Lynwood Holton, former governor of Virginia and father in law of The Gov, has written an autobiography titled “Opportunity Time“. It is on the shelf in the “Virginia” section at Barnes and Nobles. At $27.95, it is a pricey opportunity to watch a man try to change history by ignoring things that actually happened.
J. Harvie Wilkinson has written that Holton’s term in office proves that to be effective an elected official must do more than simply govern well. His term is well remembered as the first GOP Virginia governor since Reconstruction and for his sending his children to the closest public school in Richmond (which were majority black) instead of sending them elsewhere, and perhaps for simply showing that after a century of democrat governors the GOP could do the job and do it well. Holton spends lots of time on these matters.
But while he finds time to write about his late Lt. Governor J. Sargent Reynolds, Holton spends almost no time on the critical political matters that eventually cut his political throat. Those would be his refusal to find a spot for Dick Obenshain in his administration and his insistence that the GOP run moderate candidates in the 1970 US Senate election and the 1971 Special election for Lt. Governor.
For those who have forgotten, Richard Obenshain was the modern architect of the Virginia GOP. Killed in a plane crash in August 1978 while running for the US Senate against Andew Miller, Obenshain built the organization that made Virginia a clear Red State for so long. In 1969 Holton all but begged Obenshain to run for Attorney General, promising him a big position in the administration. But when the election was over and Holton had won and Obenshain lost, Holton first denied Obenshain the position of head of DMV (not the right experience) and then the position of Chief of Staff (not close enough personally, did not want Obenshain helping make policy decisisions). To no one’s surprise but Holton’s, the position of a Board member at the Virginia ABC agency was not what Obenshain was looking for. Holton devotes some small amount of time to this, and nowhere does he seem to think he should have tried harder to get Obenshain inside the tent…because by leaving him outside Holton bought himself a world of trouble.
Holton devotes no time to his electoral intrigues in 1970 and 1971. In 1970, as part of an effort to get Harry Byrd, Jr. to change parties, there was an active campaign for the GOP to not run a candidate against and instead endorse Byrd. Having taken his share of head smacks from the Byrd Machine, Holton came out for running a candidate and at a GOP Banquet the night before the convention voted said the GOP was the best and strongest party in Virginia, and not running a candidate would be like having the best, newest, shiniest fire engine in town and not taking it to a fire.
Well, Holton’s argument found traction and the convention nominated Ray Garland…who proceeded to get about 20% of the vote. Byrd came in with over 50% of the vote, and Holton’s persuasiveness began to fade.
In 1971 there was a special election for Lt. Governor after Reynold’s death. The field was complicated by state Senator Henry Howell’s decision to run as an indepedent. The Dems tabbed a conservative delegate from the highland counties (I want to say Clifton Forge). Holton insisted that the GOP needed a candidate from the moderate wing and not the conservative wing of the party. He backed George Mason Green, a one term delegate, who got the nomination and proceeded to run in third place in the special election.
Why are these items ignored? Because they don’t fit in with the rosy scenario of how Holton sees things. He had a capacity for delusion while serving as governor, and apparently he still has it.
I shouldn’t be surprised. As a high school senior in 1978 I was to be a delegate from Manassas to the GOP convention that would select a nominee to run for the US senate and fill the seat of retiring senator Bill Scott. As such I got invited to a number of social events. I was careful to listen to how the longer term party members were going to vote. I did not fully understand the Holton term in office and all that went on in those years. At one party I found myself alone with the Governor at a snack table, so I asked him why it was that so many of the party veterans in the room (in an area that was real Obenshain country) disliked him so much.
He looked me straight in the eye and said “I don’t know”.
There are none so blind as those that cannot see, and none so foolish as those who attempt to change history by ignoring it.