By Hardy Jackson
Dirty tricks have long been a staple of Alabama politics.
Most of the time they are pretty harmless, really. They just bubble up in the excitement of the campaign, not out of meanness but just from the good-natured devilishness that so often comes to the surface when Southerners find themselves with time on their hands and the inspiration to use it.
And often as not, the tricks backfire on the trickster.
Let me tell you about one that did.
The incident occurred where I grew up, a dry county surrounded by dry counties.
The closest beer or whiskey was 60 miles away, or so I was told. I would not know about such thing, you know, first hand.
However, there were those in my county, my father among them, who felt this was at best an inconvenience and at worst a violation of a fundamental right. So he and some drinking buddies – WWII vets, a few courthouse hangers-on, and such – threw their support behind a petition drive to get a liquor vote on the ballot.
Well, no sooner were their intentions known than a local minister organized “The Citizens for Moral Responsibility” and set out to defeat my Daddy and his friends. The “wets” paid little attention to the preacher until the minister announced that he intended to make copies of the petitions and publish the names of those who signed in the local newspaper.
‘Course Daddy and the gang didn’t care who knew they took a drink, but there were those of weaker fiber who did not want to be exposed for what they were – imbibers. So they rushed to get their signature off the list before the preacher made good his threat. More bemused than angry at this turn of events, Daddy and friends retired to his ‘Poutin’ House (an institution I will explain at a later date), where they sipped and sorrowed. Facing defeat, they did what you would expect members of the Greatest Generation to do. They decided to play a joke on Lamar.
Lamar lived in the next town up the road. He had helped Daddy defeat the Germans and like Daddy he had come home to raise a family. And as was the case with so many of his experience and inclination, Lamar would take a drink. So Daddy and friends composed a letter in which a preacher with a name similar to the local pastor asked Lamar to help him in his crusade against drinking. The imaginary minister said he was looking for “a young man of good family and excellent background … whose life was ruined by excessive indulgence in whiskey, gin, and rum, not to mention beer (and women of the worst kind).” He, the pretend preacher, figured Lamar would fit the bill.
All that was required was of Lamar was to sit on the stage “drooling at the mouth and staring at the audience through bloodshot eyes.” As he did the preacher could point to him as an “example of what drink could do.”
The letter arrived at a time when Lamar was engaged in the very thing for which the made-up preacher wanted his services. He read the letter, failed to catch the joke, got on the telephone, called the real minister, and put what we like to call a “royal cussing” on him.
The preacher, convinced that he was the victim a pro-liquor plot to discredit him and his movement, took out a full-page the local newspaper in which he denounced the “slanderous and insulting letter” that he believed was being mailed “to some people whose names are on the liquor petition.”
By now, a sheep-faced Lamar realized he was the victim of a practical joke, so he put the same cussing on his friends, who were laying low in hopes the whole thing would blow over.
A short time later the wet/dry referendum was held, the county voted to stay dry.
Over the years, I have collected examples of dirty tricks in Alabama campaigns. I have heard it told that some candidates hired actors to call into “call-in-shows” and sing their praises. In other cases people were reportedly hired to go to a candidate’s rally where they challenge the speaker and generally disrupting things.
Now I don’t know if these rumors are true, but one or both could be. Alabama politics has always been rough and tumble. That is part of its charm. However, recalling what happened to my father and his friends, I am moved to remind folks who are inspired to get down and dirty that.
You reap what you sow.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.