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Wallace: Political genius and legislative master

Wallace: Political genius and legislative master

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As the Regular Legislative Session evolves, I recall years past when George Wallace was governor. Wallace was definitely a political genius and a master of the legislative process. You might say that he was so successful because he had a lot of experience with being governor and dealing with the legislature. That is true, but it went deeper than that. He worked at it.

During my 16 years in the legislature, Wallace was in a league by himself. My first term was 1982 and Wallace was serving his last term as governor. He treated legislators like kings. It did not matter who was in his office, if you were a member of the legislature and you needed to see the governor about something for your district, he would drop everything and usher you into his office and do anything he could to address your concern or district needs.

I had known Gov. Wallace since I was a young page. One day I went down unannounced without an appointment and his secretary told him I was outside. The next thing I knew the door opened and Wallace told me to come in. He had about six Japanese diplomats in his office, who were prospective industrial prospects. He asked if I wanted to ask them to leave so we could meet privately. I said, “No, Governor, that’s not necessary, I’ll be glad to come back.” He said, “Okay,” but insisted on my staying while they visited. I sat down and he began telling the poor Japanese fellows that I had been a page when I was a little boy and he was in his first term as governor and that now I was his representative since I represented his hometown of Clayton, and he told them who he was kin to in my county and who I was kin to in south Alabama. I’m sure they were amused. Who couldn’t help but vote with a guy who gave a lowly member of the House that kind of attention and deference?

At other times he would call my home at supper time and talk for about 30 minutes about a certain bill he was interested in. He would continue to talk long after I had already told him I would vote with him on his issue. He would tell me to put my two daughters on the phone; they were little at the time, but in his uncanny ability to remember names, he would call them by name and say, “Steve, let me talk to Ginny and let me say hello to little Allyson.” He was amazing. He loved to talk on the phone.

He would also constantly have legislators out to the Governor’s Mansion for supper. We would eat supper with the governor more than with the lobbyists. He knew your district, your family and relatives and what committee you served on, and which program and roads you were interested in. The only thing he did not know was what time you went to bed, because he might call you at 6 at suppertime or he might call you at midnight when you were asleep.

He knew how to manipulate the legislature better than anyone. One day he had a group of legislators in his office trying to get them to vote with him. His secretary interrupted him to tell him Vice President Mondale was on the phone. The legislators sat quietly while George talked to the vice president for a few minutes and took care of whatever business they had.

Mondale hung up. Wallace pretended to listen a while longer and said, “Look, Mr. Vice President, I’d like to talk to you some more, but I’ve got a group of representatives and senators in here and I really don’t have time.” All the legislators started whispering, “No, Governor, don’t do that. Don’t hang up on the Vice President. We can wait.” But George just kept on talking, “I really appreciate your asking for my help, Mr. Vice President,” he said, “but I’m hanging up now. I’ve got enough problems here in the state of Alabama. I just can’t solve the world’s problems for you. I’ve got to talk to these legislators about a problem we’ve got in the legislature.” He then hung up the phone.

By that time, those legislators were so impressed at how they were more important than the vice president of the United States that George could have gotten anything he wanted from them, and he did.

See you next week.

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.

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