Richard Hyatt: Cheese toast and colorful politicians

March 1, 2014 

Roll wasn't taken. Votes weren't cast and Robert's did not rule. But there was a time when state government revolved around a crowded hotel suite where the powerful could enjoy a hot cup of coffee, a piece of cheese toast and learn the finer points of castrating a mule.

It was a carryover from an era when the state capitol had more spittoons than laptops and a politician's influence in Atlanta was measured by whether he could get the road in front of his house paved.

Marcus Collins was the proprietor. Every morning his clientele included members of the Georgia House, selected senators and an occasional governor. Coffee cups on the wall were monogramed with the names of every big shot at the state capitol.

A gruff tobacco farmer from Mitchell County, Collins roared through the capitol with a fat cigar and a pocketful of power. He served 20 years in the House and 13 as revenue commissioner. He was physically intimidating and his friendship with Speaker of the House Tom Murphy added to his clout.

Breakfast with Marcus was not for the thin of skin. Nothing was sacred. It was political and it was profane, a frat house for country boys who remembered the big war and cars with running boards.

Reporters were as scarce as a bagel and cream cheese. But for a few years I had a cup on that wall, one with "Free Loader" on the side. I was working on a book and Collins granted me temporary membership.

Those mornings crossed my mind when I heard Marcus Collins died on Valentine's Day at the age of 87. His passing reminds me that most of those old dinosaurs that came to breakfast have passed away, and so has Georgia as they knew it.

Things began to unravel in the pivotal year of 2002 when Murphy lost his gavel and Republican Sonny Perdue got elected governor. These days, Republicans have the good parking places and Democrats no longer have anyone to make the cheese toast.

I miss those colorful players more than their political doctrines. I miss a colorful generation that believed you could have fun while you made laws.

Beyond the zingers is the loss of useful information, such as an education I received about mule cuttin'. Grown men debated which side of the animal you should approach and what kind of tools should be used and argued about the difference in cuttin' a mule and cuttin' a bull. As the only newsman in the room I always packed my bulletproof vest. One morning somebody asked if reporters didn't make up a lot of stories they wrote.

"No," I said. "I promised my Daddy a long time ago that if I ever started making up things that I'd quit newspapering and run for office."

Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Contact him at hyatt31906@knology.net.

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