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Carl Wernicke: Remembering Reubin Askew


We lost a good man with the death last week of Reubin Askew, Pensacola’s favorite son and maybe the greatest governor in Florida history.

Reubin Askew was the kind of man who gave politicians a good name. Oh, he was no political naïf, he knew how to use power. But it would be hard to name another politician in the last 30 years who, when he said something, you could actually believe he meant it. The New York Times quoted Askew as saying, quote, “Running for office was something I knew I had to do. I feel God has plans for the world and men. If I had any talent, I had to use it for public service.”

Today, almost any politician saying something like that would have us rolling our eyes. When Askew said it, you believed it because the mark of the man was that you could take him at his word.

Perhaps all you really need to know about Reubin Askew is that he was too principled to run for president of the United States. The obituary in the Times simply noted that Askew’s brief run for the presidency in 1984 “never gained traction.” And that his even briefer run for the U.S. Senate in 1988 ended because he couldn’t raise enough money.

No, he couldn’t.

Askew’s two terms as governor were ending when I came to work at the Pensacola News Journal in 1978. But over time our paths crossed, and I ended up following Askew briefly on a presidential campaign swing through the Panhandle. On the cramped twin-engine aircraft were Askew, some campaign aides, a couple of affable Secret Service agents armed with Uzis, and several reporters.   

We flew from one small airport to the next, where the speeches were pretty much the same. After two or three stops you had heard it all. But for the reporters the value was in developing a relationship with the candidate. Askew was easy to talk to, and while he was guarded, as any politician must be with the press, it seemed clear that what you heard from the man was a true reflection of who he really was.

The relationship developed during the trip helped me in later years in covering Askew. He would always return my phone calls and give me whatever time I needed.

It was during one of those later interviews that he told me that he ended his campaign for president when it became clear he couldn’t stomach the necessary compromises. The allure, he said, was to believe that you were the one who could sell just enough of your soul to get in position to do the greater good.

But Askew said the grind became all too familiar: He would walk into the office of some big shot who would tell him that they really wanted to give him this check for $25,000, and all he had to do was agree to support a particular position.

Askew would say that he would certainly consider their position, but that he couldn’t in good faith commit to it now. All too often, he didn’t get the check.

What Askew achieved as governor – on the environment, taxes, education, the courts, prisons, governmental ethics and accountability, integration and more - was remarkable, and the state is still benefitting from much of what he did, even though lesser politicians have undone much of it in recent decades. We’ll never know what a President Askew could have accomplished. But the fact that Askew understood that the compromises inherent in running for president would betray his own ethics and integrity shows just how strongly those important qualities guided his life.

He will be missed.