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George Busbee

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Busbee, workhorse governor, dies at 76

By JIM THARPE

Former Gov. George Busbee, the first Georgia chief executive to serve two consecutive four-year terms, died Friday after suffering an apparent heart attack at the Savannah airport.

Busbee, 76, who had seemed in good health, collapsed between 3 and 4 p.m. en route to a vacation, son Jeff Busbee said.

A Democrat who was first elected in 1974 and served from 1975 until 1983, Busbee viewed the governor's role modestly, not in the expansive fashion favored by such successors as Zell Miller and Roy Barnes.

Busbee followed Jimmy Carter and often seemed overshadowed by his predecessor's increasing role on the national and international stage.

"He was the man who went a long way to define the governor as the chief international sales agent for the state," said Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political scientist. "Before him, we did not think of ourselves as being involved in international commerce. Now we expect it."

Originally from South Georgia, Busbee lived in Duluth in recent years.

"He was an excellent governor," Barnes said Friday. "He had an intricate knowledge of the state, particularly the budget."

Before his eight years as governor, Busbee served 18 years in the state Legislature and was chairman of the House Appropriations Committee under Tom Murphy, the longtime powerful speaker. He had also served as a floor leader under Gov. Carl Sanders in the 1960s.

"He was a fine Georgian and a fine man. Not too many of those come along in politics," Sanders said in an interview Friday night. "His word was his bond, and you could count on him to do what he said he'd do."

'Low-key leadership'

Gov. Sonny Perdue issued an executive order Friday night that all flags at state buildings be lowered to half-staff through sunset on the day of the funeral. Perdue spoke with the Busbee family late Friday. Funeral arrangements were not complete.

"Mary and I are greatly saddened by the death of former Governor George Busbee," Perdue said in a written statement. "He was admired for his low-key leadership, all the while exhibiting a sense of humor and wit that was unmatched. Governor Busbee was a friend with whom I shared a professional and personal relationship. He was a fellow aviator and fisherman. He will be sorely missed."

State Sen. George Hooks (D-Americus), first elected to the Legislature in 1981, remembered Busbee as "a great governor" who cut his teeth in the state House of Representatives.

"He came into that office with a very solid pro-business record," Hooks said. "He was a good image for the state of Georgia --- very articulate, very thoughtful. We stayed off the front page of The New York Times, unlike a lot of other Southern states at that time. We ran well and prospered for eight years.

Bert Lance, who ran against Busbee in 1974, called him "a great campaigner."

"I always told him I was responsible for him running for governor," said Lance, who as DOT commissioner built a bridge in Albany that earned political points for Busbee. "I always told him I deserved credit for him winning."

'Ran store pretty good'

Retired Rep. Bill Lee came to the Legislature in 1957, the same year as Busbee.

"He was my dear buddy," said Lee, longtime chairman of the House Rules Committee. "I've laughed with him. I cried with him. He ran the store pretty good. I know he believed in the state and tried to do what was right."

Busbee campaigned with the slogan "A workhorse, not a showhorse," and those who knew him best said he lived up to the sound bite. He steered the state through two recessions and kept his promise not to raise taxes. He battled prison crowding, helped contain Medicaid costs and started the state's first kindergarten program. He also helped enact a new constitution, which allowed a governor to serve consecutive terms.

But more than anything, perhaps, Busbee will be remembered for his budget wizardry and business acumen. Perdue consulted Busbee last fall before leaving on his first business recruiting trip, to Asia.

It was Busbee who pushed Georgia into seeking international investment and the jobs that came with it --- and discovered the Japanese affinity for "Gone With the Wind" and golf at Augusta National.

"George Busbee is the father of international trade in Georgia," said George Berry, who served as state trade commissioner under Busbee's successor, Gov. Joe Frank Harris.

Busbee became governor just as Europeans and the Japanese began looking to invest.

"There are thousands of people in Georgia who have jobs today because of Busbee," Berry said.

In 1975, Busbee and the chairman of Nissan Motors created the Japan-Southeastern United States Association, a multistate trade group that meets yearly. This year's meeting will be held in Atlanta --- and Busbee was to be guest of honor.

Busbee gave staffers at the state trade department full access to the Capitol and Governor's Mansion to entertain prospects.

"They had my calendar and calendar to the mansion," Busbee recalled in an interview Wednesday. "They didn't have to call me to schedule an event or to invite overnight guests at the Governor's Mansion."

Trade missions overseas were not common in the 1970s, and later Busbee would laugh at his first missteps. Last year, at the dedication of the Busbee Center at Gwinnett Technical College, the former governor told how he tried to address a Japanese governor in his own language --- and ended up calling the dignitary a "flat-breasted woman."

Busbee had close ties to the family of Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor and was chairman of Taylor's exploratory bid for governor in 2006. Busbee was the family attorney for the Taylors, who live in Albany, where the future governor began his legal and political career.

"Governor Busbee and my father, Fred Taylor, learned to fly together," Taylor said. "He's my political mentor and my political hero."

As House majority leader, Busbee occasionally brought the future lieutenant governor to Atlanta to serve as a page. "He showed me where the peanuts and chocolate milk machine was," Taylor said.

Upon Busbee's inauguration, Fred Taylor was named his chief of staff.

Busbee also had an adventurous side. He once crash-landed a state helicopter on Sapelo Island while he was trying to learn to fly it. He was much prouder of having once been allowed to take the controls of a B-747 and landing the massive aircraft.

Faced down recession

The son of a mule trader, Busbee was born in Dooly County on Aug. 7, 1927, and attended the Georgia Military College and Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College before joining the Navy.

After military service, he graduated from the University of Georgia, where he met and married Elizabeth Talbot of Ruston, La., and earned a law degree in 1952.

He practiced law in Albany and won a seat in the state House in the late 1950s. Eventually he became House majority leader, a position he held for eight years.

Busbee won the Democratic nomination for governor in 1974, Jimmy Carter's final full year in office, over such better-known rivals as Lt. Gov. Lester Maddox and Lance, later President Carter's budget chief.

Phyllis Fraley, a public affairs consultant in Atlanta, was deputy press secretary in Busbee's first gubernatorial campaign in 1974. Fraley said she came to view Busbee as the person to unite the state and help it recover national stature it had lost under Maddox, a segregationist.

Busbee "was able to masterfully repair so much of the damage his predecessor's divisive politics had created," Fraley said Friday. "He brought a lot of dignity to the state after its image had been affec

Published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on July 17, 2004
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