Former Florida Gov. Claude Kirk, "a Tree-Shakin' Son of a Bitch," Dies at 85

Former Florida Gov. Claude Kirk has died at the age of 85. Taking office in 1967, Kirk was Florida's first Republican governor since Reconstruction and the first Republican governor elected in a Southern state in modern times. Kirk is remembered for his outsize personality and flair for controversy. A strong proponent of the death penalty, Kirk met with death row inmates during his campaign, shook their hands, and told them: "If I'm elected, I may have to sign your death warrants."

Kirk, a former Democrat, switched to the Republican Party in 1960 but failed to defeat incumbent Democratic Sen. Spessard Holland in 1964. By 1966, he turned his attention to the gubernatorial race. Incumbent Democratic Gov. Haydon Burns, a conservative, was defeated by then-Miami Mayor Robert King High, a more liberal Dem, in the primary. Kirk rode the rift in the Democratic Party to a victory.

A divorcé, Kirk showed up at his inauguration with a mystery woman. He introduced her only as "Madame X." He then married the woman, Erika Mattfeld, a little more than a month into his term. A Florida governor wouldn't marry while in office again until Charlie Crist tied the knot with Carole Rome.

"I'm a tree-shakin' son of a bitch," he proudly told Time in 1967, and never shied away from his flamboyant, cowboy-inspired style or controversial issues. Though no execution took place during his term, he was a major proponent of reinstating the death penalty during a national moratorium (as a side note, Gov. Rick Scott will sign his first execution order today). He also opposed mandatory busing that would desegregate schools.

He also courted controversy after the famous photo of Florida resident Mary Ann Vecchio, then only 14, kneeling over the body of a victim of the Kent State massacre, was published. He called her a dissident communist.

The Time article captures his flamboyance:

In the eleven months since "GoGo" Kirk, 41, took office, hardly a day has passed without Page One pictures and stories about him in Florida's press. Whether wooing and marrying German-born Beauty Erika Mattfeld, 33, running his 37-foot sloop aground in mirror-calm seas off Miami, or facing down Rap Brown at a Black Power rally in Jacksonville, the fleshily handsome Governor has always been ready with a colorful quote or bizarre gesture to enhance his swinging image. His travels out of state in a private Lear jet have averaged 10,000 miles a month. The Governor claims that his absenteeism fits into "the Kirk plan for instant controversy." He explains: "The garden of controversy must be continually cultivated; otherwise, nobody knows you are alive."

Egostatism. There never has been any doubt that Kirk is among the quick. But is he for real? Says a former business associate: "He is a complete political huckster, a phony and a very dangerous man." To Bill Baggs, editor of the Miami News, "Kirk appears to be the only man in Western civilization who has more answers than there are questions." The Miami Herald refers to him as "Claudius Maximus."

Kirk had a reputation as a self-promoter and racked up huge taxpayer-funded bills for photography, publicity, and brochures containing his speeches. At one point he was even on the shortlist of possible Richard Nixon running mates. But his self-promotion didn't take him far. In his bid for re-election, he was defeated by Democrat Reubin Askew. Kirk ran for office several times after the defeat but never won another election.

Sure, Florida has had quite a few controversial Republican governors with complicated relationships with the media since, but they just don't make 'em like Kirk anymore.

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