Addresses of Lester Garfield Maddox, 1967-1971
In retrospect, the Sixties seem a decade in the life of this country during which some cellar door was left ajar. Suddenly loose and rampant in the house were all manner of trolls and intruders, manic apparitions, a dark ransacking beserkness from the chaos of the old night outside. With the assassinations of King and the Kennedys, the advents of Wallace and Agnew, the mounting mad incantations of White House rationales for Vietnam, and such sorceries as Nixon’s self-wrought exhumation and reanimation, those ten years passed like a malarial dream in which the unthinkable became the familiar, the surreal became the commonplace.
It may seem, then, a reckless proposition, but there was perhaps no more astral occurrence during that long phantasmagorical decade than the ascension of Lester Garfield Maddox—erstwhile fried chicken peddler and pick-handle Dixie patriot—to the governorship of Georgia. He was, in a way, the consummate caricature of those awry times. The nation’s only notice of him up to then had been a single brief glimpse, in the summer of 1964, of a flushed, bespectacled figure with a scanty-haired onion bulb head lunging gawkily about the parking lot to his Atlanta restaurant, a small black pistol clenched at his waist, shrilly shooing back into their car three black students who had presented themselves as customers. The next time everybody saw him, not quite two and a half years later, he was being inaugurated governor of Georgia.
That was in 1966. Elected in 1970 to the lieutenant governorship, he presides now over the parliamentary machinations of the state senate, invested with the gravity of a true and formidable political heft in the state, posing with an almost Presbyterian soberness and decorum on that chamber’s rostrum behind sprays of tiger lilies and gladioli vaguely suggestive of the floral gorgeousness embellishing the pulpits of Billy Graham crusades, and serenely biding his time until, in all likelihood, he is elected governor again in 1974. In spite of all his consequence, the passage of six years has done nothing to diminish the initial incredulousness among a lot of people in Georgia.
Nevertheless, as has become an official tax-subsidized courtesy for governors at the conclusions of their terms, the Georgia Department of Archives and History has produced a solemn bound volume of Lester’s assorted public ruminations while he was occupying that office. This could not be considered exactly one of the more imposing events of the publishing year. The truth is, at no time during his tenure did Lester really amount to anything more, in the course of the state or the country, than a grotesque entertainment, and this compendium of his various contemplations, by any ideological schema yet intelligible to man, simply refuses to scan. It is a transcript of four years of exuberant static which, however, understates the complexity of that static, since Lester has acknowledged he almost always improvised on these texts. What’s more, Lester does not translate well into print: his pronouncements are lacking in the singular sound of his voice—that high tinny hectic whanging, urgent and helter-skelter, losing with no more trace than a lisp whole syllables, leaking tight little whistles of air now and then—which is like the very sound of slightly zany irascibility.
Still, however remote this collection of texts may be from the true nature of the man, it does provide occasion for reflections on Lester—not an altogether bootless exercise, as it turns out: one discovers that, while he has endured as one of the more garish curiosities in recent American political lore, his appearance was attended by larger implications and portents, even though he has remained cheerfully innocent of them, and his governorship may have meant more than most, including Lester himself, suspect.
Until almost the very instant of his election, alien journalists visiting Georgia were baffled that Lester could be taken with any seriousness at all in the state—even after his celebrated little pick-handle Armageddon with the three black customers at his restaurant. There were, actually, several skirmishes at his place, The Pickrick: Lester on one occasion cawing at two black students seeking entrance, “You no-good dirty devils! You dirty Communists!” and another time, merely standing in his doorway with a forefinger thoughtfully rummaging in one nostril as he watched his two stout sisters, on a street corner twenty yardsaway, demand of another delegation of young blacks, “Have you boys been born into God’s family? Have you been regenerated?” But aside from that, about all he had for political currency were his weekly Atlanta newspaper ads, composed in a festive conglomeration of type faces resembling a carnival poster, in which he alternated menus with some of the more ambitious segregationist billings gate of that day, propounding every noticeable political figure in the state and nation to be a “coward…no-good dirty bum…rascal.”
At the same time, he was a more or less compulsive campaigner for office, even managing to get into a couple of runoffs, one for mayor and the other for lieutenant governor. During this time, Lester once mused in mild bewilderment to a reporter, “You know, I been sending President Johnson telegrams ever since the Civil Rights bill was signed—the last one I sent cost me thirty dollars. But you know what? He’s never answered a single one of those telegrams. Nossir!” Whenever the state legislature was in session, he could be found in the capital’s corridors—a solitary urgent figure—eagerly handing out patriotism tracts and small tin lapel-flags. The young doorkeepers to the legislative chambers were notified they would be fired for only two reasons: “Layin’ down on your job, or if you ever let Lester Maddox get past you and loose in here.” Also, he could usually be depended on to show up at all the rowdier racial confrontations around town. There was something about him evocative of the distraught gentleman in the Philadelphia Inquirer cartoon ads.
