Saturday, November 26, 2011

Famous Georgians

Often when I tell someone in Finland that I’m from the American state of Georgia, I get a blank look in return.  If “Georgia” seems to mean nothing to them, I offer the explanation of “Floridan lähellä” (near Florida).  Everyone knows Florida. 

In the past I’ve tried to correct this lack of Finnish awareness of Georgia by listing (or boasting, as the case may be) some of the famous people who have come from the Peach State.  I even gained a bit of a reputation among my colleges for doing this to a highly annoying degree. 

Foremost is Martin Luther King, who is without question the best-known Georgian anywhere in the world.  And, of course, there’s Jimmy Carter, whom Finns of a certain age are definitely familiar with, though they might not necessarily associate him with Georgia. 

Beyond these two famous men, Finns (and, for that matter, anyone else outside of Georgia) are much less aware of the other prominent folks from the state. 

This is where I come in, happy to enlighten the uninformed that renowned Georgians also include Mr. Ray Charles and Mr. James Brown.  Okay, it’s true the Godfather of Soul was born across the river in South Carolina, but he lived most of his life in Georgia.  And Ray Charles, the man who made “Georgia on My Mind” such a classic, would deserve to be an honorary Georgian, even if he hadn’t been born there. 

But, the list goes on, especially in the musical realm:  Little Richard, Otis Redding, Gladys Knight, all R&B and Soul legends, all from my home state.  Closer to my own time, the alternate musical scene in the college town of Athens -- a liberal oasis in a sea of diehard conservatives -- spawned acts such as The B-52s and, of course, R.E.M., the best band ever, period.  Sorry, Tenacious D. 

And then there’s the Georgians who left home to make it big in Hollywood, starting with Oliver Hardy, the larger half of the Laurel and Hardy comedy duo.  Hardy briefly attended boarding school in Young Harris, the tiny mountain town where I went to college almost 70 years later.  Other, somewhat more modern entertainers from Georgia are Julia Roberts, Burt Reynolds (how could Burt not be from Georgia), and the delectable Kim Basinger.  I once worked with someone in Athens who had gone to school with Kim.  She once showed her high school yearbook, where the teenage Basinger certainly looked pretty in her school photo, but not so different at the time from many of the other girls in her class. 

I realize I’m dating myself badly with all these references to figures who are already starting to fade from the scene.  Or maybe it shows I haven’t lived in the state for a long time.  Anyway, the best-known native sons of Georgia nowadays are two that sadly I’m not proud of at all.  And both are running for president. 

One of them, Newt Gingrich, is in fact the current Republican frontrunner, which means he is the “anti-Romney” of the moment.  (Republicans seem desperate to find some marginally acceptable candidate who is not Mitt Romney so that this person [fill in the blank] will appeal to Republicans apparently desperate to vote for anybody – except maybe Mitt Romney – who is not Barack Obama.) 

Finns might be puzzled by the name “Newt”, especially if they realize that it’s English for vesilisko Of course, Newt’s simply a nickname for Gingrich’s actual first name “Newton”, but it’s hard to imagine a name more fitting to his personality.  (And for this I mean no disrespect to actual newts, God bless ‘em.)

As Speaker of the House in the 90s, Gingrich led rebellious Republicans in a failed and ill-advised attempt to shut down the federal government.  A bit later, he was more successful in clamoring for the impeachment of Bill Clinton over his lying about sexual misconduct – while Gingrich himself (who was 55 at the time and married) was dappling in a little sexual misconduct of his own with a 32-year-old congressional employee.  She became his third and  at least for now  current wife.  Gingrich has since blamed his forays into adultery on his overriding passion for America.  Seriously. 

Despite all this, Newt has somehow gained the reputation of being an intellectual, the gray eminence of the Republican Party, which does nothing to mask the belligerent, mean-spirited nature that makes him a uniquely unlikable person. 

On the other hand, the other Georgian running for president appears to be extremely likeable.  Too bad he also appears completely incompetent for the job of highest office in the land.  Herman Cain is, by all accounts, a likeable guy, a powerful motivational speaker, and – as the former CEO of the Godfather’s Pizza chain – probably a fairly successful businessman.  That doesn’t, however, make him presidential material, as recent events have shown.  His only shtick is a simplistic flat tax plan, branded “9-9-9”, that most economists agree would hurt poor people the most.  Beyond that – and a fine singing voice – he’s got nothing. 

But Cain is good at promoting himself and was briefly the frontrunner in the quest for the “Anti-Romney-Obama”.  That was until his star began to fade a few weeks ago after stories of past sexual misconduct started to emerge and his campaign started to stumble. 

The sex allegations now seemed to have fizzled, with no new developments lately, and I think that’s fine.  I would hate to see Cain drop out of the race due to unproven claims of hanky panky with any woman he happens to run across who isn’t his wife.  Instead, it is much more fitting that his campaign self-destructs because voters finally can’t ignore the fact that, behind his upbeat nature and his gimmicky 9-9-9 plan, he hasn’t got a clue what he would do as president.  His recent flubs at answering straightforward foreign policy questions on Libya have proven just how out of his depth he is. 

I think that even more than Gingrich, who probably seriously thinks he could be president and actually has some chance of winning, Cain is only in the race for free publicity to sell his books and boost his personal brand.  Both men, in their own ways, are embarrassments and not the kind of Georgians I would want to brag about – or be president.   


  1. You listed all of the famous Georgians with whom I am familiar. I can't think of any off the top of my southern head to add to your quite good essay.

    I've hated Gingrich since the first moment I watched him speak before he became Speaker of the House. He is, indeed, a slimy creature.

  2. There seem to be plenty more famous Georgians at, including Hulk Hogan, Larry Holmes, Evander Holyfield, Ted Turner, Isaac Hayes... Though bizarrely, in the musician section, that claim Elton John as a Georgian...

  3. Yes, I forgot to mention Ted Turner and Isaac "Chef" Hayes, truly great Georgians. I didn't even realize Hulk Hogan was from there, and don't know what to say about the idea that Elton John could be. Bizarre joke I guess.