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SoVaNow.com / October 10, 2012People ask every so often why I don’t write about this topic or that — the answer is, this column runs long enough as it is, why make poor readers suffer further? — but some months ago someone did want to know why there hadn’t been any recent mentions of a familiar figure in this space, my first cousin not far enough removed, former Fifth District GOP chairman Tucker Watkins.
The honest answer is I have more than enough trouble keeping up with the top-of-the-page news without dwelling on matters outside the public eye. After the fallout from the disastrous Virgil Goode 2008 re-election campaign for Congress, which cousin Tucker managed, the direction of state and local politics shifted away from the man who probably did as much as anyone in this part of Virginia to build up the Republican grassroots. The man known in this space as Dear Cuz had always been a ripe target for an occasional jeremiad, whaling away at him as we did from the left, but suddenly there were other fish to fry.
Plus, he was not well. Not at all. Tucker Carrington Watkins IV (he and my father and my brother all share the same first name; he and my daughter and my sister all share the same middle name) died this week at the all-too-young age of 66 after a valiant battle with cancer. Surely he must have known the disease would get him in the end, but he refused to let misfortune quell his spirits. Today may be the only time you’ll ever read these words, but I celebrate one of Tucker’s last deeds — voting in the 2012 November elections, via absentee ballot, straight-up Republican: Romney, Allen, Hurt. “Three good men,” he wrote on his Facebook wall after casting his ballot Wednesday. Take that, libs.
One would have expected nothing less of Dear Cuz. About that moniker: Tucker’s father and my grandmother were brother and sister, thus suffusing this space with that most Gothic of Southern institutions, the heedlessly discomforting but tightly observed familial tie. Tucker was one generation above me, which indeed made him my first cousin once removed, hence the nickname. For the purposes of this column, the “not far enough removed” tagline spoke to the heart of our political differences, if not in terribly clever fashion. But readers liked the nickname, and it stuck.
This week at least, peace reigns over the battlefield as the tribalism of politics gives way to the real thing. I am happy to say family matters were never personally a source of contention with Tucker, who was viewed as something of a moderate within a family that — on both sides, Watkinses and McLaughlins — has produced its share of stubborn old fools. (Young ones, too.) Our disagreements were not unimportant, but ultimately one is forced to concede all that Tucker accomplished in the political realm, even if I sometimes wished like Hades he wasn’t as successful as he often was.
In death, Tucker has been hailed by his friends and compatriots — notably U.S. Senate candidate George Allen, for whom Tucker served as Southside field director when Allen previously served in the Senate — as a “Virginia gentleman.” The description is good for a chuckle, insofar as they say pretty much the same thing (minus the Southern inflection) about rugby players. You know the drill: One moment the guy is smashing you in the mouth, the next he’s drinking to your health. By that standard, I guess, there was no greater gentleman than cousin Tucker.
He played rough and he played to win, and the hostility he evinced towards his political foes seemed to track perfectly with the mood of the conservative GOP base in rural Virginia. Nevertheless, most political pros have the grace and good sense to drop the roughhousing from time to time, just enough to reveal a side that you’d never see come out during the hothouse of a campaign, and Tucker was no exception.
Two memories stand out: The first came as he was serving as a member of Virginia Tobacco Commission. For some reason, he thought to seek out my opinion about an adult ed-job training initiative that the commission was trying to get off the ground. (The details are fuzzy; it was a long time ago.) Tucker was riven by concern that the program wouldn’t quite take unless the Tobacco Commission found some way to bring it to the people, in true grassroots fashion. He was right about that — and thus he sought advice on how to reach out to the area’s black churches where, he hoped, word might spread. Of course, Tucker was talking to the wrong guy (I gave him some names of people he might want to contact) but his logic and his motives were entirely sound and praiseworthy. One thing about Dear Cuz: He never had any trouble talking to anybody.
The other encounter with Tucker left me with one of my fonder memories in politics. It happened about a decade ago at, of all places, at a GOP victory party. For some reason I received an invitation to head on over to an election night celebration where, you would’ve thought, I would have spent the rest of the night as the butt of the jokes (which I’m game for, as long as someone else is buying the beer). Funny thing, though: Even on this night, one in which the Republicans had taken every race in sight, there was a curdled mood in the room, as if winning wasn’t good enough for the high rollers who were milling about. Maybe they were upset about having to spend their money on campaigns or something. I dunno. Anyway, in the midst of all these sourpusses sat Tucker Watkins, lodged in a big chair, holding court and dishing out gossip, hilariously so, with a brightness and wit that lit up the room. We ended up chatting for hours, and I can’t remember a smarter and more knowing conversational partner. At those times when he wasn’t spouting the usual political tripe, Tucker’s intelligence could be infectious, and I’d guess that pulling back from the campaign’s rigors that night made it only more so.
Political junkies by and large don’t view the profession in quite the same way that average folks do — all sound and fury, signifying nothing — yet they are prone to cynicism, vulnerable to becoming amoral participants in a grand game. Because this is so, you end up with some awful pairings in the business — the best example might be the odious schtick that is the union of campaign consultants James Carville and Mary Matalin. Tucker was different in that he truly believed in the righteousness of his cause and the importance of what he was doing, even if the self-conception could be as malleable as the politicians he promoted. He wasn’t really a pro, but he was a fighter, and ultimately that’s a title much more worthy of respect. The truest thing you can say about Tucker Watkins is that he fought for his beliefs until he could fight no more.
Rest in peace, cousin Tucker.