Retail politics: Tales from the front lines
Published 11:00 pm Thursday, March 22, 2012
I have a cadre of political friends around the state with whom I love to visit and talk politics. We regale stories of old campaigns and reminisce about tidbits of tales of Big Jim Folsom, George Wallace, Howell Heflin and other legendary icons and even embellish them a bit.
Recently, we have lamented how politics has changed. In the old days, Wallace and Folsom would go from town to town with a country band and make 15 speeches a day and shake as many as 1,000 hands daily and look folks squarely in the eye and ask them for their vote.
That, my friends, was referred to as old-fashioned retail politics. Today, you simply get on the phone or Internet and raise money and buy television ads. The day of one-on-one state campaigning is over.
One of the last campaigns that saw some vestige of retail politics was the 1978 governor’s race. Although Fob James won an upset victory with personal money and television ads that year. He did ride around the state campaigning in a yellow school bus.
Jere Beasley, a participant in that contest, tells a great story about that race that illustrates both the old style of campaigning as well as how political notoriety can be fleeting.
Beasley was elected lieutenant governor in 1970. A young Bill Baxley was elected attorney general that same year. Albert Brewer lost a very close race to Wallace also that same year. All three were primed to run for governor in 1978 as Wallace could not run. State Senator Sid McDonald and Fob James also joined the three B’s in that race. As was common at that time, there were political rallies and candidate forums all over the state. Most political pros knew that these forums got you very few votes. However, if you did not attend it gave you a black eye for not showing up.
The folks in rural Alabama were very sensitive about your not attending their county gathering. The reason you did not gain any new voters is that almost all of the people who attended were committed followers of the other candidates. Each gubernatorial candidate had their most loyal supporters there adorned in their campaign paraphernalia from head to toe with shirts, hats, buttons and bumper stickers. They all congregated early to hear their candidate. Wallace used to even have professional yellers follow him all over the state. One particular one looked like he belonged in a circus but he could cut a rebel yell like you have never heard.
Each candidate was given 30 minutes to speak, but very few confined themselves to that time limit once they got cranked up.
The event we are discussing was held up on Sand Mountain. All five candidates appeared. As was the protocol, each gubernatorial candidate drew straws to see who would go first. As luck would have it, Beasley drew the last straw. He would have to speak last, which meant he would have to sit on the stage dutifully and politely for three hours or more listening to his enemies extol their virtues and occasionally lambaste him or his fellow candidates, depending on who the speaker thought was his primary opponent. The speeches drug on and as was customary after each candidate spoke they would excuse themselves and head onto the next campaign event in an adjoining county or elsewhere in the state. Likewise, when the candidate left so did his supporters.
By the time Beasley got around to speaking last there were only a handful of people left in the audience. Beasley dutifully gave his best speech. As he droned on to an empty square he noticed that there was only one farmer left standing. The farmer stood right in front of Beasley with overalls on and took in Beasley’s speech with rapt attention. When Beasley finished he came down off the flat bed truck and shook the old farmer’s hand profusely, hugged the farmer, looked him square in the eye and said, “You don’t know how much I appreciate you. You have to be the best supporter I’ve got in Alabama.” The farmer looked at Beasley apologetically with a little sympathy and said to Beasley, “Boy I ain’t never heard of you. That flat bed truck y’all been shouting from is mine. I was just waiting for you to get off my truck so that we can both go home.”
See you next week.
Steve Flowers served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.