By Hardy Jackson
Over the last few weeks I’ve been doing a little “reflecting” myself. On politics.Alabama politics.
Kyle Whitmire’s Al.com piece on “Roy Moore, Robert Bentley, Mike Hubbard, and the Alabamafication of America” brought to mind an exchange from one of my favorite movies, “No Country for Old Men.”
Deputy: “It’s a mess, ain’t it Sheriff?” Sheriff Ed Tom Bell: “If it ain’t, it’ll do till the mess gets here.”
Well friends, and you are my friends, the mess ain’t new, just different.
Let’s harken back to the 1950s and to my favorite Alabama governor, James E. “Big Jim” Folsom, whose record of alleged extra-curricular activities makes the gropings of our current “Luv Gov” pale in comparison.
What sets “Big Jim” apart from the rest is his honesty. Rather than dodge reporters when they asked about his “affairs” Folsom went right to the point.
“Did you sleep with a woman in a Phenix City motel?” a reporter asked the governor. “It’s a lie,” Gov. Folsom replied. “Nobody slept.” Case closed.
As for legislative shenanigans, you can’t get much better at it than the men who did the people’s business back then.
The late Pete Mathews, who was a legislative leader during the Folsom administration, told the story of being contacted by the press to explain why he was taking so many ladies out on the state yacht. It seems that a reporter had checked the list of users and found Mr. Pete’s name time and time again.
Mathews knew what was happening. Legislators who wanted to take a lady friend on a cruise without their wives knowing would sign in as Pete Mathews, a lifelong bachelor who had no wife to explain to. But rather than expose his colleagues to ridicule or worse, Mathews professed ignorance and sent the reporter on his way. Then he went to the legislators who forged his name and secured promises of support in return for silence.
Thus greased, the wheels of government kept turning.
Mathews was hardly alone in knowing how to get things done in Montgomery. During the Folsom years, the most sought- after plums were the farm-to-market roads that Big Jim had promised his constituents. Legislators wanted those roads, but to get them they had to deal with house speaker Rankin Fite, finance director Fuller Kimbrell, and floor leader George Hawkins. The vote swapping and patronage promises during those sessions prompted one wag to compose this little rhyme: “Hawkins, Dawkins, Kimbrel and Fite If you want a road, you better vote right. And they did. And the roads got built.”
But of all the stories Mr. Pete told, the one that to me seemed to distill Alabama’s legislative culture to its essence concerned a bill that the speaker of the house was trying to get passed. Two freshmen legislators were blocking the speaker. Frustrated, he called the obstructionists into his office and put it to them plainly. “Boys,” he said, “I need your help.” There was silence and then one of the legislators spoke. “But Mr. Speaker, this just ain’t right.” “When I’m right,” the speaker replied. “I don’t need your help.” The point was made, and the bill was passed.
Now I will grant you that the alleged sins and shortcomings of Bentley, Hubbard and Moore are far from trivial, however they do reflect a history of official disregard for the rules and regulations that govern most folks in this state.
What I find different between then and now is that today, with rules tighter and lines-not-to-be-crossed more clearly drawn, violations are less likely to be excused as business-as-usual as they might have been in the middle of the last century. Recently a legislator complained that all the regulations and reporting he and his colleagues were subjected to was taking the fun out of representing the people. Well Mr. Pete, were he still around, would probably agree.
Looking back on his time in office, Mr. Pete said that what he looked forward to most every session was the renewal of the regulations under which beauticians operated beauty parlors..
Although most states apparently set up rules that carried over from year-to-year, Alabama legislators in their wisdom set them up on a yearly basis. This meant that every session legislative time and energy was spent on a matter that made little difference to anyone but beauticians and legislators.
However, doing it meant that every session beauticians, a profession whose practitioners were overwhelmingly women, would descend on the state house to “lobby” legislators.
And there was bachelor Pete Mathews, ready to be lobbied.
Oh, the good old days on Goat Hill.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.