The word was out among his collegues. In the usual morning buzz of the Senate cloakroom, one question was paramount yesterday: When would Herman Talmadge be on the floor?
With his cigar aloft and his step firm, the senator from Georgia returned from a month's battle with the bottle as his colleagues rallied around.
For over a quarter of an hour the tributes flowed as 10 colleagues -- Republicans and Democrats -- jumped up on the Senate floor to eulogize Talmadge, 65, who has spent 22 years in the Senate and now faces an uncertain future.
In that baroque world of senatorial courtesy -- where even the harshest rebuke usually is cloaked in such phrases as "my distinguished colleague" -- sincerity cannot always be gauged. But flowery phraseology asid, it was an extraordinary Capital Hill display. Senators quoted everyone from Shakespeare to themselves as others crowded around to slap Talmadge on the back and shake hands.
As he dug himself out from under an avalanche of praise, the senator -- who resembles Walter Mattau, even down to the loping walk -- rested his cigar on his desk and said in clear voice, "I'm overwhelmed by your warm and generous remarks.... I shall always cherish your friendship."
The scene was in marked contrast to Talmadge's last appearance on opening day of the 96th Congress. At that time, he had to steady himself at passing desks as he walked down the aisle while others whispered.
"I'm feelin' wonderful," the Senator said as he brushed past reporters yesterday and got practically a hero's welcome -- including a phone call from President Carter in the morning and a huge "Welcome Back!" banner over his office door.
But Talmadge has faced more than a bout with alcoholism. His bitter divorce property battle last year led not only to front-page headlines, but to current investigations into Talmadge's financial affairs by a federal grand jury and by the Senate's own Ethics Committee. (He will face the committee next month.)
Alcoholic confessionals have a way of wiping the slate clean, at least temporarily as far as political colleagues are concerned. Wilbur Mills, Russell Long and others have come back to the welcoming bosom of Capitol Hill after similar ordeals.
"There was that fellow, Tom Hennings from Missouri, who tried to make a comeback after alcohol," recalled one top senatorial officer yesterday. "Rallying around, hell, that's as American as apple pie. Who the hell of us is going to be the first to cast the stone? This is Lent."
The less enthusiastic were not voicing their opinions. Many of the younger members of the Senate were absent. And Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic senator from Illinois with the thankless task of policing his peers as chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee, sat impassively through it all, then went to a meeting in the afternoon to discuss Talmadge's case. (Sen. Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut, who recently asked to get off -- and got off -- of the Ethics Committee, passed by to shake Talmadge's hand.)
In this decade of openness, it has become easier for public figures among the nation's estimated 9 million alcoholics -- from Mills to political wives Betty Ford, Joan Kennedy and Joy Baker -- to admit their illness.
Some colleagues feel Talmadge's drinking problems began with the drowning death of his 29-year-old son in May of 1975. For the past several years, his drinking habit was rumored and his wife charged "habitual intoxication" in her counter divorce suit.
This week, Talmadge said his decision to enter the alcoholic rehabilitation program at Long Beach Naval Regional Medical Center in California was "one of the most improtant decisions I have ever had to make in my entire public and private life." He says, despite his problems, that he will run for re-election next year.
Talmadge revealed little of his reasons for drinking, except to say, "I probably took my personal problems to the bottle rather than to my Maker."
As chairman of the Agriculture Committee, Talmadge is a power in the Senate, in his state and among the nation's farmers. Yesterday, he posed with a group of Georgia farmers who are protesting government farm policy.
A complex man, he has been called a brilliant workaholic, and alternately has been termed "distant" and "warm" by his Senate colleagues.
"He got a standing ovation at the Democratic caucus this morning," said one of them."He hugged and kissed a
But another long-time acquaintance once said that Talmadge had a nearly impenetrable facade."It wasn't socially elite to be a Talmadge supporter when his daddy was running things. Early in his childhood, Herman built a wall. Sometimes I can't even penetrate that shell."
Talmadge learned politics at his daddy's knee, as they say in the South. He started "stumpin'" for his father, the legendary Eugene Talmadge, governor of Georgia and an ardent segregationist. Herman Talmadge remembers the "best political advice" he ever got, back in those days. It is cagey, wary and shrewd:
"Remember to whom you speak, of whom you speak. When and where and how. Treat your enemy of today as though he would be your friend of tomorrow, and your friend of today as though he'd be your enemy tomorrow."
The Senate Ethics Committee voted last year to investigate Talmadge's personal finances after published reports that he accepted small amounts of money from Georgia residents to cover out-of-pocket expenses and $7.500 from birthday celebrations in his honor. A former administrative assistant, Daniel Minchew, claimed that $13,000 in Senate reimbursements and $26,000 in campaign contributions were deposited in a Washington bank and then distributed at Talmadge's direction to members of his family. Talmadge has said those funds were "procured without my knowledge or consent."
But this was all studiously overlooked yesterday as the ovations rolled on. Sen. S.I. Hayakawa of California: "He's in fine, fine shape... his strong voice is welcome and heard again."
Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd, mumbling so low as he stood at his desk that reporters had to strain to hear, spoke of Talmadge's "quick and agile repartee and clear understanding of the issues" and welcomed him "with all the warmth I can bring and bear."
Sen. Ernest Hollings: "There is no stronger nor wiser voice in my area of the United States" than Talmadge. "He is not a philanderer. Not like some of the youngsters, he is not tasking from the strain of hard work. Perhaps one of his faults is that he works too hard."
Sen. Russell Long: Talmadge is a "tower of strength."
Even a freshman senator, John Warner of Virginia, strode across the floor to get into the act and shake hands.
Others tried to out-do themselves with grand phrases. Sen. Spark Matsunaga of Hawaii quoted Shakespeare: "The good a man does is interred with his bones." He added, "We ought to remember the good that Herman Talmadge has done." He praised him for authoring the national school lunch act and the trade expansion act.
And long time friend John Stennis of Mississippi quoted himself: "I often refer to Talmadge as the battle-ax of the Senate. I'm glad to see the battle-ax is back!"