BY GREG MARKLEY
Some jaded and cynical voters may call presidential candidates “clowns.” Many modern-day men and women vying for the highest office do have blemishes or weaknesses. Most of us voters do, too. But “clownish?” No, but I did find one genuine clown who ran for president in 1940, under the Surprise Party ticket.
None other than Gracie Allen, comedian George Burns’ wife; lost the election but the Burns and Allen show kept its ratings up. The couple took a cross-country whistle-stop tour, just like real candidates did in the 1940s. In a speech, Allen said: “I don’t know much about the Lend-Lease bill, but if we owe it we should pay it.”
Maryon Pittman Allen, the second woman appointed to serve as a U.S. senator from Alabama, was too outspoken for Alabama voters. (Maryon Allen was not related to Gracie.) She won the Democratic nomination in the primary. Within five months, she upended her career after a frank talk with a The Washington Post writer shortly after her appointment to the Senate in 1978. She took on Alabama political giants Gov. George Wallace and his second wife Cornelia.
“The worst thing a person can do is be a bore,” Allen said. “That’s a cardinal sin. And they don’t know they’re bores. How can they not know? The Wallaces should shut up. It would be the Christian thing to do. Everybody in Alabama is getting tired of seeing those old dirty sheets flapping around on Perry Street.”
In the Senate, Allen was assigned to the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee and became the first woman ever on the Judiciary Committee. She was appointed by Gov. George Wallace after her husband Jim Allen died at age 65. He was a Democrat and midway into his second Senate term; a heart attack took him.
Like Jim Allen, his wife was very conservative even by Alabama Democratic standards of the time. After her time in the Senate ended in 1978, Maryon Pittman Allen wrote for several years at The Washington Post and returned to Alabama where she died in 2018 at age 92.
In the 118th Congress, there are 25 women in the Senate; 15 Democrats, nine Republicans, and an Independent (Kyrsten Sinema I-AZ). In the U.S. House, 125 women are serving; 92 Democrats, 33 Republicans, and four Delegates, two Democrats and two Republicans.
Alabama gained a lot of attention in the 1952 election when U.S. Senator John Sparkman was nominated as VP running mate for Adlai Stevenson, Governor of Illinois. He was chosen over Mike Monroney, a U.S. Senator from Oklahoma. Sparkman was chosen because he was a conservative Southerner to balance with the liberal Midwesterner, Adlai Stevenson. Eisenhower/Nixon won with 34 million votes to 27 million votes for Stevenson/Sparkman.
George Wallace sought the presidency four times, in 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976. He lost all four times, but his progress was impeded after an assassination attempt. In 1968, he was polling at 20-25 percent with a chance the outcome might be decided in the House of Representatives. But that was not necessary.
“The next day (after the shooting) Wallace won 39 percent of the vote in Maryland and 51 percent of the vote in Michigan,” wrote Glenn Eskew in The Encyclopedia of Alabama. “Conservative Democrats registered their opposition to busing and concerns over crime. Released from the hospital to attend the Democratic National Convention in July 1972, a wheelchair-bound Wallace received an ovation when he addressed the delegates.”
For Wallace, his political career was a case of “winning by losing.” He never won at the national level, but his ideology and focus on the working man inspired many people, even presidential hopefuls. His populist themes and anti-Washington ideas can be found in the speeches of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and others.
U.S. Sen. Katie Britt is the first woman elected to the Senate in Alabama history. Politico has speculated that she might run for the presidency sometime; she told an interviewer “I’m a long way from that. I still get ID’d when I try and go vote every day on behalf of the people of Alabama. I think incrementally, we’re a long way from that.” Britt denied that she even talked with family members that she might consider at some point running for president.
It’s a good bet that as an Oval Office hopeful in several years, the organized and charismatic Britt could be a viable candidate. She would definitely not be a “clown” like Gracie Allen. Gracie laughed all the way to the bank. Britt would have a higher goal than comedy—being the first Alabamian to be called Madam President.
Greg Markley moved to Lee County in 1996. He has a master’s in education from AUM and a masters in history from Auburn University. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to the Observer since 2011. He writes on politics, education and books. firstname.lastname@example.org.