Commentary

Gov. Linwood Holton: An appreciation

October 29, 2021 12:25 pm

Former Gov. Linwood Holton speaks on January 20, 1971. (Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, The Valentine/ Photo: Bob Brown)

The only time I ever saw Tim Kaine cry, it was over his father-in-law, former Gov. A. Linwood Holton. And it was many years before Holton passed away Thursday at the age of 98.

Kaine had won the 2005 governor’s race, and I was the Associated Press political writer in Richmond interviewing him a couple of weeks after his victory for a weekend piece on his upcoming administration’s priorities.

I had noticed during the new governor-elect’s first press conference the morning after the election that Holton was conspicuously absent. I asked Kaine’s chief press aide at the time, Mo Elleithee, where Holton was and learned that he was undergoing bladder cancer surgery that he had put off until the campaign was over.

Holton, who was a significant figure in Virginia history as the first Republican governor since Reconstruction, had been at Kaine’s side throughout his campaign that fall. That might seem odd, given that Kaine, now a U.S. senator, is a deep-blue Democrat.

While Holton believed firmly in GOP fundamental precepts of free enterprise, fiscally responsible and limited state government and the bedrock values of individual responsibility that came from the Southwest Virginia coal country where he was raised, he and Kaine had much in common.

That was particularly true on the issue of racial equity in Virginia and the role of a state government seated in what once served as the capital of the Confederacy.

Holton is rightly recognized for being the first to bring diversity into the governor’s office. It was Holton who finally broke the back of what was once a classic, Old South-style segregationist state Democratic Party. He destroyed the last vestiges of Massive Resistance, the state’s deplorable and futile last-gasp bid to defy the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that racially “separate-but-equal” public schools were unconstitutional. Holton made desegregation real in Virginia.

He wasn’t a governor who preached racial equality yet packed his children off to exclusive prep schools. The world took notice when a news photo showed Holton walking his daughter Tayloe into Richmond’s mostly Black John F. Kennedy High School for her first day of classes in 1970.

Another Holton daughter, Anne, would meet Kaine at Harvard Law School and bring the former Roman Catholic missionary to Virginia to meet her family. Long before politics and partisan alignment was even a thing for the aspiring civil rights litigator and eventual Democratic vice presidential nominee, Kaine bonded with his Republican prospective father-in-law over their faith and shared commitment to racial justice.

Former Gov. Linwood Holton, left, appeared with then Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones (center) and U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Newport News, and others on election night in 2012. (Scott Elmquist/ Style Weekly)

More than once over the years, Kaine and Holton both recounted to me how Holton, himself an attorney, had advised Kaine to make the law his day job and thought he was nuts in the 1990s when Kaine sought his advice about a run for Richmond City Council. Like Holton, however, Kaine saw politics as a means to do great social good and, well … you know how sons-in-law can be.

The rest you can read in Virginia history books. But what the books might not reflect is that often, inconspicuous and off to one side as Kaine campaigned for lieutenant governor, governor, the Senate and, in 2016, the office a heartbeat from the presidency, there stood Holton.

You’d have thought them father-and-son, not in-laws. They delighted in each other’s company. Each could finish the other’s sentences. Even in that long statewide race in 2005 when the strain clearly took a toll on the ailing former governor then in his mid-eighties, he remained at Kaine’s side right through his election night victory celebration.

So there Kaine and I sat one morning in mid-November 2005 for our one-on-one interview as sunlight streamed into his transition office in a glass-walled tower overlooking Ninth Street and Capitol Square beyond. Midway through, I asked him about his father-in-law’s decision to defer cancer treatment until the two of them had finished the campaign together.

Kaine didn’t audibly cry. He was far too skilled a political pro to sob in front of a reporter. But his lip quivered, tears welled in his reddening eyes and he could not find his voice for a long, silent moment.

I don’t remember precisely what Kaine ultimately said. My notes from that day are long gone, as is the microcassette tape on which I recorded the interview. I am certain he said all the right things about how much it meant to him that his father-in-law was there for him through the whole race despite a serious health concern.

What I will never forget are those mute seconds as Kaine struggled to collect himself when the tears that spilled onto his face said more than his words ever could.

I am sure there will be more tears in the coming days as Kaine, the Holton family and a grateful commonwealth mourn and remember this humble, plain-spoken governor for his hard-earned mountain wisdom and the righteous trail he blazed.

And if there’s a better tribute to a life well lived, I don’t know what it is.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]

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