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Steal Magnolias

<i> Goldstein writes about entertainment for Calendar</i>

After recovering from their initial horror, some political commmentators have dismissed the recent Louisiana face-off between former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke and self-professed womanizer Edwin W. Edwards as an aberration, some sort of loopy Cajun escapade.

Of course, if you’ve grown up on Southern politics, you’d just say it’s business as usual. The South’s politicians, like its novelists and its football coaches, have been blessed with an unerring instinct for drama, a keen ear for colorful rhetoric and an unabashed love for rough ‘n’ tumble competition. Even if the result was often a rancorous, dispiriting spectacle, you could at least be assured of this: No one ever said they were too bored to vote.

No book offers a better study of the enduring weirdness of Southern politics than Robert Sherrill’s enthralling “Gothic Politics in the Deep South.” To read it today, more than 20 years after it was first published, is to plunge into a bizarre, carnival-like world. Politics back then was more than just 30-second attack ads and staged photo opportunities. It was ribald theater, where boozy candidates passed out at campaign appearances, governors rode bicycles backwards on their mansion grounds and senators stood on their heads and wrestled their adversaries outside hearing rooms.

Sherrill’s “Gothic” tag is right on the mark. Dixie politics reverberated with implacable hatreds; it reeked of devilish race-baiting and crafty vote buying and stealing. It was so stirring--and barbaric--that you’d think its redneck rascals had walked right out of a Faulkner novel. As Georgia Gov. Herman Talmadge put it: “Politics is a rough, hard, mean, vicious life.”

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But it was exciting--and involving. And for one simple reason: Politics mattered. As a sweating, red-faced Alabama state senator orated one day: “Some folks talk about takin’ politics outta politics. I like to know how you goin’ to take politics outta somethin’ where politics is so deeply embedded.”

A savvy reporter with a masterly writer’s touch, Sherrill offers incisive, barbed portraits of the scoundrels who emerged as the stars of the so-called New Confederacy, racist demagogues like Georgia’s Talmadge and Lester Maddox, Louisiana’s Leander Perez, Mississippi’s Ross Barnett and James Eastland, Arkansas’ Orval Faubus and, of course, Alabama’s George Wallace.

They were a vile bunch, a pack of Snopesian hotheads full of enough mischief to make the inhabitants of today’s California state legislature look like cherubic schoolboys.

Unlike most journalistic accounts, which tend to lose their immediacy as the years pass, Sherrill’s portraits remain vivid and chilling, perhaps because it’s so easy to spot the roots of today’s cynical sound-bite campaigns and pandering rhetoric in the Gothic South’s brawling grudge matches.

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A power in Louisiana politics for nearly 40 years, Leander Perez was the prototypal Dixie autocrat, a cagey con man whose hardball campaign tactics would’ve made Lee Atwater blush. Louisiana was a state where voters were not only paid but paid according to color: whites $5-$10, blacks $2. Eager to make every dollar count, a local parish once voted for a Perez-endorsed senatorial candidate by the margin of 3,080 to 15, “a demonstration of fervent political consciousness,” Sherrill notes, “especially in light of the fact that there were only 2,500 registered voters.” In Perez’s heyday, his registrant rolls included such unlikely swampland residents as Charlie Chaplin, Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth and Zasu Pitts.

In Georgia, elections were equally up for grabs. When Herman Talmadge squeaked to victory in a 1950 gubernatorial war with M. E. Thompson, the all-night tabulations were dubbed “the longest count since the Dempsey-Tunney fight.”

In Alabama, George Wallace was considered the soul of propriety, despite once telling the New York Times’ Tom Wicker that “If I did what I’d like to do, I’d pick up something and smash one of these federal judges in the head and then burn the courthouse down. But I’m too genteel.” Perhaps Wallace looked demure compared to his predecessor, Big Jim Folsom, a genial 6-foot-8 boozer who once arrived so hung over during a campaign stop with noted Democratic Party poobah Averell Harriman that he stretched out on stage and promptly fell asleep. On hand to lead a panel discussion on atomic energy at a Southern governors’ conference, Folsom announced: “I don’t know anything about atom bums so I’ll just say hello and now I think I’ll retire to the bar.”

Legend has always had it that Folsom lost the governership to Wallace because he showed up sloppy drunk for a televised debate. But Sherrill speculates that his career slide began when folksy Dixie pols like Folsom were co-opted by sly, ambitious, race-baiting demagogues like Wallace, Orville Faubus and Lester Maddox.

Call it a primitive exercise in what analysts now term one-issue politics.

