All along, as supplement to his campaign of congeniality and hygienic Jaycee-style wholesomeness, Callaway exhibited a singular, McNamaran faith in the Delphic powers of computers, and his headquarters, according to one visitor, “looked like the War Room of the Strategic Air Command.” But to the end, Callaway seemed as incapable as his computers were of entertaining such aberrations as the spoiler psychology.
The general election, in fact, ended inconclusively, with nobody clearing a majority, though Callaway did pull a plurality, well outdistancing Maddox. But on the very ominous eve of the House’s dispensation, Callaway was still effusing to a gathering of Jaycees in an Atlanta hotel, with Lester himself also on hand, “Gee, it’s so good to see all these familiar faces, I want to tell you. Yawl have worked so hard during this campaign—gee, you know, I still remember yawl riding those motor-scooters around in the rain down there at Jeckyll Island, why goodness—all of you out there who’ve worked with us so long and so faithfully, just raise your hands a minute so I can see….” He then became, momentarily, squintingly earnest: “You know, a lot of people through this campaign have told me, ‘Oh, Bo, you can win this election if you’ll just compromise a little bit.’ Well, I told them, well, maybe so. But I’m not going to change these principles of mine just in order to solicit votes. Because I love my Georgia….”
There was a plaintive urgency in his voice as he repeated this news one more time, as if he felt he had somehow not managed to convince everyone—if only he could get it across to them everything would be different, everyone would see and the whole thing would turn out properly after all. He reminded them that the punishment of an apathetic public “is to live under the government of bad men.” At this allusion, the polite and genial grin Lester had been maintaining abruptly vanished, and he cast a long sober innocent look up toward the ceiling, his hands folded thoughtfully under his chin. When Callaway finished, there was a spirited booming of cheers and applause, but Lester, in the midst of it, simply grinned at nearby reporters, lifting his eyebrows briefly, slyly, and began tossing peanuts from his cupped hand into his mouth.
At the capitol the next morning, there was a certain giddiness in the air, as if everyone had suddenly found himself caught in a colossal prank too outrageous and ingenious and enthralling to interrupt. During the preliminary formality of retabulating the popular vote, ballots from the far folk precincts of the state were reported for Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, the University of Georgia’s football coach, and “miscellaneous local individuals.” Finally, in the early evening, the legislators anointed Lester Maddox Governor of Georgia.
Lester had been downstairs throughout the day, listening to the proceedings on the radio. As soon as the business was concluded, he and his attendants, along with a praetorian guard of state troopers, surged upstairs toward the governor’s office to be sworn in before any unanticipated intervention. It was a startling stampede—as if some whooping yodeling many-limbed monster suddenly were charging amuck through the corridors of the capitol—and as it brawled on up the marble staircase to the capitol’s main floor, one had a sense again of being in the middle of some Latin American midnight coup: there was about it the definite, if gratuitous, air of attack, rush, strike.
Absorbed in a furious urgency of its own, this stampede was completely at odds with the absence of suspense in the proceedings in the House chamber which had birthed it and released it. It was as if Lester’s own sense of theater demanded that all his solitary years of struggle be, finished in this melodramatic style, even if it were a storm in a vacuum. The troopers—in their broad-brimmed Scoutmaster hats evocative of the Italian military police in A Farewell to Arms, called “airplanes”—carried Lester along in the melee, buoying him up with their hands under his shoulders so that the tips of his shoes just occasionally grazed the floor. In their midst, Lester himself had a vague and befuddled glaze behind his spectacles, a half-smile faltering on his face.
After Maddox’s quirk-victory in the primary election, that old thorny redoubtable Elijah of the Southern conscience, Ralph McGill, the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, tollingly invoked passages from Ecclesiastes in a column about “a dog returning to his vomit.” Some time later, he confessed to a friend, “I am an old man, and I’m not sure of anything any more.” But in many other quarters, including liberal ones, the advent of Lester occasioned a kind of perverse glee—something had happened outside the computations, the credulity, the comprehension, even the imagination of the press and the political assessors and brokers. A primitive, unaccountable event—something more alive than all analyses—had come to pass, astonishing the most meticulous anticipations. It seemed, for a while, an exhilarating reminder that the common custodians and bookies of reality own, at best, only an illusionary approximation of reality; that life is, after all, larger than all arithmetic. But this mad elation was soon followed by more sober reflections: “My God,” noted one Atlanta editor, “we still got us a little ole state here that’s got to get through the next four years somehow.”
Lester’s initial announcements were not enormously heartening on this point. Beyond simply reassuring everybody that “I am tremendously proud and happy to be Georgia’s governor,” he confided right after his inauguration, “Christopher Columbus found a world and had no chart except his faith in the skies. It is with that same…faith…that I stand before you as your new chief executive.” In view of his past, the prospect of Lester’s conducting the whole state through the next four years according to his own private communions with the sky profoundly traumatized, among others, the state’s establishment, political and economic. The night he was sworn in, he proceeded to the House chamber, delivered a brief address, and then, not unlike a drowning man, began grasping for the hands of everyone within sight—including newsmen—while he implored, “I’m gonna need yawl to hep me now. I’ll be good to you, and you boys be good to me, henh? Hep me be a good guvnuh now.”
