The voice is the giveaway.
It’s been 35 years since Buster Carico retired as chief political reporter for The Roanoke Times. Time has slowed his step and diminished his hearing. But his reedy twang and excited cadence endure, lending a sparkle to his legendary storytelling — even by telephone from his home in Troutville, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, north of Roanoke.
“I could’ve had a second career,” said Carico.
Maybe even a third.
On July 21, Melville Soyars Carico turns 100. For 45 of those years he was a newsman. Carico is remembered for his coverage of Virginia’s wrenching transformation from a one-party, rural-dominated state preoccupied with segregation to a politically competitive suburban dynamo. He is among the last of a cadre of state Capitol reporters to witness Virginia’s evolution from Old to New.
“I’ve lived the best 100 years in the history of this country,” said Carico, known for his signature red baseball hat, which he started wearing after losing his fedora. “But I’m afraid the future won’t be anything like the last 100 years.”
Carico, who lives with his son, Flip, uses a walker to get around and reads the newspaper with a magnifying glass. Though his days on the beat are long past, Carico keeps a close eye on politics, lamenting what he sees. He faults too much money and too little face-to-face contact between the politicians and the people.
Carico has no love for either Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican Donald Trump, and wouldn’t be surprised if the winner is elected by plurality, with Libertarian Gary Johnson bleeding votes from both presumed major-party presidential nominees.
“In the old days, you got to follow the candidates around,” said Carico. “Today, you follow the polls and the campaign contributions. The Supreme Court decision opening up the campaigns to these super-PACs was one of the worst ever” — a reference to the 2010 ruling that removed the cap on outside spending on federal elections.
Practiced in Carico’s day, political journalism in Virginia was an intimate pursuit. Reporters and politicians traveled together during elections, stayed at the same hotels during General Assembly sessions and prowled the same restaurants and taverns. Reporters and politicians were alike in another respect: Nearly all of them were male. And all of them were white.
Jeff Gregson, a veteran Republican political operative and lobbyist who does a spot-on imitation of Carico, said Carico regaled him with tales of the traditional weekend-before-the-election swing through Southwest Virginia at the close of the 1961 gubernatorial race. That mountainous corner of the state, unlike the rest of Virginia, was known for rock ’em, sock ’em, Democrat-vs.-Republican campaigns. Now it’s reflexively GOP.
“Buster talked about going from Abingdon in the same car as Albertis Harrison and Harry Byrd, while the sheriff of Tazewell County was driving and they were drinking whiskey out of plastic cups,” said Gregson, referring, respectively, to the Democratic nominee for governor and the leader of the conservative machine that controlled Virginia for a half-century. “There’s no way that could happen today.”
On Carico’s watch, Virginia hunkered down before it hurtled forward.
He arrived in Richmond for his first legislative session in 1958 with a fellow Roanoker, J. Lindsay Almond Jr., who had just been elected governor, vowing to preserve segregated public schools despite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling four years earlier that separate classrooms for blacks and whites were unconstitutional.
Through a policy of massive resistance, Virginia closed public schools rather than desegregate. Though Virginia’s defiance largely ended in spring 1959, blunted by state and federal court edict, schools in one rural Southside county, Prince Edward, did not reopen until 1964 under the guidance of a presidential commission.
“The segregationists in the Deep South were hoping that Virginia’s massive resistance would hold,” said Carico. “Everybody was watching Virginia ... but taking segregation off the back of the South was the greatest happening of the 20th century.”
From that trauma emerged political leaders whom Carico describes as Virginia’s best.
Among them: Mills Godwin, a former segregationist elected governor as a progressive in 1965 with the support of an African-American vote newly enfranchised by federal civil rights laws. Godwin was a Democrat at the time, but would win a second term as governor in 1973 as a Republican.
Said Carico: “Look at all that happened in his first term as a Democrat — a new state constitution, a new criminal code. Virginia got rid of pay-as-you-go. The community college system was started. We got a sales tax.”
After Godwin, he said, is Linwood Holton. Elected in 1969, Holton was Virginia’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction. Holton urged racial reconciliation, enrolling his children in desegregated public schools and naming blacks to his personal staff. Holton’s victory is considered the tipping point to Virginia’s two-party politics.
Asked whom he considers the state’s worst politicians, Carico demurs. “I think all them brought a little something to the benefit of the state.”
Carico recalled the election in 1967 of the first African-American legislator in modern times, Ferguson Reid, a surgeon who represented Richmond and Henrico County in the House of Delegates. In 1969, Doug Wilder broke the racial barrier in the Virginia Senate, and 20 years later he became the nation’s first elective black governor.
Along the way, Carico would travel to Ireland with Godwin during his second term, dance with the actress Elizabeth Taylor because her husband, U.S. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., broke away to chat with a political pal, and cover what he once said was his biggest story: Taylor choking on a chicken bone in Big Stone Gap in far Southwest Virginia during Warner’s 1978 campaign.
Carico also got a private word with his World War II buddy Ronald Reagan when the California governor turned U.S. president appeared in Virginia. Reagan was Carico’s commanding officer in a U.S. Army Air Corps film unit.
Carico was born in Roanoke, the son of a school teacher and lawyer who was the mayor of Fries — pronounced “freeze” — a tiny town in Grayson County. Carico’s mother gave him his nickname as a newborn, though he also goes by Mel. After his parents’ divorce, Carico lived in Stuart, in Patrick County, before returning to Roanoke with his mother.
Carico and his wife, Ann, were married for 58 years. She died about 20 years ago. They met when he was starting out at The Roanoke Times, where he was a newspaper carrier and switchboard operator before shifting to the newsroom.
Politics isn’t the only game of chance that intrigues Carico. Charlie Compton, a retired state police captain who met Carico as a member of Godwin’s security detail in the mid-1960s, said that Carico enjoys going to the horse and dog races in West Virginia but avoids the slot machines because they don’t require any skill.
And this Sunday, at Carico’s parish in Fincastle, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, there will be a 100th birthday party for the guy who’s still handicapping political races.