Keeping a watchful eye
Wilkie has witnessed and written about our history
Curtis Wilkie’s “The Fall of the House of Zeus” on the Dickie Scruggs scandal has been immensely popular in Mississippi and is on its sixth printing. Wilkie interviewed more than 200 people and compiled thousands of pages of documents to write what he calls “a book about political organization in Mississippi.”
Wilkie, 70, obtained a journalism degree from the University of Mississippi before covering the civil rights movement at the Clarksdale Press Register. Wilkie worked for The Boston Globe from 1975-2000, and has covered eight Presidential campaigns.
He is currently the Overby Fellow and Kelly G. Cook Chair of Journalism at Ole Miss. He and his wife, Nancy, have three grown children and six grandchildren.
Q — Why are Southerners so successful in politics?
Mississippi has had disproportionate power in Washington. The people that we send there tend to stay there for many years and acquire seniority and therefore a lot of power. Thad Cochran is very quiet and not demonstrative, but he’s a very powerful figure in Washington. You don’t read about him in the paper a great deal, but he’s off-and-on been chairman of the Appropriations Committee, which is arguably one of the second or third most powerful positions in the United States Senate. Trent Lott was majority leader. Congressmen like Sonny Montgomery and Jamie Whitten acquired a lot of seniority and became very powerful in the areas they specialized in. Obviously, Sen. Eastland and Sen. Stennis were there for, seems like for about 40 years, both of them, and became chairmen of very powerful committees.
Because our senators have been able to be reelected again and again they just naturally accumulate a great deal of power.
Q — How do they keep getting reelected?
I think that clearly to be successful in reelections you have to relate to people you represent, and I think they probably do a pretty good job of relating to the interests of the people in Mississippi, else they wouldn’t be reelected. In Washington, somebody like Thad – I’ve known Thad for more than 60 years. We were kids who lived on the Ole Miss campus together when our parents were getting their masters degrees right after World War II, and Thad is very easy to get along with. There’s not any kind of edge to Thad, and I think as a result he’s almost universally popular in Washington. Everybody likes Thad. Democrats like Thad. Just easy-going. So maybe part of that’s your Southern nature, that you’re not as high-strung as somebody from New York.
Q — How will the Scruggs’ scandal affect the legal practice?
Well, I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know. I’ve been asked. I don’t think it’s necessarily a reflection on business as usual among lawyers in Mississippi. I don’t think Mississippi is any better or any worse than most other states. This is a story that could have happened anywhere. It could have happened in Michigan or California or Massachusetts. I have had lawyers tell me that as a result of the Scruggs case, they are now being more careful about ex parte contact with judges. Again, Mississippi being a state where everybody knows everybody, chances are you know the judges. And it kind of got their guard up against, maybe they would have said something before that would be slightly a little too close to home in a conversation with a judge, but they just don’t dare do that. They are more careful about what they say around judges. I don’t know that for a fact, but I’ve been told that by members of the bar.
Q — Political organization in Mississippi. Do you see it changing?
In Mississippi, it’s a loose confederation of interests. The dominant organization I would argue was the old Eastland organization that really controlled this state’s politics for 30 or 40 years, and then it was more or less inherited by Trent Lott. And where exactly it is now, I’m not sure. Obviously, Haley Barbour is the most powerful politician in this state right now, and Haley is not necessarily a product of this old organization. Maybe he’s a byproduct of it, but he’s not a direct descendant of the old Eastland organization. But there are certain loyalists to Haley who would have been for Eastland and would have been for Trent. It’s not easy to get your hands around it, because some of the people really operate, like P.L. Blake, in the shadows of these people. You don’t know who they are. But there are people in every courthouse or in every town, in every county seat that the guy who’s in charge of the organization knows they can go to to get favors done, or fix a ticket, or make sure that somebody is giving them trouble, or give trouble back. Ed Peters, who was district attorney in Hinds County, is a good example. Peters was an old player in that organization, and apparently has quite a track record of taking care of his friends and prosecuting his enemies. But that’s the way it functions. He was just one of many.
Q — You said you’ve known Haley Barbour since you were young. Any predictions a run for President?
From the time I was a freshman at Ole Miss, Haley was coming up and hanging out on football weekends with his big brother (Jeppie), who was a classmate of mine.
I think he would be a credible candidate for the Republican nomination. He’s been a major player in the national Republican party for a number of years, got a lot of contacts. He’s got a record as governor here that probably would please most Republicans. He’s got a lot of credibility, especially among Republicans.
Q — Any predictions on a Barbour-Obama contest?
Lord, no. I certainly don’t have any predictions. I would just say that one thing I learned down through the years as a political reporter is don’t underestimate anybody. I was one of those who underestimated Ronald Reagan and was dead wrong. I never considered him to be a serious candidate for President. I saw him as an old movie actor, and boy was I proven wrong. I sure wouldn’t go out on a limb and make any kind of bold prediction on that.
Q — How long did it take you to write “Zeus”?
About two years, and then there was a third year that it was in production. I turned the manuscript in and it was closely vetted by the publisher’s lawyers as well as the editors. And happily, they did not ask for many changes at all. They were satisfied with my documentation, my facts and my writing. So in the end there were just a few rough edges they wanted to be polished. So it took another year, but that’s about average for a book. From the time you turn it in to the time it’s published, it’s about a year.
Q — Will you write more books?
You never know. Never say never.
More on Wilkie:
Favorite book: “North Toward Home” by Willie Morris
Favorite movie: Italian film “The Battle of Algiers”
Favorite food: “I’m an Italian freak.”