We are continuing this week with our summer series on Big Jim Folsom – Alabama’s most colorful governor.
Those of us who grew up in and around Alabama politics have coined a descriptive term for a person who is obsessed with seeking political office constantly and tirelessly without reservation or concern for their physical, mental or financial welfare. They will run for high elected office at all costs. The term we use to describe those people is named for the man who best exemplified that obsession, George Wallace. Therefore, someone who is driven by obsession to win high public office has the “George Wallace Syndrome.”
The Alabama baby boomer who was eaten up with the George Wallace Syndrome more than any other I know was Don Siegelman. Siegelman ran nonstop beginning from the time he was a student at the University of Alabama in the 1960’s. He was successful. He was President of the Student Government at Alabama and went on to become Alabama’s Secretary of State, Attorney General, Lieutenant Governor and finally his life’s dream of Governor.
There is an old political saying that you don’t ever want to get into a race with someone who wants it more than you and will out work you. Siegelman was never outworked. He was relentless and focused on the ultimate prize that many a young politician in Alabama aspired to and that’s the governor’s chair. He captured the brass ring.
Siegelman reminded me so much of George Wallace, he truly deserves the award for having the Wallace Syndrome. He and Wallace were so consumed with politics and being governor that neither one of them could tell you what they were eating when you had lunch with them. Eating was a sideline to any political discussion they were having and calling lunch. They ate because they had to eat to survive.
Siegelman was always a little more liberal than most Alabamians. Therefore, he grew up admiring the more progressive Alabama political icons. He admired our progressive New Deal Democrats, such as Lister Hill, John Sparkman, and Carl Elliott. However, the utmost idol for young liberal politicians of my era was James E. “Big Jim” Folsom. Big Jim was truly a progressive on fiscal and social issues.
Siegelman had a remarkedly similar career and educational background as Bill Clinton. Both were almost the same age, both received undergraduate degrees from their state universities, both left college and went to prestigious law schools – Clinton to Yale and Siegelman to Georgetown. They both went on to do postgraduate work at Oxford in England. Then they both started running for office right away. Clinton ran for Congress, then Governor of Arkansas. Siegelman ran for Secretary of State and then on up the Alabama political ladder to Attorney General, Lieutenant Governor, and Governor.
As Siegelman was beginning his first foray into Alabama politics, I will share with you a funny story that I call the “Don Siegelman meets Big Jim story.”
Siegelman was campaigning hard all day for Secretary of State in early 1978 and wound up his day late in Cullman. Big Jim, in his later years camped out at a truck stop along the interstate in Cullman. Big Jim was drinking coffee and Siegelman spotted his lifelong hero and liberal idol, Big Jim, and went over to introduce himself. Siegelman gave Big Jim his spiel and what he was doing and how his campaign for Secretary of State was going. He gave Big Jim the story of his pedigree concerning all of his educational degrees: University of Alabama Student Government President, Georgetown Law School and Oxford in England.
Big Jim listened intently to the young politician and sipped on his coffee. Now, you have to realize that even though Big Jim was a progressive on fiscal and race matters, he was pretty down home when it came to country politics, patronage, and home spun talking to folks. Big Jim was also pretty pragmatic and plain spoken. He said, “Boy are you asking my advice about your campaign?” Siegelman said, “Sure I am Governor.” Big Jim said, “Well, first of all you need to change your name, ain’t nobody in Opp going to vote for some boy named Siegelman. First of all you can’t say it, secondly, it don’t sound like a good regular Alabama Baptist or Methodist name, and you better tell folks you went to school at Oxford High School in Calhoun County and not some place in England. Thirdly, don’t you know you can’t steal any money in that job?”
See you next week.