Watching him even Georgia legislator Julian Bond was moved to speculate, “You got the feeling he’s suddenly realized he’s an overwhelmed man, and he does want help bad, because he’s already begun to wonder if what he’s been thinking was right all these years is really right.” Almost immediately, that array of proprietorial interests which he had so stunningly outflanked in his campaign—the banks, the state’s political consortium, all the patriarchs of the conventional respectability—undertook, with a certain muted desperation, to amiably assimilate him, with the hope of thereby neutralizing him. They cheerfully volunteered advisers, consultants, aides, speechwriters. Poignantly, Lester seemed not only receptive but euphoric over the offers.
Indeed, from his first speeches, one gets the sense he was rather awash in mellow surfs of gratitude, dolphining through hitherto unknown Gulf-tides of indiscriminate magnanimity. In his inauguration speech, he delivered himself of such improbable phrases as “respecting the authority of the federal government…no place in Georgia during the next four years for those who advocate extremism…do not want to see a single school closed…room enough in this great state for every ideal and every shade of opinion…for the right of dissent as well as the right to conform…Georgia belongs to every citizen.”
As his voice went on in thin electronic shimmies over the throng of his supporters their applause became broken, disconcerted, short-winded, and one had a fleeting suspicion that maybe Lester’s mike was disconnected, that he was moving his mouth but, through some sly act of rewiring, the voice was actually that of an impersonator crouching somewhere below the platform—an infamous trick, a far more fell conspiracy than the extravagant theatrics of assassination alarms advertised in the capitol the night of his swearing-in. It was a kind of assassination for which Lester’s retainers had not been prepared.
This impression lingered on through the following weeks. Someone seemed to have dialed him out of focus. His appointments to the state party executive committee were agreeably conciliatory and eclectic, because, he explained, “From the very beginning, the Democratic Party has drawn its members from all segments of society and has derived its strength from the diversity of its membership…. Its greatest victories have come when its members have exercised tolerance for their differing views on specific questions….” All these placable sounds prompted Wallace, over in Alabama, to snort finally, “Hell, what’s wrong with Lester, he ain’t got no character.”
What Lester lacked was not so much character as any ideological coherence. He operated from a political sophistication of about the subtlety of a cross-stitched sampler homily, and about as free of tangible details and applications. (He once proposed, with a canny wink, “You know, Goldwater would have won that thing in 1964 if it hadn’t been for Fact magazine. You know—that Fact magazine, that comes out with all those articles? They beat him when they came out with that article on Goldwater, and had that diagram of all that stuff comin’ out of his head.”) The state’s proprietors soon determined that there was really no need to neutralize Lester: his own essential, irredeemable ineptitude precluded his impinging seriously on the state’s affairs in any way whatsoever, either benignly or disastrously. He was as incapable of effecting anybody else’s notions as he was his own.
His state-of-the-state messages were given to such pronouncements as “One strong, fearless, dedicated, and God-fearing patriotic legislature can do the job and return America to its rightful place as the greatest, freest, and cleanest nation on earth.” But when it came to the particulars of executing such propositions, Lester allowed that “there just isn’t much major legislation left to pass these days.” At times, when the fancy struck, he did dispatch proposals to the legislature, but by the close of his first year in office, he had already lost more bills than his predecessor had in four years.
As a result, the magnetic field of authority around the governor’s office began to fade conspicuously. Satellite agencies in the state’s government started scattering off into their own separate orbits—most notably, the legislature. Georgia survived Maddox largely because of his inability to effectuate any of his notions, but the discovery was made in the process that the state could run itself without any governor’s office at all: a realization that immeasurably diminished that position. To his successor, moderate Jimmy Carter, Maddox left an office as sacked of its engines as Atlanta after Sherman’s passage.
About midway in his term, Lester declared to a congregation at Adair Park Baptist Church, “For many years, it was my ambition to be a preacher….” And, indeed, it seemed that he considered he had been assigned not so much to legislate and administer as to act as a kind of full-time lay chaplain to the state at large, conducting a running four-year-long revival for “honesty, efficiency, and morality” in the business of the state. Accordingly, Lester plunged back and forth over the map of Georgia in a performance—1,200 speeches, twice his predecessor’s log—that, as one looks back over it now, resembles a marathon pinball-machine game: a ceaseless pinging and chatter of pique, exuberance, prophecies, commentaries, as he propelled himself among such locales as the Warner Robbins Church of God, the Hormel Company’s Tucker plant, the Phillipi Baptist Church of Locust Grove, a new softball field in Cedar-town, a Congregational Holiness Youth Camp, a Dunlop Tire and Rubber Company plant, a Penny Catalogue distribution center, the Macedonia Baptist Church.