By Steve Flowers
The 1962 Governor’s Race was between George Wallace, James “Big Jim” Folsom, and newcomer Ryan DeGraffenreid, a state senator from Tuscaloosa. Television had become the new medium. Therefore, Wallace, Folsom, and DeGraffenreid had all bought 30-minute, live television shows the night before the election.
George Wallace came on first at 7:00 p.m. He did pretty well, not great, but he did not hurt himself.
Ryan DeGraffenreid came on at 7:30 p.m. He was magnificent. He helped himself immensely. He was telegenic and took to television like a duck to water. He was a hit and picked up some votes.
Big Jim came on last at 8:00 p.m. That was probably too late for Big Jim. They had him sitting on a sofa that was too small for him. His knees jutted up almost to his chest. Television advisors will tell you to look squarely into the camera. Obviously, the last thing Big Jim had been told before he went on the air was to look right into the camera. He hunkered down like he was staring a hole in the viewer the way he stared at the camera. Unfortunately, the advisor had forgotten to tell Big Jim to comb his hair. He had a wayward strand of hair hanging right down in his face.
His first words portended what was to come. His speech was slurred, and he was clearly drunk. After his opening statement of about four minutes, even though I was only 11, I could tell Big Jim seemed impaired. I walked back to my mama’s bedroom door where she was reading and I said, “Mama, you need to come in the living room and see Big Jim on TV. I believe he is drunk.” She walked in, glanced at him and assured me that was just Big Jim’s personality. She said he was putting on a show for the television audience. I think she was taking up for him because she was for him. So, I settled back in for the remainder of the show.
Big Jim had several children, so they were going to have him introduce his children one-by-one. Little Jim came out first and he did pretty well with him, “This is my little boy, Jim.” Although he did tousle his hair pretty badly. The second son, Jack, came out and Big Jim said, “This is my boy…” He stammered around trying to think of his name. Finally, he blurted out, “Boy what is your name?” The television folks dropped the idea of trying to introduce the rest of Big Jim’s family after that.
They let him start talking again. He was weaving back and forth. The long strand of hair was hanging right over his nose. He was now pontificating on the virtues of progressivism, free textbooks and Farm-to-Market roads. I called mama in again to view the spectacle. She stood there for a full two minutes with her mouth open and finally said, “Son, I believe you’re right. Big Jim is drunk.”
He finished by getting mad at George Wallace and calling him a cuckoo bird for trying to steal his platform. He waved his arms wildly for three solid minutes on statewide television mimicking a cuckoo bird.
Folks around the state had heard tales and rumors about Big Jim’s drinking for years. They had dismissed it as political talk. However, seeing Big Jim live and drunk on statewide television was an eyeopener. He never recovered. He failed to make the runoff the next day. Wallace led the ticket and DeGraffenreid edged Big Jim out of the runoff. Wallace beat DeGraffenreid in the runoff.
Later, Big Jim said Wallace’s people drugged him. This story is not likely. Big Jim had pretty much succumbed to alcohol by this time in his life. The night Big Jim came on television drunk was the end of his political career but it was a heck of a show.
Some old time political observers contend Big Jim would have won that 1962 race had he not come on television drunk the night before the election. I disagree. George Wallace was going to win that year because he had captured the race issue and exploited and demagogued it to get to the governor’s office, which he aspired to more than life itself. Big Jim would have finished second but Wallace would have pounded Big Jim in the runoff. Big Jim was soft on the race issue. He was a true progressive.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.