Southerners like their politicians
Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 8, 2004
Commentary by Steve Flowers
George Wallace is without a question the most renowned political figure inAlabama history. Wallace may be number one in Southern political lore although he would arguably have competition from Louisiana’s Huey Long, the Talmadges of Georgia, Tillman from South Carolina, and Bilbo from Mississippi. It seems that we Southerners have enjoyed our political characters more than the rest of the country. I guess because we had less entertainment. All of the above mentioned characters came along before the advent of television and we had no major league baseball team to pull for as the Braves only came to Atlanta in recent years. All of our leading politicians were born actors and performers. Their campaign appearances were theatrical. They were born orators and sometimes part clown. They were also progressives who railed against big powerful moneyed special interests, usually located “up North,” who were cheating and stealing from the poor masses of Southerners. They were all demagogues, but we expected it from them.
George Wallace fit the mold to a T. He grew up under the tutelage of Big Jim Folsom, mimicking Big Jim’s style with country bands and promising farm-to-market roads, better schools, pensions for the poor, and lots of help for the small farmer. T.V. came into play in the early 1960’s and Wallace learned to deal with it effectively but he always loved the stump and shouting from the back of
a large flatbed truck after the crowd had been wound up by a good country band.
Wallace was born to be a politician. I have often said that when I am an old man sitting around the retirement home, I will tell anyone who will listen that during my lifetime God sat down and made the greatest southern politician and greatest football coach ever. There will never be born at the same time two greater men in their field than George Wallace and Paul “Bear” Bryant. They were exceptionally talented men who coupled their unique God given talent with a love of their calling so that they worked tirelessly at their work because it was play to them. They will never be matched in history and they lived and flourished in the same era. No one will succeed at college football to the degree that Bear Bryant did, and no one will ever succeed atAlabama politics to the degree that George Wallace did. Their records will never be surpassed.
Wallace started paging in the Legislature as a young boy. He worked his way through theUniversity of Alabama and Law School. He returned to his native Barbour County after serving in World War II. He was elected to the Legislature in 1946 at 27 years old, and became the state’s youngest legislator. He served six years, 1946-1953, but had no real financial resources. So out of necessity he ran for and was elected Circuit Judge in Barbour County. He and his wife, Lurleen, with a growing family, made Clayton their home. He served one term as Circuit Judge, 1953-1958. He gave up his safe and secure judgeship to run for Governor in 1958. He lost that race to John Patterson, which would be the only defeat he would ever have to endure as an Alabama statewide politician.
The right of passage and practice at that time was that you run a get acquainted race. Then four years later you run and win since the governor could not succeed himself. Wallace did just that, he spent four years running for Governor full-time without a job or money. His mentor and best friend, Billy Watson, helped keep his family up financially. He devoted himself to the task completely for four years, 1958-1962. He was not to be denied. He won the Governor’s race in 1962. He understood that race was the issue in 1962. He captured that issue and never relinquished it. He lost to Patterson four year earlier because Patterson “out-segged” him. He vowed he would never be “out-segged” again.
We will continue on Wallace next week. See you then.
Steve Flowers writes a weekly syndicated column onAlabama politics. He served 16 years in the Alabama House of Representatives. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.