William Winter, Billy Mounger, Bill Waller, Mike Mills—those are names we recognize. They have made political history over the course of their careers and most recently have published remembrances of those times. Now comes Bill Miles with "Scribe Among Pharisees" (Mid-South Fine Printers, 2008, $25).
Outside of legislators, reporters and lobbyists who inhabit the State Capitol, few if anyone else in the Jackson metro would recognize his name. Bill Miles, a native of Itawamba County, cast his first vote in 1959 (for Carroll Gartin over Ross Barnett, to his everlasting credit). His subsequent career as a reporter, editor, newspaper owner, public relations and campaign consultant, and legislator carried him all the way to the 2008 speaker of the House campaign for Billy McCoy. Known as a formidable political operative in Northeast Mississippi during the last 50 years, Miles' most notable client was former Congressman Jamie Whitten. But there have been many, many others, and we read about them in his self-published "Scribe Among Pharisees."
The events and people Miles covers in his memoir include the 1962 James Meredith debacle at Ole Miss, local Citizens Council meetings, prohibition, Cliff Finch, tort reform, highway and public service commission elections throughout North Mississippi, Medgar Evers, the rise of the Republican Party, as well as the location of a welcome center in Itawamba County and the regulation of hog farms. There are campaign plans drafted on napkins at local restaurants and deft maneuvering on behalf of a client to avoid questions from local reporters.
And, of course, there are funny and poignant stories. Here's just one: Zach Stewart, a long time North Mississippi highway commissioner, participated in a ribbon-cutting opening of a new four-lane highway in Lee County. As Miles remembers it, there was a lot of TV coverage with plenty of elected officials and dignitaries in attendance. Stewart was feeling pretty good about himself and all the publicity, but then he went to eat lunch at a near-by restaurant. He got his buffet plate and sat down in a corner of the crowded room. Not a soul spoke to him. No one recognized him. Stewart was feeling more than a little down when he walked up to pay the lady operating the cash register, and he saw a glimmer in her eye. Somebody had finally recognized him, he thought. The nice lady smiled and said, "Has anybody ever told you that you look like Zach Stewart?" Down he came further and could only muster a "Yes, ma'am," to which she remarked, "I bet it makes you mad, don't it?"
Perhaps most interesting in Miles' book are his observations about how the Legislature has changed with the growth of the Republican Party and its collaboration with conservative religious organizations. Miles writes: "The new Republican leadership usually benefited from this tightly knit, well orchestrated grouping. When an issue remotely appeared to have religious significance surfaced, this ‘new McCarthyism' showed itself. A targeted legislator would be besieged by emails, letters, and phone calls. ... This happened on such ridiculous issues as same sex marriage, gay adoptions, and allowing casinos on land. I do not recall any of these ‘evangelicals' ever calling me to support public education, develop programs for children's health care or any number of other issues my Bible quotes Christ as advocating for his disciples."
In connection with his comments about the "new McCarthyism," Miles relates a story about a bill that would prohibit gay couples from adopting kids. When the chairman of the House committee made it clear that he would not be considering the legislation, a "well organized group of Pharisees," according to Miles, "launched an all-out call your legislator, write your editor campaign." The bill was House Bill 49. "Capitol phone lines were jammed," Miles writes, "E-mails clogged our computers. One of my colleagues, who was oblivious to pressure of any kind, got a call from a constituent. ‘Support HB 49,' the caller said. My colleague, without hesitation said, ‘I'll sure do it, and we'll pave it just as soon as we get the money.'"
"Scribe Among Pharisees" is packed with similar stories and vignettes, and Miles relates his childhood memories of a time in rural Mississippi that just don't exist anymore. Nevertheless, he ends the book with this: "Ah, me. How we've progressed. My kids don't study by pine knot fires. They can't understand why I pat my foot when Johnny Cash just happens to include the ‘Wreck of the Ole 97' on his program. Ah yes. We've come a long way. Even with the memories, if I could choose yesterday, I'd still take tomorrow."
Signed copies of "Scribe Among Pharisees" are available at Lemuria. Call 601-366-7619.