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Al Cross Reflects on the Political Legacy of George Atkins, Deceased at 82

George L. Atkins Jr., who passed away on April 14 at the age of 82, had a relatively short political career spanning about a decade. Nonetheless, he left an indelible mark on modern Kentucky politics, embodying historical themes that stretch back over a century. These themes include the corrupting influence of corporate power, the public’s clamor for reform, the sway of the media, and the compromises inherent in public service.

Atkins’ journey into politics commenced during his time at the University of Kentucky, where he not only excelled in basketball under Adolph Rupp but also began his civic engagement in his hometown of Hopkinsville. His affable yet candid demeanor resonated with the public, propelling him to victory as the state auditor in 1975. Even before assuming office, he was already being touted as a potential Democratic contender for the gubernatorial race in 1979.

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor at the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and the director emeritus of its Institute for Rural Journalism. His views are personal and do not represent those of the university. Cross served as the longest-tenured political writer for the Louisville Courier Journal (1989-2004) and held the national presidency of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2001-02. He was inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2010.

Atkins revolutionized the role of state auditor by uncovering illicit dealings within the administration of Democratic Governor Julian Carroll, a crusade that formed the cornerstone of his political campaign. Amidst a field that included other reform-oriented candidates like former Louisville Mayor Harvey Sloane, there were discussions about potential alliances to consolidate support. However, unforeseen developments, such as the eleventh-hour entry of businessman John Y. Brown Jr. into the race, derailed these plans.

In a fragmented electoral landscape, the significance of newspaper endorsements, whether perceived or real, became magnified. One notable instance was the editorial maneuvering at The Courier-Journal and The Louisville Times, where the endorsement initially intended for Atkins was redirected to Sloane due to the influence of the Bingham family. This shift in support, coupled with lackluster polling numbers, prompted Atkins to withdraw from the race and throw his weight behind Brown, ultimately leading to Brown’s narrow victory over Sloane.

Subsequently, Atkins assumed key roles in Brown’s administration but found himself under fire from anti-Brown factions. His public image underwent a transformation from a reformist hero to a perceived lackey of the governor, a perception that persisted even during his bid for lieutenant governor in 1983. Despite his enduring popularity, a strategic misstep during the primary campaign, where a remark overheard by a reporter undermined a rival candidate, dealt a blow to his political aspirations.

As Atkins gradually faded from the political limelight, he transitioned to a corporate role at Humana, where his involvement in a controversial legislative deal tarnished his reputation. The ensuing legal repercussions, including a guilty plea for mail fraud, underscored the pitfalls of unchecked ambition and ethical lapses in the pursuit of professional success. Despite his downfall, Atkins’ cautionary tale serves as a poignant reminder of the perils of losing sight of one’s moral compass in the relentless pursuit of career advancement.

In his later years as a health-care consultant in Washington, Atkins receded into obscurity in Kentucky. Nevertheless, his cautionary words echo with relevance, urging vigilance against moral compromise in the pursuit of professional goals. His trajectory, marked by lofty ideals and eventual downfall, stands as a sobering reminder of the fragility of success and the enduring importance of ethical conduct in public life.

May his legacy serve as a poignant lesson for generations to come.