in every state.
Most people don't know that Claude Kirk paid his
$500 and was on the ballot in New Hampshire. So I said, "Well, once again
I have decisively defeated Claude Kirk." I kid him about it-tell him he's
the quintessential opponent. He's really good-natured.
RinR: Do you have any disappointments about your decision to
leave the (U.S) Senate race?
RinR: Did you assess it enough?
Askew: Yes, I did. You can talk to a thousand people about getting
in, but you only talk to one about getting out.
I never accepted PAC (political action committee) money, when I ran
for president because I wanted to reform the system. When I went to my
first PAC meetings to ask for money (for the Senate race) I found myself
being argumentative, defensive. People said, "Well, you know, no one's
bribing you." But the fact of the matter-as Tony Cuelo said in Brooks Jackson's
book, Honest Graft,-the system buys you out.
Ultimately when I found out that I'd have to be
raising money right after my election, for the Senate campaign committee,
for the other senators, then I realized I'd have to raise, statistically,
anywhere from $6,000 to $10,000 a day for the six years I'd be in office.
It's a very bad system and it will be a long time changing. Frankly, I've
never seen an issue about which I've heard more insincere remarks, made
by otherwise good people.
When I told my daughter, "I'm getting out," she
just broke down and cried. She said, "To tell you the truth, I just didn't
think we were going to see much of you again."
RinR: Did anything like NAFTA come up when you were U.S. Trade
Askew: Well, we talked about it, of course. We wanted it with
Canada but the Canadians were justifiably, understandably cautious because
we didn't appear to get too interested in them doing this until such time
as they discovered huge oil deposits.
It was a big step to go into NAFTA. The problem
is we didn't have any alternative. It was a critically important vote.
The world is moving toward large trading blocs. Ultimately, there will
be only one for the world. This can be done, and maintain sovereignty.
NAFTA's been great for some parts of the economy
and not so good for others and in Florida. But what wasn't said during
the campaign for NAFTA was the important national security reasons. We
can't have on our doorstep people not enjoying as much of a standard of
living, like we have in countries like Mexico and many of the other countries
down there. Mexico is an extremely important country to the United States.
Pure free trade only exists in a textbook. Most
of the trade in the world is encumbered one way or another. And so you
have to work within those restraints. But there's no question but that
we've had some dislocation and we're going to have more. When you see jobs
going overseas, what people aren't seeing is that those jobs were going
RinR: You're enjoying teaching?
Askew: I find it tremendously satisfying to impact students'
lives now. It's fun and the students are so effusive in their appreciation,
it makes it worthwhile. And then, I have a chance to counsel them, if they
so choose. In my graduate seminar I ask my students to give me confidential
biographies and with few exceptions, they do. I ask them to share with
me what they'd really like to do in life. I have a list of all my students,
all my teachers, which now, I think I've had about 125 guest speakers.
RinR: Do you talk about leadership?
Askew: Yes, but not per se. It's not a course just on leadership.
Leadership is a very difficult course to teach. I would like to have an
impact on students and their lives in terms of their understanding the
human side of government decision-making. One of the things I like to convey
to my students is that there is nothing novel about decision-making. I've
known a lot of very successful people in the world who weren't particularly
remarkable. I didn't think I was particularly remarkable. I was just there.
RinR: Do you miss political office?
Askew: I tell people, who ask me all the time, "Don't you want
to run for governor again?" I tell them it's like jumping out of airplanes.
I was in the 82nd Airborne-a paratrooper when I was too young to know better-and
I love to talk about having jumped.
I just don't ever want to do it again.