COLUMBUS -- With the Republicans dominating our state legislature today, a conversation with who could perhaps be called the "original" Republican, Bo Callaway, stimulated a flurry of reflections on the past.
It makes one wonder if all those who showcase the elephant on their lapels at the gold dome in Atlanta today feel a debt to Callaway who was as rare a Republican in his time in our state as Democrats are today-perhaps more so. While I claim to be an Independent and am guilty of voting both Republican and Democrat, depending on the race, I was fascinated by a two-hour conversation with Callaway at the Spring Harbor retirement home here.
First of all, you recognize immediately that you are in conversation with a man who is more than a footnote in Georgia political history, a gentleman whose motivation to run for political office was to serve. When he defeated Garland Byrd, former Lt. Governor, for the 3rd district Congressional seat in 1965, becoming the first Georgia Republican elected to Congress since Reconstruction, it was an upset comparable to Millsaps defeating the Green Bay Packers.
A mood change was taking place with the fickle Georgia electorate in his time. A vast majority of Democratic voters were down on President Lyndon Johnson, and Callaway used an ingenious ploy to exploit the fact that his opponent, as a Democrat, was bound to vote for the party. However, Byrd expressed that every person had a right to privacy when it came to disclosure of his vote.
At every rally and subsequently at the public debates, Callaway would reveal that he was voting for Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee, and would then ask his opponent whom he would be voting for. For obvious political reasons, Byrd didn't want to confirm that he would be voting for his party's candidate. Lyndon's stance on civil rights made him a pariah in the South. "Who you gonna vote for?" became an issue in the campaign.
Most of the party-switching Republicans of today were caught up in a movement. In Callaway's time, he was a Lone Ranger fighting against overwhelming odds. His cleverness got him elected to Congress in an upset for the ages. "I can assure you," Callaway said, "I was an oddity in the state of Georgia."
Callaway's subsequent bid to become governor of Georgia almost became a greater upset than his successful run for the Congress. He got more votes than the Democratic candidate, Lester Maddox, but not a majority. Maddox, an embarrassment to any progressive Georgian, was ultimately elected by the Democratic-dominated legislature. Callaway's next move was through the court system, and his case was eventually settled by the U. S. Supreme Court. The following vignette, recalled by Callaway, is a reminder of Shakespeare's "strange bedfellow" assessment of politicians.
He remembers a call from Richard Nixon, who told him, "We've got it, 5-4." Callaway was later told that Justice Hugo Black, an Alabama native, had said there would never be a Republican governor in the South as long as he was a member of the court if he could help it.
"What we heard," Callaway said, "was that Hugo Black talked fellow justice Whizzer White into changing his vote."
There is a refreshing overtone in a conversation with Bo Callaway, a man whose patriotic feelings proudly sit on his sleeves-he suffered bitter political defeat, but he is not a bitter man. Proud of the Republican dominance he helped bring about, he has a sobering message for his party: "It could be as dangerous as it was when the Democrats had total power-if we do what the Democrats did."
Loran Smith is affiliated with the University of Georgia and can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.