Raised the son of a steelworker in one of Atlanta’s smoky downtown neighborhoods, married at nineteen, variously employed in a steelyard and then in a plant near Atlanta which produced the bomber that dropped the first atomic bomb, entrepreneuring chicken farming for a while (“That didn’t work out, ‘cause they get involved in this cannibalism, you know”), desultorily diverting himself with baseball (“The other boys used to make fun of me ‘cause of me bein’ near-sighted. They used to call me ‘Cocky’ ‘cause of my eyes”), Lester himself reflected rather accurately in one speech that “if anyone ever had a perfect background for failure, I did.” Nevertheless, he possessed that peculiar fortitude, that ferocious fidelity to purpose, that is sometimes one of the integrities of absolute hopelessness. He had the serene fierce dauntlessness of those indefatigable Isaiahs in rumpled gabardine seen on downtown street corners. He was impervious to embarrassment, invincibly chipper. There was a special sort of heroism about him; he was something like a cracker Don Quixote.
But the truth is, Georgia—along with its neighboring neo-Confederate states—has long been familiar with the arabesque and fantastical in its political dispositions. In its deeper southward drifts, American politics has always tended to take on the gaudier hues and flourishes of transactions in those palmy Latin republics just a little farther to the south. There was much about Louisiana in Huey Long’s day, for instance, that seemed closer to the customary style in Tegucigalpa or Santo Domingo than to the regulations drawn up in Philadelphia. In Georgia, there have periodically occurred events like the time young Herman Talmadge, after his crimson-suspendered daddy Gene expired before he could assume the governorship again, simply occupied the capitol building with his partisans one drizzling winter twilight in what was by almost any calculation a full-blown putsch. Perhaps the most eloquent testimonial to the magnitude of Lester’s political implausibility is that, even in this theater of politics, he was dismissed as a whimsical eccentric.
Lester himself liked to recount, after he had delivered himself into the governor’s office, that “I never doubted for a second I would win. All I had to do was beat the state Democratic party, every major labor leader, the state Republican party, all 159 courthouses, about 400 city halls, all the politicians of rank—every one of them—every major newspaper, the television and radio stations, the railroads, every department store, all the major banks, all the major industries, the utility companies. So that’s what I did. I beat everybody!” With a campaign staff which consisted of himself, his wife, his daughter, and one of his sisters, he mailed out 50,000 copies of his platform and then simply vanished into the Georgia interior, driving a grimy white 1964 Pontiac station wagon with a four-foot ladder tied to the top. Before long, one began to notice along remote roadsides a spattering of small cardboard signs, tacked to telephone poles and pine trees, announcing in simple black print, THIS IS MADDOX COUNTRY—MADDOX WITHOUT A RUNOFF.
Later Maddox explained what he had brought to pass, way out there in the state’s outback, by informing audiences, “God was my campaign manager.” If so, He additionally intervened through some intricate sleight of hand with the state’s political processes. Maddox’s actual transmogrification into governor was accomplished—somehow fittingly—through a prolonged dreamlike slapstick sequence of political pratfalls. He never did win a popular majority in the state. Instead, with a diffusion of candidates in the Democratic primary, Lester emerged, through the capricious lottery of plurality selection, in a runoff election with a former governor, Ellis Arnall, an aging but still gusty liberal from the New Deal days. Now having to choose,in those slightly delirious times, between Maddox and this affable Roose-veltian relic, primary voters opted for Lester—thus nudging him to a headier exaltation than he had ever enjoyed in his life. But it didn’t really seem to matter, because the Republican nominee was Congressman Howard “Bo” Callaway, a doctrinaire conservative and segregationist of the more abstract and elusive variety, whose popularity in the state was awesome and virulent.
The millionaire scion of a Georgia textile dynasty which for decades had been unobtrusively presiding over a sizable area in western Georgia of pines and broom sage and buzzards, a tall trim former West Point cadet with a bright choirboy’s face and tight little mouth and chastely barbered hair combed straight back in the lacquered style of the Twenties, Callaway could not seem to believe his good luck when he found he would be facing Lester in the general election. Not the most complicated of men himself, Callaway began campaigning ebulliently and breezily more or less on the issue of school spirit—“I love my Georgia,” he kept assuring everybody.
One state legislator proposed at the time, “Hell, neither one of ‘em would know how to pour piss out of a boot. Callaway might, if the directions were printed on the heel and he had to turn it upside down to read them.” At any rate, the thought seems never to have occurred to Callaway that the people could really be serious about Lester. As it turned out, the majority of them weren’t. But there began to gather, among those liberals and moderates in the state appalled by the prospect of either Callaway or Maddox, a write-in movement for that venerable New Deal governor who had been discarded in the Democratic primary runoff. As Callaway now regarded the spectral possibility this posed—that neither he nor Maddox would wind up with a majority, which meant the decision would be pitched into the Georgia House, mostly inhabited by gristled glandular Democrats hardly disposed to elevate a Republican to anything, whether he was Callaway or not—there began to grow in his eyes a blank stricken suspicion of disaster.