Richard Hyatt: Dick Pettys still gets the last word

October 9, 2012 

Right now I can’t remember what I was looking for, but when I reached into an old briefcase a few weeks ago I pulled out a wad of rubber surgical gloves [--] the kind that make grown men cringe.

They made me think of Dick Pettys.

Monday night, when I heard Dick Pettys had died, I thought about those rubber gloves. They're part of an old story that is part of state capitol lore and one I often told when I was promoting my 1997 biography of Zell Miller.

Long ago, when Democrats roamed the halls of the Gold Dome, Miller was the governor of Georgia. The old Marine had a peculiar relationship with the press corps -- a group led by Pettys, the chief of The Associated Press Capitol Bureau.

Reporters constantly got in Miller's way, which didn't set well with a control freak who always figured he could do their jobs better than they could.

Miller didn't even appreciate longtime reporter Bill Shipp's concern about his health. Writing in his monthly political newsletter, Shipp reported that the governor was secretly suffering from prostate trouble, a scoop that compelled others to write a follow-up.

Pettys served news outlets all over the state so he had to call the governor's office. He got the perfunctory comment from Miller's press secretary and put a story on the wire that denied the governor was ill.

That could have been the end of it, but Miller, as usual, wanted the last word. Weeks later, as his driver wheeled into his reserved parking place outside the capitol, Miller spied Pettys crossing the street.

"Hear you've been asking about my health?" Miller said.

While they talked, the governor fumbled around in his coat pocket and then asked Pettys to hold out his hand. In that outstretched hand, Miller put one of those thin rubber gloves.

"In the future, you can either ask my doctor or you can test me for yourself," he suggested.

Miller was one of six governors Pettys wrote about in his long career covering Georgia politics. From 1970 to 2005, he gathered information the old-fashioned way -- establishing relationships that opened doors others didn't even know were closed.

Pettys served as the eyes and ears for people who never read a state budget or had a conversation with the officials they elected. Former Gov. Lester Maddox once called him "a long-haired devil," and others bristled at articles he filed but no one questioned his ethics or his morals. He respected the people he wrote about and they respected him.

His articles didn't include footnotes or a bibliography, but Dick Pettys recorded the daily history of Georgia on deadline in crisp 250-word takes. He was accurate and fair -- and as far as anyone knows he never had to don those rubber gloves.

-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. He can be reached at hyatt31906@knology.net.

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