Roland McElroy’s latest book, “The Best President the Nation Never Had: A Memoir of Working with Sam Nunn" was released by Mercer University Press a month ago today.
So when McElroy talks with local authors on the subject of writing memoirs during The Write Place Writers Festival this weekend at the Averitt Center for the Arts, his personal example will still be fresh from the press.
A fee for writers’ workshops was advertised, but all elements of the festival have now been made free and open to the public through the support of a corporate sponsor, Statesboro Magazine editor Jenny Starling Foss said Wednesday. The 7:30 p.m. Friday main event in the Emma Kelly Theater, featuring award-winning mystery writer Nancy Pickard, McElroy and two other authors, will be followed by a 9 p.m. meet-the-authors reception in the lobby and main gallery. The workshops, featuring seven authors, begin at 9 a.m. Saturday in the Center for Performing Arts on West Main Street.
McElroy served as press aide, chief event scheduler and coordinator of local chairmen during the 1972 campaign that thrust Nunn ahead of 13 other Democratic primary candidates to win a runoff against an appointed incumbent and a general election against Georgia’s most popular statewide Republican candidate up to that time.
McElroy then worked for Nunn in Washington, D.C., for nearly 10 years as his Senate press secretary and five years as his chief of staff.
So “The Best President the Nation Never Had” is a memoir from McElroy’s professional life, but obviously also includes biographical material about Nunn.
“There are two narrative arcs going in the story, and they have to do with both of us, Sam Nunn and Roland going through a growing-up period in Georgia during the 50s and 60s, hot times in the South for race relations, and it follows a narrative arc of our experience through that period and really for about 35 or 40 years,” McElroy said.
A different party
The relevance of race relations is reflected in the Democratic coalition McElroy describes as ultimately coming together to support Nunn in the 1972 election.
After Sen. Richard B. Russell Jr. died in January 1971, then-Gov. Jimmy Carter appointed Sen. David Gambrell to fill the seat, giving him 18 months as an incumbent senator before the election.
Also entering the Democratic field were a former congressman, a former governor and the state treasurer. Nunn, meanwhile, was in his second two-year term as a state representative from Perry in Houston County. An early poll showed that only 2 percent of Georgians knew who he was, and Nunn joked that half of those were against him, McElroy said.
“We knew that he was imminently qualified to serve, but the people of Georgia didn’t know it,” McElroy said. “We thought that he might have a chance to win if we had just enough time to get the people of Georgia to discern in him the same qualities that his friends and family has seen in him for quite some time.”
Nunn’s popularity grew as he sought the backing of prominent figures in the broad-spectrum Democratic Party of the time. As McElroy relates in the book, by the general election, Nunn enjoyed the support not only of civil rights icons Julian Bond and Coretta Scott King but also of Georgia’s previously segregationist governor and then-Lt. Gov. Lester Maddox and Alabama’s segregationist Gov. George Wallace.
“People ask me, how is that even possible?” McElroy told the Statesboro Herald. “I’ve thought about it a lot, and I think it boils down to this, that everybody was looking for the same kind of candidate, someone who would listen to them, then go to Washington, read, study, learn and then vote his best judgment on their behalf.”
That, he asserts, “is the essence of what people should be looking for in any election.”
Nunn served 24 years in the U.S. Senate, 1972-1997, achieving greatest national prominence as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, 1987-1995. In that role he pushed for measures to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. He worked with Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, to create a program that funded the dismantling of large numbers of missiles in the countries of the former Soviet Union.
McElroy traces Nunn’s concern about nuclear proliferation back to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Fresh out of the Emory University’s law school, Nunn was serving as a staff attorney for the House Armed Services Committee, then chaired by his granduncle, Congressman Carl Vinson, when the crisis brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war in October 1962.
But what McElroy identifies as Nunn’s greatest accomplishment is something he never allowed to happen.
“One of the most important things to know is that in Sam Nunn’s 24 years in the Senate, there was never a scandal on his watch,” McElroy said. “There was never a scandal involving his personal staff or involving the Armed Services Committee staff. … We need more people like that in the Congress today.”
Nunn offered suggestions and additional information for the book after reading an early draft. In a brief foreword, Nunn states that McElroy “became an invaluable advisor and confidant and played an indispensable role in both my 1972 campaign and my Senate career.”
The title is adapted from a column by George Will, who counted Nunn “among the best presidents this nation never had.”
For McElroy, Statesboro is the first stop on a book tour in which he hopes to visit Athens, Macon, his original hometown of Quitman and eventually Atlanta. He now lives in Falls Church, Virginia with his wife Bettie. McElroy came to Nunn’s campaign with a degree in economics and a master’s in journalism from the University of Georgia and later served as chief of staff to Sen. Charles Robb, D-Virginia, and worked as a lobbyist and political consultant.
Besides untold numbers of political speeches and essays, McElroy is the author of three books for young children: “The Great Mizzariddle,” “Jibicle & Cokie, Friends at Last” and “The Squiggle and Me!” He has five grandchildren.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.