Updated on Monday: Although a staffer said he didn’t plan to show, U.S. Rep. John Lewis was present for President Barack Obama’s visit to Atlanta, we’re told.
President Barack Obama’s second visit to Georgia this year may be one of those parties best remembered for the guests who failed to show.
The president will spend the better part of Monday in Atlanta — first speaking to a convention of disabled veterans. Then the president will be the featured guest at a Democratic National Committee luncheon and fundraiser.
Many Democrats will flock to the downtown events. Michael Thurmond, the labor commissioner and U.S. Senate candidate, will be there. U.S. Rep. David Scott of Atlanta will greet Obama as he steps off Air Force One, as will Gov. Sonny Perdue — a Republican.
Mayor Kasim Reed will give the first African-American president an effusive introduction at the DNC fundraiser. A spokesman for Sanford Bishop said the Democratic congressman from southwest Georgia will be in the audience for both events.
But the list of Democrats who won’t be there is long and conspicuous.
Roy Barnes, the former governor and his party’s July choice to retake the office, has received the most attention for his decision to give priority to a Monday schedule that will take him through Middle and South Georgia. But there are others:
– Ken Hodges, the nominee for attorney general, will be in Albany for a case he’s working on for his law firm;
– U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall of Macon, who faces yet another Republican challenger, has plans to help his daughter move;
– U.S. Rep. John Barrow of Savannah will remain in Washington for “a minor medical procedure.” And, yes, he’ll have Republican opposition in November.
– A staffer for John Lewis said the Atlanta congressman simply has other plans;
– And U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson of Decatur will remain in Washington to prepare for the September impeachment of a federal judge. He’s one of the impeachment managers.
Clearly, some of the excuses are legitimate. The congressional summer recess began only last Friday. Monday, then, is the first real day of vacation for U.S. House members.
Given their large African-American constituencies, neither Lewis nor Johnson has anything to fear from being photographed at Obama’s side. Barrow didn’t hesitate to appear with the president in Savannah this winter.
But it is simply a fact that many other Democrats can’t afford to be seen with a president awarded a 37 percent approval rating by Georgia voters just last month.
Republicans are sure to chortle at the snubbing of Obama as something rare and, thus, significant. But in fact, Democrats are simply re-embracing a long-standing Southern tradition.
As a governor and U.S. senator, Herman Talmadge would schedule fishing trips that coincided with the quadrennial meetings of the Democratic National Convention.
Sam Nunn, concerned with winning his first term in the U.S. Senate in 1972, stayed as far away as he could from Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern.
Steve Anthony is the former chief of staff for the late House Speaker Tom Murphy and now his biographer. “Witness to History: A Memoir” (McGraw-Hill, $19.95) just hit the bookshelves.
One passage in the book dwells on Murphy’s reluctance to back Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis in 1988 — who was nominated at that year’s convention in Atlanta. The House speaker was at the apex of his power, but he had opposition at home that year.
“A reporter asked the speaker if he was going to vote for [Dukakis]. And the speaker deferred. It created a little bit of a firestorm with the liberal wing of the party at the time,” Anthony said.
“It wasn’t that they didn’t want to be engaged in national or presidential politics,” said Anthony, who now teaches political science at Georgia State University. “It’s that they knew what the voters of Georgia would tolerate. And when a candidate presented himself that fit that definition, they were for him.”
Murphy, for instance, was a reliable supporter of Al Gore. In the 2008 presidential contest, as the fight between Obama and Hillary Clinton reached fever pitch, Barnes was safely tucked behind the candidacy of fellow lawyer John Edwards of North Carolina.
But even safe decisions aren’t always safe. This week, the Georgia GOP sent out an e-mail with a photograph of Barnes standing next to the fallen, philandering Edwards.
Nor is the tradition of shunning national party figures restricted to Democrats. In 2005, Perdue — a year away from re-election — ducked an appearance with the not-so-popular Dick Cheney, then vice president.
But the fact that Obama is a sitting president has posed an unfamiliar problem for Georgia Democrats. Appearing with Jimmy Carter was a matter of state loyalty. Bill Clinton, too, was a familiar Southerner — sponsored and encouraged by then Gov. Zell Miller.
And the situation is made more discomfiting by the possibilities that 2010 has dangled in front of Democrats.
“My question is, when I first heard [Obama] was coming was, why did they do it? Who are the brains in Washington that thought, let’s do something in Georgia — and that it would benefit the candidates in Georgia?” Anthony asked.
“Here you’ve got a decent situation for a Democrat to win the governor’s race. Their move here could endanger that,” he added.
For the record, the state Democratic Party referred all inquiries about the Obama visit to the DNC in Washington.