Today, entire campaigns revolve around candidates’ stands on such hot-button issues as abortion, crime and school prayer. In the Gothic South, the hot button was segregation. As Sherrill discovered, race was largely ignored in the South until the Civil Rights movement erupted in the 1950s. As pressure to integrate local schools mounted, Southern politicians found race a potent campaign tool. In 1958, after narrowly losing his first gubernatorial campaign to a brazenly racist opponent, Wallace vowed: “They out-niggered me that time, but they’ll never do it again.”

The parallels to today are striking. Just as anti-abortion activists now lie down in front of abortion clinics and force police to drag them away on camera, Wallace negotiated with Deputy Atty. Gen.Nicholas Katzenbach and devised a scenario crammed with as much provocative symbolism as any modern-day TV campaign ad. Sherrill describes it: “Wallace was given a podium and a microphone to make his speech; while television cameras purred, he would hold up his hand like a traffic cop as Katzenbach approached and they would jaw and wrangle awhile; later the National Guard general would step in; Wallace would salute him, there would be a compassionate exchange between these two southerners . . . and then Wallace would step aside, surrendering not to the federal government but to a southern soldier acting under duress.”

Could Bush campaign strategist Roger Ailes have staged it any more smoothly?

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Sometimes the scene played as very low comedy, as when Gov. Ross Barnett barred James Meredith’s entrance to Ole Miss. “Get the scene,” Sherrill recounts it. “Barnett in the doorway. Here comes Meredith, the only Negro within 200 yards, surrounded by a sea of white marshals. Barnett: ‘Which of you is James Meredith?’ ”

When it came to attack campaigning, no one was more adept than Florida Sen. George Smathers. A pal of John F. Kennedy’s, Smathers ousted liberal Sen. Claude Pepper by labeling his opponent “Red Pepper.” In a now notorious 1950 speech, Smathers warned rural Florida voters: “Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert? Not only that, but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law, and he has a sister who was once a thespian in wicked New York?”

Smathers was aided in this campaign by the media skills of Jacksonville publicist Dan Crisp, who shrewdly divined what Reagan adviser Mike Deaver discovered decades later: Voters are far more swayed by images than issues. Southerners vote on emotions and personalities, Crisp told Sherrill. “Issues would be a poor third.” (When Smathers was preparing his campaign, he showed off his blueprints to a young Congressional pal, Richard Nixon, who put them to use in his California Senate race against Helen Gahagan Douglas.)

Sherrill clearly relishes the sharp-tongued cadence of Southern political rhetoric, always keeping his ear cocked for cracker eloquence. In Georgia’s 1962 gubernatorial race, when moderate candidate Carl Sanders whipped arch-segregationist Marvin Griffin, defeating him in one black precinct by a count of 2,300 to 3, Griffin complained: “Somebody voted under a misapprehension.”

Sherrill has such pungent material to work with that you often forget you’re reading nonfiction. As a stylist, Sherrill rises to the occasion, adorning his deft portraits with the undulating rhythms of a Southern novelist. Describing the uproar that accompanied the Georgia state legislature’s vote to name Herman Talmadge governor in the wake of a hotly disputed election, Sherrill writes: “The shuffling, shouting, drinking, spitting crowd in the gallery, coupled with the shuffling, spitting mob of legislators on the floor--where the only whispers were those that dealt with rumors of wild and plentiful bribe offers . . . made the scene somewhat unique even among southern legislative sessions. But the outcome was never in doubt. (The legislators) had been softened up with whiskey, cigars, threats and promises the night before. . . . So Herman was elected, the people cheered and went home, their inferiors came in and swept out the corncobs and chickenbones and empty bottles, and Georgia had a governor.”

If Sherrill’s prose is compelling, so is his analysis. He captures the peculiar ambivalence many observers had toward these incorrigible crazies, whom Sherrill lambastes for their savagery and shady antics, yet prizes for their unruly, rough-hewn authenticity.

Of Lester Maddox he writes: “His personality is caught up in all of the moon phases of Dixie’s personality--the love-hate response to the black man, the patriot-subversive response to the federal government, the rebel-slave response to authority, the pitying-sadistic response to the underdog, the populist-planter response to economic needs.”

That was the Gothic politics of the Deep South indeed, idealism and cynicism, innocence and opportunism, all bundled up in one messy package. Candidates come in packages today, but they’re what critic Richard Schickel calls “intimate strangers"--neatly wrapped products of a political culture fueled by contrived, made-for-TV images.

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It’s no wonder that, weary of being manipulated by staged media events, we get such a guilty thrill from Sherrill’s raffish characters. Full of bluster and guile, they made politics a gaudy, tumultuous sport worth watching.


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