An Interview with John Dos Passos Coggin
John Dos Passos Coggin is a freelance writer and political strategist from Annapolis, MD. A graduate of Yale University and the University of Maryland, Coggin is the maternal grandson of American author John Dos Passos, the acclaimed novelist best known for his historical fiction trilogy U.S.A. His first book, Walkin’ Lawton, is an authorized biography of Florida politician Lawton Chiles, who served as Governor and U.S. Senator from the state between 1971 and 1998. Articles by Coggin have also appeared in The Tampa Bay Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Florida Times-Union.
The Politic: The title of your book is a reference to Lawton Chiles’ 1,003-mile walk across the state of Florida during his 1970 Senate campaign. Can you tell me why you chose this episode for the title of your book?
The walk was a hugely symbolic event in his life, because it is signified his interest in evolution – in personal evolution and political evolution. Before he decided to walk the state of Florida in his 1970 bid for U.S. Senate, he had not distinguished himself from the rest of the eager, young, politicos with whom he shared the stage in the Florida legislature. He had very low name recognition. Those were the practical reasons he decided to walk: the shortage on name recognition, campaign funds. One of these competitors was a former governor of Florida. In those days, the Democratic Primary decided the winner of the ultimate contest; the Republican Party was quite small. This was a high stakes scenario, and he knew he wanted to gamble. He took a chance on populism and won.
The Politic: Chiles wins in 1970 and serves in the Senate for three terms. What were some of his accomplishments during this time and why did he not to run for reelection in 1978?
The chief accomplishments of his time in the Senate were in areas of budget and fiscal discipline and government transparency. In the latter years of the Senate era, Chiles championed public health, bringing attention to the importance of early childhood development.
He left the Senate primarily because, even after these accomplishments, he felt there was a massive divide between his goals, the needs of his country, and the results – especially on the issue of the deficit. The confederation of Senate moderates which dominated the 1970s was largely broken after Reagan became president. That and other disappointment drove Chiles into a deep depression that required medication. The Senate was his life-long goal, his dream since he was a boy of ten years old. To see it become a vehicle for such division, nonchalance, and inactivity really depressed him. Even when he was Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, with tremendous power, he felt that he was never so disappointed with a group of people in his whole life. The Reagan White House was not listening to the voices of reason, discipline, and responsibility who asked for a formal budget plan. Chiles knew how dire the consequences were and knew the inability to solve problems was causing a ruin to his mental health and diminishing his love for politics, so much so that he wanted to quit and go back home to Florida.
The Politic: Chiles was quite the practical joker, wasn’t he?
There were so many jokes, for so many times in his life. They really became a political instrument, something that was in his political toolbox, particularly when he became governor. He called them “gotcha” jokes. He would play pranks especially on people he liked. Reporters were the target of jokes. If a reporter on the state plane had a fear of flying, Gov. Chiles might conspire with the pilot and tell him to announce that the plane was going into an emergency dive. Gov. Chiles would watch the reporter’s reaction, and just when he was done having some good fun with it, he would point at the reporter and say “gotcha!” They would laugh about it. It was a benevolent habit. That’s how Chiles would make so many friends among the media, his staff, across the political spectrum—humor.
The Politic: I am quite curious by Chiles’ legislative maneuvering. Can you tell me a bit about his finesse in this regard?
One of his chief pieces of political gamesmanship was his work forcing Big Tobacco, which Florida had sued in the mid-1990s, to settle and acknowledge their heavy marketing towards teenagers, to cut back on marketing, and also pay recompense for the government’s Medicaid costs due to smoking related illnesses.
The lobbyists of Big Tobacco at the time were incredibly well armed though. They successful pushed the legislature to repeal one the key laws used by Florida to build a strong court case again Tobacco. Gov. Chiles vetoed the repeal law, and the legislature attempted a veto override. There was a very close veto override vote in the legislature, and Gov. Chiles ultimately lobbied certain state senators one-on-one. When one of the governor’s lobbyists heard that Democratic State Senator Pat Thomas was wavering, the lobbyist wrote a note for the governor to sign. The note was then hand-delivered on the floor of the legislature. In tears, Senator Thomas sided with the governor after reading the note: “I know the weight of the tobacco forces are heavy on your shoulders; I hope the weight of our forty-year friendship is heavier.”
Chiles knew when he had exhausted all tools in his box, and when he had to push someone strictly on the basis of friendship. In that case, he was successful and able to persuade this legislator.
The Politic: Why did you decide to write this book?
Part of my interest in the subject flowed from my sense that a niche could be filled here. This is the first biography of Chiles. I had a strong sense that there was a demand to hear more about the subject, especially in the state of Florida. The 18 million people residing in the state would have a desire, I thought, to hear a formal record of this very colorful, popular politician. I also developed a kinship with Chiles going back to my time working on the Kerry presidential campaign in 2004. I took a semester off from Yale to stay in Orlando, Florida to work through election day canvassing and recruiting volunteers. I knocked on about 6,000 doors. I felt a kinship with this man who had walked across the entire state of Florida talking to tens of thousands of people and had such a strong commitment to people-powered politics. When I graduated college I was looking for ways to start a writing project, and Chiles came to the mind first as a potentially great subject.
The Politic: You graduated from Yale a few years ago. Do you have any advice for your fellow Yalies?
I wrote an article for The Politic when I was in college — on Chris Matthews and Hardball, and the 24-hour news cycle. In hindsight, I appreciate how valuable an experience that was. In addition to my work on The Politic, I wrote for the Yale Daily News and volunteered in the Yale College Democrats. The lessons I learned there were so applicable to my post-college life. It was such a great field of exploration–a playground. I could test out and try my hand at different things with fewer consequences than one finds out in the big wide world. In hindsight, I should have done more. The lessons I learned in college–about how to write, how to communicate politics–those are lessons I have since built upon. Every career needs a foundation.
Josef Goodman is a junior in Morse College.