Reubin Askew grew up in Pensacola, a Navy town almost since the time Florida became a state. Yet near the end of World War II, when he was still in high school, he joined the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. It was a characteristically contrary decision. He had tried initially to get into a naval aviation program and was kept out, because, he says, though he found out only later, they had filled their quota. So he went into the Airborne and became a sergeant, and made himself eligible for GI bill benefits in college.
That was fortunate. Of the six Democratic presidential candidates, Askew grew up in the humblest circumstances. His mother was divorced when he was a baby, and after a few years, she left her husband's home town of Muskogee, Okla., and returned to her home town, Pensacola. His father had been in charge of motor vehicle maintenance for the National Guard in Muskogee, but he didn't contribute to Askew's support, and Askew remembers seeing him only once. His mother, with five children to support, worked in Pensacola in the WPA sewing room, as a supervisor in the lunchroom in a public school, and finally in the San Carlos Hotel in Pensacola-- the only big hotel there then. There, as assistant housekeeper, she supervised the maids, and, Askew says, had a genuine sympathy for blacks, because they were all poor.
But she must have had her home well organized: "We all worked and all contributed. My responsibility early on was to pay the water bill--in the late 1930s, 50 cents a month. As a small boy I built up a magazine route; a good portion of the subscribers were relatives, but there were others too." The financial rewards were perhaps limited, but the psychic income was not: "Mother always made me feel I was ten feet tall." As an adult, "I made up my mind my mother would never have to work again," and bought her a home. Askew's was a strongly religious home, and he has been known for years as a politician who doesn't drink or smoke--and didn't let others do so in the governor's mansion. His mother was of Irish descent; her father was named John Patrick O'Donovan and was born on St. Patrick's Day.
Askew doesn't remember that anyone in his family was interested in politics. Most likely they just didn't have time for it. Nonetheless, by the time he went to Florida State University, he was already telling other students--or so they tell him today-- that one day he would be governor of Florida. His ability to work hard and his ambition were already apparent. He worked three jobs at the same time (he was a dorm counselor to earn his room, waited on tables for his board, and sold men's clothing for clothes). He took courses designed, he says now, to educate him for a career in public service, and he was elected president of the student body. But also apparent was his propensity for taking controversial stands --for winning on his own terms. Back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he supported efforts to desegregate Florida State and all-black Florida A&M, across town in Tallahassee, at least to the extent of giving blacks access to all graduate programs (the sort of issue the NAACP was pressing before Brown v. Board of Education). Did that cause problems for him? "Oh yes, believe me," he says. "But somehow we had to begin the process of affording an equal opportunity." His opposition to segregation, he says, started when he was 11 and working in a supermarket at the edge of downtown Pensacola; there was a caf,e across the street for blacks, because they couldn't get served at any caf,e downtown. "That's when it first struck me, the lack of access for blacks. And yet they were paying their full share and weren't able to share equally."
That wasn't the kind of talk you were likely to hear on fraternity row at FSU or even in the Florida State Law School, which Askew attended after a stint in the Air Force (to fulfill his ROTC obligation) and from which he graduated in 1956. He married, went back to Pensacola, and in 1958 ran for the legislature. Uncharacteristically for those days, he campaigned with television ads (Pensacola is a small media market, and his ad budget was of the magnitude of $2,000). There he took the politically toughest issues he could. In his first term he supported Gov. Leroy Collins--a man he still considers "as fine a governor as any state ever had"--in his veto of the "Last Resort" bill, a measure that would have closed Florida schools rather than desegregate them. Pensacola was a stronghold of segregation, then and much later. "But I still got elected. I said it was wrong and that we should not deny opportunity for education for blacks or whites. The only hope of the country to get united was black education." In his second term, he supported reapportionment of the legislature, so that rapidly growing southern and central Florida would get equal-population representation; this would dilute the power of places like Pensacola. But in 1962 he took on a 16-year veteran of the state senate and beat him.
In his 1970 election he followed similar tactics. As a legislator from a lightly populated, remote corner of the state, he seemed an unlikely candidate for governor; and he didn't seem to be helping himself when he did things like announce his support of a severance tax on phosphates in the state's leading phosphate county. Yet he ran second in the first primary, won the runoff, and beat the incumbent Republican governor in the general election. He did not do this, it should be added, as a complete outsider. He says that he was always able to work constructively with other legislators, to strike up alliances and to seek advice from those knowledgeable on issues he knew little about; his running mate for lieutenant governor was an old Tallahassee wheelhorse. He impressed reporters and editorialists--an important asset in Florida, where many voters are new to the state and have only limited information on state government. He was, by almost all accounts, a successful reforming governor--an unusual combination. He did a competent job later as special trade representative--a position not known to the public, but arguably one of the most sensitive positions in any administration, and one which requires a working knowledge of both international affairs and domestic politics.
Now Askew is running for president in what seems to be the only way he knows how: by taking unpopular positions. He argues that it's no good to elect someone who is already committed, because of the way he's campaigned, to policies which condemn his administration to failure. So he's antagonized almost every Democratic constituency group from organized labor (he's against the domestic content bill and other protectionist legislation) to gays (he's been less than enthusiastic about gay rights). Most of the political pros scoff at his chances, and he concentrates on asking established politicians for their ideas (which he says will help him be a better president) than for their support. Almost no one thinks he will win the nomination. Yet he seems confident and determined, serene in the knowledge that when he has campaigned this way in the past he has won, and that it can happen again.