There is a natural tendency to go to the Shad Planking-expecting to learn something.
Ever since 1948, the good ol' boys have gathered under the pines at the Wakefield Sportsman's Club 170 miles south of Washington to drink whiskey out of paper cups, eat shad baked all day on oak planks beside open fires and talk politics.
It became a ritual of the latter days of the old Byrd organization fashioned by the late Gov. and Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. It was, along with the annual picnic at old Harry's apple orchard in Frederick County, a place where you might get some advance word on political developments yet to take place.
At the very first Shad Planking in 1948 you might have heard that old Harry was going to go with John S. Battle for governor that year to put down the anti-organization challenge of Col. Francis Pickens Miller.
That would have been a piece of news. Horace Edwards of Richmond had high hopes for the organization nod, despite his tender age of 46. After all, after three terms in the House of Delegates, he had been picked to head the Democratic state central committe and elected mayaor of Richmond.
He had attracted the support of such young political comers as Mills E. Godwin, freshman delegate from Nansemond County, and in general thought he was on his way. But it wasn't to be, and you might have learned that first at the '49 Shad Planking.
As recently as 1972, reporters at the Shad Planking learned that Godwin, then a former Democratic governor, had been to Washington that very day to discuss what role he might play in the re-election campaign of Richard Nixon. That was another piece of news, a turn in the Godwin transition to the Republican Party.
In this year, again a year for electing a governor of Virginia, it seemed reasonable to go to the Shad Planking with expectations. The day of the organization nod is gone, but it seemed reasonable to canvass the crowd at the Wakefield picnic grounds to try to learn who, this year, will inherit the rural conservative slice of the electorate represented by the good ol' boys.
As it turned out, such expectations were entirely unreasonable. The only piece of news at this year's Shad Planking last week was the presence of Megan Rosenfeld, the Washington Post reporter who was determined to break the sex barrier barring females from those attending the event, which is by invitation only. Last year, it was the color barrier that was broken when a few black politicians were extended invitations, a practice ontinued this year.
Rosenfeld, armed with an invitation of uncertain origin, succeeded in persuading the Shad Planking officials that a female political reporter should not be excluded from an event attended by most statewide candidates.
The principle at stake was larger than the prize. It was immediately clear that the ritual of the Shad Planking had outlived its political substance.
The candidates were there, but not celebrated, only tolerated. After all, they brought more than their share of the beer and booze.
As heirs to the much reduced poltical estate of the good ol' boys, they were an unlikely list. Andrew P. Miller, intense son of Francis Pickens Miller, was there pumping hands vigorously. He is the recently resigned attorney general seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.
John N. Dalton, affable son of Ted Dalton, the first Republican to threaten seriously the organization in 1953, was there smiling over Republican inroads into the once all-Cemocratic Shad Planking. He is the lieutenant governor and unopposed candidate for the Republican nomination for governor.
Former Lt. Gov. Henry E. Howell was there. His personal style endears him to many of the good ol' boys, but his alignment with blacks and labor and his fierce attacks over the years against the Byrds has put him out of the pale of political respectability at the Shad Planking.
That is not to say Howell had no votes among the hundreds at the picnic grounds. A Norfolk shipyard worker, a union member from Isle of Wight, readily confessed, "Henry is my man." Why was he wearing the bright orange and white Miller hat? "Someone gave it to me," he said.
There were a lot of Miller hats in the crowd, and they may have reflected substantial Miller sentiment. "These ol' boys will hit Henry every time they get a chance," Sen. Edward E. Willey (D-Richmond) said.
That's a likely forecast for the June 14 Democratic primary. In the November general, if Miller makes it, the ol' boys will probably measure his conservatism to see if it is enough to lure them back from their recent habit of voting Republican in elections of federal and some state candidates.
Up on the traditional flat bed truck at the summit of the picnic grounds, one of the Republican beneficiaries of the shifting allegiance of the good ol' boys, Rep. Robert W. Daniel, was holding forth.
Most folks were not hearing him. "Twenty years ago, old Harry could have stood up there and said, 'Virginia is beautiful,' and they would have all gone crazy cheering him," Sen. William Parkerson (D-Henrico) said. However, the reserved Republican aristocrat does not have old Harry's stature with the good ol' boys, or his touch.
Twenty years ago, former Gov. William M. Tuck might also have stood up there and brought the crowd to a frenzy by shaking his heavy jowls and thundering that the federal government "is trying to come down heah and mogrelize ouah schools."
Everybody who didn't hear Daniel was sure he was not saying anything like that, but they were equally sure he was saying something about the federal government.
Maybe he was giving the Department of Health, Education and Welfare a pasting for having tried to ban father-son banquets and boys' choirs in public schools. No need to turn away from whiskey and friends to hear Bob Daniel say that when you could have read it on the editorial page of The Washington Post.
No one is as yet quoting Post editorials from the flat bed at the Shad Planking, but no one is raising racist cries there either. Racism at the Shad Planking, like most other places, has gone underground. It's receded from the rostrum. You had to walk over to the fringe of the crowd, by the fiery pits where the fish was baking, to hear a spare-built, salmon-colored Wakefield storekeeper wearing a peanut pendant make a racist reference to a black candidate for the House of Delegates.
Turning away from the storekeeper, the Wakefield picnic panarama was there to the absorbed. At the top of the hill, a few dusty black men moved about the pits like shadows in the bright April sun, tending the smoky oak coals.
Down the hill, the revelers filled and lined a loamy dirt drive to the summit. There was Rosenfeld, eyes discreetly riveted on the subject of the moment while at intervals on either fringe of the crowd ol' boys turned more or less toward the woods to relieve themselves.
A heavy middle-aged man in work clothes was one moment standing beside a pickup truck talking with friends and the next moment was prone in the dust, felled by the weight of too much bourbon.
In the sunlight and shadows, a few familiar faces and figures appeared, talking and dealing drinks to each other out of the trunks of late model cars.
There was Ernest H. (Judge) Williams, truck line lobbyist, the most influential member of his craft in Richmond.There was Bob Mcllwaine, the governor's special counsel and close friend of Williams.
There also was Lathan Mims, general manager of the Byrd newspaper in Harrisonburg and manager of campaigns for Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. and Godwin. Mims was standing at the trunk of a car with a friend from his home were talking about another Timmonsville boy, Melvin PurvisM trying to straighten out just when it was that Melvin, as head of the FBI's Chicago bureau, shot John Dillinger and when he finally shot himself.
There they all were, the good ol' boys. All around them, the candidates, ever the opportunists, served as new ornaments at a traditional feast. The good ol' boys weren't deciding anything. It was not a summit. It was a reunion.