Abner Linwood Holton Jr. was born on September 21, 1923, in the small town of Big Stone Gap, in the far southwestern corner of Virginia. Holton’s father was the executive of a small coal-hauling railroad. After graduating from Washington and Lee University in Lexington in 1944, Holton entered an officer candidate program of the U.S. Navy and served in the submarine service in the final months of World War II (1939–1945). After the war, he attended Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, earning his degree in 1949.
With an eye toward politics, Holton opened a law practice in Roanoke, an industrial city west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, then the state’s third largest urban center. He soon was an attorney in good standing and an emerging leader on the city’s Republican Committee. On January 10, 1953, he married Virginia “Jinks” Rogers, the daughter of a leading Democratic figure in Roanoke. The couple had four children: Anne, Tayloe, Woody, and Dwight.
Building the Virginia Republican Party
Holton found a Republican Party that had been a small, powerless minority throughout the first half of the twentieth century. During the 1950s, the “Grand Old Party” (GOP) held no more than eight or nine of the 140 seats in the Virginia General Assembly. Democrats controlled nearly all the state and local offices. Political control, moreover, was even further concentrated in the hands of a conservative Democratic Party faction headed by U.S. senator Harry F. Byrd Sr., a group generally called the Byrd Organization, or the Byrd Machine by its opponents. Only in Holton’s native Southwest and in the Shenandoah Valley were Republicans competitive in races for the state legislature and local office. These “Mountain and Valley” Republicans were less conservative than their Democratic opponents on issues like the poll tax and the provision of state services such as education.
In 1952, Holton actively campaigned in the U.S. presidential election for Dwight D. Eisenhower. Based on traditional Republican support and with the Byrd Democrats remaining silent on the national ticket, Eisenhower’s Virginia victory marked the beginning of a string of Republican presidential wins in the state that would mark every subsequent quadrennial election in the twentieth century, except for that of 1964. The leader of Holton’s “Mountain and Valley” Republicans, state senator Theodore R. Dalton, though unsuccessful, did surprisingly well in the 1953 governor’s race. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, ruled racial segregation unconstitutional in public education, Dalton and his supporters backed a plan of gradual desegregation. In contrast, the Byrd Organization carried the state into a policy of Massive Resistance, vowing to close schools rather than break the color line. In 1955 and 1957, Holton ran unsuccessfully in Roanoke for the House of Delegates as a Dalton supporter and opponent of Massive Resistance.
Undeterred by the setbacks late in the 1950s, Holton worked to find and support candidates for the 1961 state elections. In 1964, he was recruited to run in the 1965 gubernatorial race. His Democratic opponent was the popular lieutenant governor, Mills E. Godwin Jr., a former advocate of Massive Resistance who had recently adopted a more progressive stance. A dissident group of Byrd Organization supporters formed the Virginia Conservative Party, nominating William J. Story Jr. for governor on an anticommunist, anti–civil rights platform. Holton was underfunded and pessimistic about his chances to prevail, but he hoped that a good showing would position him well to run in 1969. In the three-way race, Godwin won a plurality of 47 percent; Holton’s 38 percent constituted the good showing that was his goal.
In the 1969 governor’s race, Holton enjoyed two distinct advantages: his opposition was divided and demoralized and he had the support of the then-popular Republican U.S. president, Richard M. Nixon. While Holton gained his party’s nomination without difficulty, the Democrats had a long and divisive primary featuring a three-candidate field followed by a bitter run-off election. Moreover, the formerly static, predictable nature of Virginia’s electoral politics became much more dynamic after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and abolition of the poll tax in 1966. The number of votes cast in 1969 increased by more than 62 percent over the 1965 race. Holton managed to put together a winning coalition that combined his established Republican base with enough African American and white working-class voters to give him a 52 percent victory over his Democratic opponent, William C. Battle, the son of former governor John Stewart Battle.
Governor of Virginia
On taking office, Holton made clear that a page had turned in race relations—in his inaugural address, he declared unequivocally that the period of Massive Resistance was over in Virginia: “The era of defiance is behind us,” he said. “Let our goal in Virginia be an aristocracy of ability, regardless of race, color or creed.” He backed his words with the appointment of African Americans to significant positions in his administration. Holton named Bill Robertson, a black educator and elementary school principal from Roanoke, as a special assistant to the governor to serve as a liaison to the African American community and promote a program to enhance equal employment opportunities. Ernie Fears, the athletic director and basketball coach at Norfolk State College, became the state director of Selective Service, which until that point was an all-white organization that drafted blacks two-thirds more often than whites. Holton’s role in helping to equalize the racial makeup of the draft was important in the era of the Vietnam War (1961–1975). His administration was also successful in passing fair housing legislation.
In 1970, Holton demonstrated even bolder and more public leadership during the highly charged controversy over the use of busing to achieve racial desegregation in the Richmond Public Schools. He and his wife chose to enroll their four children in the majority black inner-city schools to which they were assigned under a federal court–mandated plan. A news photograph of the governor escorting his daughter Tayloe into the nearly all-black John F. Kennedy High School on August 31, 1970, circulated throughout the state and nation, appearing on the front page of the New York Times on September 1. Former Virginia governor Colgate Darden, who served from 1942 to 1946, later wrote Holton that the photograph “represent[ed] the most significant happening in this Commonwealth in my lifetime.”
