By Stephen McDill
RAYMOND- Veteran political journalist and author Curtis Wilkie spoke to honors students at Hinds Community College on Wednesday, regaling them with stories from the many political trails he has traveled in his long career- from Jimmy Carter to John McCain.
The Greenville native’s newest book “The Fall of the House of Zeus” details the self-destruction of billionaire tort lawyer Dickie Scruggs and his Mississippi empire. The book is in its sixth printing and has received praise from Wilkie colleagues from Douglas Brinkley to Tom Brokaw.
Wilkie began his career at the Clarksdale Press Register covering the civil rights era in Mississippi. He worked for the Boston Globe for twenty-five years and helped establish the newspaper’s Middle East and Southern bureaus in Jerusalem and New Orleans.
Today Wilkie teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi where he is a fellow at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics.
“(The book) has been a big seller in Mississippi,” Wilkie told MBJ. “If it sold as well elsewhere, I’d be a wealthy, happy man,” he quipped.
Wilkie commented on Mississippi’s disproportionate power in Washington D.C.
“(Thad) Cochran has off and on been chairman of the appropriations committee- Trent Lott was Senate Majority Leader,” he said.
“Congressmen like Sonny Montgomery and Jamie Whitten acquired a lot of seniority and became very powerful in the areas they specialized in. Obviously Senator (James) Eastland and Senator (John C.) Stennis were there for seems like for forty years both of them and became chairmen of very powerful committees.”
Wilkie believes Southern charm and an easy going nature probably factored in to their political longevity. “You’re not as high-strung as somebody from New York,” he said.
Updated April 5
When asked how the Dickie Scruggs judicial bribery scandal has affected the legal climate in Mississippi, Wilkie is quick to point out, “I’m not a lawyer so I don’t know.”
“I don’t necessarily think (the case was) a reflection on business as usual among lawyers in Mississippi,” he said. “I don’t think Mississippi is any better or any worse than other states.” Wilkie maintains that the scandal could have happened anywhere from Michigan to California.
“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- they’ve kinda got their guard up against… they’re more careful about what they say around judges. I’ve been told that by members of the bar.”
Wilkie said the whole writing process of “House of Zeus” took two years and that the manuscript was vetted by publishers, lawyers and editors for a year before they were satisfied. “I get up real early and all the books I’ve written I write early in the morning,” Wilkie said.
In the final portion of the Wilkie interview, the author explains, from his perspective, the nature of politics in Mississippi.
“I wouldn’t characterize it as a machine,” he said. “A good example of a machine is in Chicago where you literally have- it’s almost like an army- you’ve got pecking orders and you’ve got the ward captains and the precinct captains and they’re rewarded with jobs and that sort of thing.”
Wilkie describes Mississippi in his book and in the interview as a looser, more informal “confederation of interests” dominated in the 20th century by Sen. James O. Eastland. “It was more or less inherited by Trent Lott,” he said.
Wilkie says Gov. Haley Barbour is without a doubt, the dominant present force in Magnolia politics both in Jackson and in Washington D.C. “From the time I was a freshman at Ole Miss, Haley was coming up and hanging out on football weekends with his big brother who was a classmate of mine,” Wilkie said.
When asked if he thinks Barbour will make a run for the White House, Wilkie agrees that the job is in Barbour’s sights and that he will “make an incredible candidate for the Republican nomination.”