My next book on Alabama politics will expound on who I believe have been the state’s top 60 political leaders in the past 60 years.
More than likely, in any political historian’s book, Gov. George Wallace and Sen. Richard Shelby would rank as the top two. The question is, “Who gets the No. 1 spot?”
In my book, Shelby trumps Wallace after Shelby’s reign as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and what he has brought home to Alabama.
Shelby’s remarkable 33 years in the Senate has been heralded by chairmanship of the Banking, Intelligence, Rules and now Appropriations committees. This will never be matched again in Alabama history. In short, Shelby’s 33 years in the Senate trumps Wallace’s 18 years as governor.
However, it is reasonable to bet that nobody will ever be governor of Alabama for 18 years again. That is quite a feat.
I am often asked, “Why did George Wallace not proceed to the Senate?” Other Southern political legends like Huey Long in Louisiana and the Talmadges in Georgia wound up their political lives in the Senate after serving as governor.
In most states, the ultimate political prize has been to go to the Senate and die there. There is an old saying among longtime Southern senators: “The only way that I’m going to leave the Senate is by way of the ballot box or in a pine box.”
Being governor of a state is generally considered a stepping stone to a Senate seat. Not so in Alabama; the governor’s office has always seemed to be the ultimate brass ring.
Wallace could have gone to the Senate early in his career. In 1966, he had the golden opportunity. He had fought valiantly in 1965 to get the state Senate to change the law that precluded a governor from succeeding himself. With that door closed, the obvious route for any politician would be to go to the U.S. Senate.
In 1966, Wallace was at the top of his game and the height of his popularity. Race was the only issue, and he owned it. He owned the state. He was the king of Alabama politics, and there was a Senate seat on the ballot.
The venerable John Sparkman was up for reelection. He was powerful, and he was popular. But Sparkman was no match for Wallace, and Sparkman was considered soft on race. Wallace would have easily beaten him.
Wallace chose instead to run his wife for governor. Lurleen Wallace trounced the illustrious field of candidates.
After Wallace was shot in his presidential bid in 1972, he survived but he was left a paraplegic. His health was ruined; he was relegated to constant pain and confined to a wheelchair.
In 1978, Alabama had both Senate seats vacant. Wallace was ending his third term as governor and had nowhere to go politically. It was obvious that Wallace should take one of the open seats. It was his for the asking.
His close personal aide and friend, Elvin Stanton, related the scenario to me. Wallace was going to run, Stanton said, but at the last minute, he said, “Let’s go to Washington and look around.”
They went together to the Capitol and surveyed the terrain. It occurred to Wallace that his life would be difficult at best maneuvering the steps and corridors of the Capitol. He just did not want to leave Alabama. He wanted to be near his doctors. He wanted to die in Alabama, not Washington. I suspect in the back of Wallace’s mind he thought that he might run one more time for governor in 1982. He did, and he won.
Wallace would have won a Senate seat in 1978 or 1966. The bottom line is Wallace just did not want to be a senator. He liked being governor of Alabama.