Figures of renown across history have held the title governor of Virginia — like Walter Raleigh, Patrick Henry or Thomas Jefferson in earlier centuries. And Virginia’s run of governors in modern times rivals any other state in regard to accomplishment and prominence. For Virginia, a sense of history and of flux through the years is always prevalent. In recent weeks, for so many across the commonwealth, the loss of Gov. Gerald L. Baliles feels like the closing of an historic era in our time.
Baliles was always modest about himself, endearingly so, and about his place in events or formative role in shaping them. With a grin of late, in the midst of anyone spouting grandiloquence about him and the ranks of history, he would be prone to offer an instructive reminder about Gov. Claude Swanson — a cabinet secretary to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, U.S. senator, governor and congressman — but today mostly a footnote except to devotees of Virginia lore.
In Baliles’ final state of the commonwealth address in 1990, he noted that “the work of freedom is seldom as dramatic as the winning of freedom.” In his time, Virginia was not the scene of wars and world focus, as in the past. But in his time, Virginia indeed changed dramatically and took its modern form, achieving a momentum that is so often the envy of the nation.
Baliles was central to this change — a modern-day founder for the commonwealth. His two decades in public service proved to be fulcrum years for Virginia.
In 1971, Virginia made a remarkable pivot. It tore up its Jim Crow constitution of 1902 and adopted the state’s modern constitution. By contrast, the great majority of other Southern states still remain beholden even now to Jim Crow constitutions, antiquated in structure and fundamental spirit.
Over the first two decades of Virginia’s new constitutional order, Baliles was the constant force and steward — serving in a striking continuous progression as, first, an acclaimed lawyer in the Virginia attorney general’s office (where he began after law school in 1967), then a member of the General Assembly, then attorney general and then governor.
Baliles was the last governor of Virginia to carry every congressional district in his election, and the winning ticket that year remains the most diverse in Virginia history, with running mates Doug Wilder as lieutenant governor and Mary Sue Terry as attorney general. Throughout his public career he seized on the possibilities in the new order for equity and energetic administration.
As is widely celebrated, Baliles innovated in transportation policy — less remarked upon is that he did so mindful of the fact that Virginia’s failure to innovate in transportation in a prior time, in the decades before the Civil War, had prompted mass outmigration and economic stagnation. To paraphrase Dumas Malone about Jefferson, he knew so much more about the past and thought so much more about the future.
With eyes on the far future, he was a champion for education, for the environment and for trade. In less-heralded fashion, he was a champion of the judiciary as a stabilizing force for the commonwealth (other states have not been so fortunate). His cabinet was the first with more women than men. And progress for his native Southside was always in his mind, even as he gave “the crescent” from Northern Virginia through Richmond to Virginia Beach such dynamic new possibilities.
Baliles was not even 50 years old when his term as governor concluded in 1990, with the commonwealth’s one term limit. Virginia was fundamentally transformed during the two decades of his public service. It moved from the shadow of Massive Resistance to the election of America’s first African American governor with Wilder, Baliles’ successor. It boomed forward from moribund business conditions to a dynamo state economy that increased more than sixfold in current dollars between the pivot year of 1971 and 1990, a rate of growth the state has not matched since.
Baliles would be customarily quick to point to the many hands other than his own that helped drive this transformation of the commonwealth. And he most certainly continued to help drive it in his subsequent years at Hunton & Williams and then at the University of Virginia, just as much as he played a formative role in national affairs. Future generations may even thank him most for his foresight in aviation and aeronautics policy, or his attention to the riddle of the war powers of the president and Congress, or for preserving vital insight and documentation through attention to the secret White House tapes and presidential oral history projects, or likewise for his work at Hunton & Williams and through the Virginia Bar Association to emphasize the law as a noble calling.
Baliles’ vision, and his famous and prodigious habit of relentless hard work in the well-fought fight, changed Virginia.
The example of Gov. Gerald L. Baliles should stand through time as an inspiration to strive for more, for the good of all, in a selfless spirit of good will and good cheer — with ample wry perspective and good humor, won through the lessons of history and graces of life. Godspeed.