As an outsider to the Byrd Organization establishment that had governed Virginia for decades, Holton brought a fresh and modern perspective on addressing the state’s needs. Entering office just as extensive revisions were enacted to the State Constitution of 1971 and demonstrating a willingness to work with a Democratic-dominated legislature, Holton had the legal tools and the political acumen to make important reforms. In the environmental area, he managed to clean up almost all of Virginia’s polluted rivers and streams. In a major step for the state’s commerce, he persuaded the divided jurisdictions in Hampton Roads to agree to a single, unified Ports Authority. With the creation of a gubernatorial cabinet, he began a full-scale reorganization of the executive branch of state government. Not all of Holton’s positions were liberal, however—he cracked down on campus dissent at the University of Virginia and supported the Vietnam War in national politics. Overall, Holton’s administration earned the approval of the state’s citizens—on leaving office in 1974, his favorability rating in public opinion polls was 77 percent.
As governor, Holton also became leader of the Virginia Republican Party at a moment of great fluidity in state politics. With the rapid increase in the voter rolls in the previous decade, he sought to shape the Virginia Republican Party along the lines of the coalition that had elected him, creating a majority center-right party with an emphasis on the center. The 1970 campaign for one of Virginia’s two U.S. Senate seats presented the first opportunity for his political strategy. Harry F. Byrd Jr., the incumbent, sought reelection but decided not to run as a Democrat. The Democrats nominated a liberal candidate, while the Republicans made overtures to Byrd to join their party. When Byrd refused the nomination, Holton insisted on running a Republican candidate. Running as an independent, Byrd won a majority while the Republican candidate came in an embarrassing third, with 15 percent. The next year, Holton again pushed for running a Republican candidate in the special election called following the death of the Democratic lieutenant governor, J. Sargeant Reynolds. The Democrats nominated a conservative, while a liberal Norfolk state senator, Henry E. Howell Jr., ran as an independent. Once again, the Republican came in third, and Howell became lieutenant governor.
By 1972, Holton faced a growing faction in his party that opposed the direction in which he wanted to take Virginia Republicans. Incorporating the disaffected elements of the old Byrd Organization into the party was the path to dominance, according to his opponents’ view. In addition, there was disgruntlement with Holton over not appointing enough Republicans to office and for not being confrontational enough with the Democratic General Assembly. The governor’s approach to party realignment, moreover, ran counter to Nixon’s “southern strategy” of building an expanded GOP base by persuading white southern Democrats to switch parties. With these developments among the Republicans, and with a shift toward liberalism among Virginia Democrats, the center became a difficult political position to occupy in 1972.
Led by Richard D. Obenshain, the faction resistant to Holton’s leadership took control of the state Republican Party. In 1973, Holton did persuade Mills Godwin, his former adversary, to run for governor on the Republican ticket, but Godwin’s acceptance also brought many of the Byrd Organization’s supporters, with their legacy of Massive Resistance, into the Republican fold. When Holton entered the 1978 race for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate, his last run for public office, he finished third behind Obenshain and John W. Warner.
Early in 1974, the Nixon administration appointed Holton to the post of assistant secretary of state for congressional relations. His Washington duties made him the liaison between Henry A. Kissinger, secretary of state, and the U.S. Congress during Nixon’s impeachment and resignation. In 1975, he entered the private practice of law and, later, represented the American Council of Life Insurance. In 1986, Holton was asked by the administration of U.S. president Ronald Reagan to chair the newly created Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority. He led the negotiations that transferred control of Washington National Airport and Dulles International Airport from the federal government to the Airports Authority with its representation from Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. From 1988 to 1994, he served as president of the Center for Innovative Technology, a state-sponsored effort to encourage high technology investment and development in the commonwealth. In 2006, his son-in-law, Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, was inaugurated as Virginia’s seventieth chief executive.
Linwood Holton occupies a significant place in Virginia’s modern political and social history. As the first Republican to hold the governor’s office in a century, he played a major role in restoring two-party competition in the commonwealth, replacing decades of one-party, one-faction domination. Taking office in a time inclined to reform, he brought a fresh and modern perspective to the tasks of governing, making changes in environmental law, in the conduct of the state’s maritime commerce, and in the organization of state government. In the area of race relations, he led boldly and by personal example, rejecting in every sense the state’s segregationist past.
As a party leader, Holton tried to create a political alignment in Virginia in keeping with his values and with what he perceived as the direction of the state’s politics. He failed in that effort—the energy in the Republican Party was on the right, not the center. While he may have misread the political dynamics among the Republicans, Holton’s grasp on the state’s overall direction was accurate: in the nine gubernatorial races succeeding his term, centrist Democrats won five and GOP conservatives four. Holton’s friend and colleague John Warner, moreover, won five terms in the U.S. Senate based upon a coalition much like what Holton was attempting to build in the 1970s.
Measured by any standard, Linwood Holton must be included in the front ranks of governors of the Commonwealth of Virginia in the twentieth century.