If you ever had one of Bill Shipp’s finely honed pens lodged between your shoulder blades, you would never forget it. I write from personal experience and from having worked for a governor who regularly suffered public excoriation at the hands of arguably the most powerful political reporter and commentator in the state’s history. In fact, the New Georgia Encyclopedia calls him "one of the country’s premier political commentators."
Joe Frank Harris certainly wasn’t the first or last Georgia governor to come under Shipp’s scrutiny and criticism. Shipp started taking on the state’s leadership as far back as 1953 when, as editor of The Red & Black student newspaper at the University of Georgia, he challenged the decision by then-Gov. Herman Talmadge and the General Assembly to deny enrollment at the UGA law school to a black student, Horace Ward.
Thereafter, Shipp was invited to leave the university and went into the U.S. Army, after which he was hired by the Atlanta Constitution. In an oral history interview at the Richard Russell Library earlier this year, he revealed that early in life, his father took him to a Gene Talmadge rally on a packed town square, where Talmadge fired up the crowd and exchanged in lively banter with those in attendance.
"I thought it was the greatest show I’d ever seen, and I wanted to be part of it," he recalled.
On Tuesday, Harris joined all living former governors but Jimmy Carter, the widow of one, and other former and current state officials to celebrate Bill Shipp’s 80th birthday. The crowd included Carl Sanders, Zell Miller and Roy Barnes, as well as Harris Hines, Georgia chief justice, and former Sen. Max Cleland, among others.
In his 50 years of reporting and political analysis, he won their grudging respect. However, one governor, the late George Busbee, got revenge one evening at the Governor’s Mansion when he sneaked up behind Shipp and pushed him into the pool. I was there. Zell Miller once threatened to whip his you-know-what. Legendary segregationist and kingmaker Roy Harris of Augusta once called Shipp (and his type) "a handful of sissies, misguided squirts and Communists," as recalled in the UGA oral history interview.
"I was never a Communist," Shipp laughed to the Russell Library interviewer.
My old boss, Gov. Harris, delighted in sharing the details of Shipp’s birthday event when I spoke with him. His wife Elizabeth couldn’t attend, having just undergone knee replacement surgery, but Harris shared with the group that early in his administration (1983-90), he had asked Elizabeth to pray for Shipp. She wrote his name on a Post-it note on her bathroom mirror and never stopped praying, even to this day. (We always believed Elizabeth had higher connections than most.)
"I told them Bill Shipp could distort numbers better than anybody I’d ever seen," Harris said. "We’d have a press conference and pass out budget figures, and the next day, when I read what he wrote, I’d wonder if he’d really been there." The crowd cracked up.
Another speaker was former Georgia Supreme Court Justice Conley Ingram, according to Harris.
"When he got up, he said he wanted to start a movement to raise a gift for Shipp. He wanted everybody to put in $10 to send Bill to the New Perry Motel, where he’d be close enough to look into Go Fish Georgia and the $30 million that’s been spent on it."
Go Fish Georgia was the much-lampooned brainchild of former Gov. Sonny Perdue, who famously forbade his staff from ever speaking to Shipp.
Shipp wasn’t just a newspaperman. In 1987, he retired from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to start a political newsletter that became an online service in 1994. In a 2006 interview with the AJC’s current political columnist, Jim Galloway, he said, "That’s what I’m proudest of."
In 2009, Shipp sold the business and hung up his spurs.
Gone, yes, but definitely not forgotten.
Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.