A Lesson in the Virginia Way

Winning Campaigner Who Honored His Word

By Harry M. Covert

I have suggested on several occasions that candidates and their professional minions take oaths ”to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” And do so in public. This would certainly test the “honesty and veracity” of them all.

Naturally, I don’t include the political campaigners and current office holders of Alexandria, the city on the “Patowmack” River, a few miles from Mount Vernon where the boy George Washington said he could not tell a lie after chopping down a cherry tree. He didn’t get into the whiskey business until later in life and it’s a popular adjunct today to keeping the landmark financially stable.

Spelling changed in 1931 from the 18th century Patowmack to Potomac. The original name of the 405-mile waterway comes from the Algongian Indian tribe that lived in the vicinity of Fredericksburg.

I know it’s difficult for the elected to keep any and all of their promises, pledges and the winks and/or nods up-and-down streets and venues throughout the city limits. But, I do know of a Virginia governor who kept his promise and the impression has remained for over 40 years.

Virginia voters began to wean themselves from a Democratic dominance in the late 1960s. Those who had been conservative Democrats merely moved into the Republican category and Mills E. Godwin Jr., the man from Chuckatuck, was the Commonwealth’s 60th governor and a lifelong conservative Democrat, served with distinction from Jan. 15, 1966 to Jan. 17, 1970.

Republicans saw the opportunity and nominated a Roanoker, A. Linwood Holton Jr., and he worked the state tirelessly. In those days local GOP parties usually met in a telephone booth. Holton led the statewide charge and found many citizens who dared to flee from their former political persuasions.

The day came when Mr. Holton, in tow of several rookie political workers, barged into the newspaper office where few if any Republicans ever appeared. He stopped at each desk where dutiful scribes clicked away on their Royal manual typewriters writing copy for the next day’s paper.

Governor Holton's exclusive interview in 1970.

I was on the phone with some politicos when the candidate stopped by my station. I hung-up the device and stood up to meet the man. He was polite, all smiles and said he enjoyed coming to the newspaper office. While shaking hands out of the blue, I asked for an exclusive interview if and when he was elected.

He agreed instantly. His handlers, gulped and smiled. My colleagues all laughed and suggested it would never happen. The campaigners left the office on to another session somewhere.

Mr. Holton became Virginia’s 61st chief executive on Jan. 17, 1970 and distinguished himself during his four-year term. Unfortunately he couldn’t succeed him and his predecessor became his successor as a Republican in January 1978.

The day came and this young reporter called Governor Holton’s office asking for the exclusive. His secretary immediately passed me off to the press secretary who politely said the exclusive one-on-one chat was not possible. Reason being the state’s political press corps would not like it.

I explaimed that His Excellency had promised when he was campaigning. The press secretary put the phone down and was gone for about 10 minutes. The governor had not forgotten his promise and honored it. Within a few weeks, I was in his office, my old-fashioned tape recorder purring and me taking notes rapidly.

Governor Holton celebrated his 89th birthday on Sept. 21. His son-in-law Tim Kaine served as Virginia’s 70th governor from 2006 to 2010.

Former Governor Kaine, a Democrat, and former Governor George Allen, the 67th, a Republican, are currently embroiled in a U. S. Senate campaign.

Holton, loyal in his word to journalists, is also devoted to his family.

This has appeared in the Alexandria (Va.) Gazette Packet.