By Mark Alpert
If you’re a writer, you probably remember the first time you looked at something you’d just written and thought to yourself, “Huh! This isn’t half bad.” It’s a moment of joy and surprise, like when a minister hears God’s call for the first time or when a Little Leaguer hits her first home run.
I experienced that moment thirty years ago when I was a reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama. I was covering politics for the newspaper, and the race to succeed Governor George Wallace had turned out to be such a god-awful disaster that I thought it might make a good topic for a nonfiction book. So I started jotting down my impressions of Wallace, using language that was a little more colorful than what I would ordinarily put in my newspaper articles.
The nonfiction book eventually became a novel, George Wallace became Jimmy Fowler, and those colorful impressions became the first chapter of my first book. Later on, I wrote a prologue for the novel (which I presented here two weeks ago), but these are the words that came first:
The press conference started late. Fowler’s press conferences always started late, but this one was even later than usual.
The governor’s staff had jammed everyone into the biggest conference room in the Statehouse, a wood-paneled chamber with a twenty-foot-high ceiling and a twenty-year-old air conditioner rattling away in the corner. I sat with the other reporters at a long oak table in the center of the room. The television crews set up their cameras in the back and focused their lenses on the desk where Fowler usually sat. It was a beautiful Louis Quinze desk, much too pretty to be used for anything but a photo opportunity.
A phalanx of officials from the Alabama development office, the industrialization board and the chamber of commerce stood behind the desk, waiting for Fowler to show up. They smiled at the reporters and shifted nervously from foot to foot. On the wall behind them was a life-size portrait of Jefferson Davis, standing on the steps of the Statehouse right after his inauguration as president of the Confederacy. We all stared at the portrait and the empty space behind the governor’s desk. After about twenty minutes the air conditioner expired with a long hiss and the room went silent.
Evan Pearson, the reporter from the Associated Press, looked at his watch. “You don’t suppose he died, do you, Bubba?” he whispered.
“It’s possible,” I whispered back.
“I sure hope he hasn’t died. I ain’t in the mood to write an obituary for that Bubba.”
Evan Pearson called everyone Bubba. If you asked him why, he’d start telling you about his Theory of Bubbas, which states that everyone has a Bubba deep inside his soul, but the true Bubbas are the folks who have the strength and courage to let that inner Bubba show. Evan had a lot of theories like that. He came up with more theories than Einstein.
“Don’t you have an obit on file for him?” I asked.
“Yeah, sure, but it’s a piece of shit. I’d have to rewrite the whole thing.”
The newspaper I worked for, the Clarion-Journal, had the same problem. We had an obit prepared for Fowler, but we hadn’t updated it in years. The governor had been on the verge of death for so long, we’d stopped expecting it to happen. “I don’t think he’s dead yet,” I reassured Evan.
“If he were dead, you’d hear high-pitched keening noises from every asshole in this building.”
“You’re right, Bubba,” Evan said suddenly. “There he is.”
I turned around and saw Booth Taylor, the governor’s press secretary, pushing Jimmy Fowler into the room. Booth guided Fowler’s wheelchair toward the Louis Quinze desk. The state officials cleared a path for them, smiling even more broadly than before. Booth smiled back, but Fowler didn’t seem to notice.
It was one of the governor’s bad days, I could tell. Ever since his last stroke — Fowler had suffered two in the past term — the governor had good days and bad days. On the good days, he could sign papers with his left hand and talk without slurring his words and remember the exact delegate count of the 1972 Democratic primaries. But today was definitely not a good day. Fowler’s mouth hung open and his tongue lolled thickly behind yellowed teeth. A thatch of salt-and-pepper hair lay matted to his forehead. He wore a rumpled gray suit that was two sizes too big for him, and there was a light dusting of dandruff on his shoulders. In short, he looked nothing like the man who’d terrorized the Woolworth’s in downtown Montgomery twenty-three years before. His face had lost that thousand-megawatt tension.
The governor didn’t seem too comfortable in his wheelchair. He squirmed a bit, grimacing, after Booth parked him behind the desk. Then he started clearing his throat. He made a loud gargling noise, then coughed a couple of times, then gargled some more. That’s the way Fowler always started his press conferences these days. After a while you realized that the noises coming out of his mouth were actually words and he was reading the prepared text that lay on the desk in front of him.
The announcement had something to do with a hazardous waste dump that was being built in Margaretville with the awfully nice help of a $30 million state development grant. At least that’s what I thought he was saying. The only word that came out clearly was “jobs.” Fowler spat out the word “jobs” like a mantra, over and over again: “This landfill’s gonna create a lot of jobs, hundreds of good-payin’ jobs for the citizens of Margaretville, more than a thousand jobs that they can be proud of.” The word was usually accompanied by a number, and the number grew fantastically huge as Fowler recalled all his past accomplishments and made swift additions in his head, completely diverging from the prepared text.
After a few minutes of this, Booth politely interrupted the governor and asked the reporters if they had any questions. The reporters yelled their questions as loudly as they could, but Fowler just sat there looking puzzled. Booth had to bend over until his lips were almost touching the governor’s left ear and repeat the questions.
“Governor,” Booth shouted into Fowler’s ear, “the gentleman from the Associated Press would like to know how you can justify awarding a development grant to a toxic waste dump.”
But you might as well throw away your list of questions when you were talking to Fowler, because he had only one answer to give, the same answer he’d been giving for the past two terms in response to every conceivable question on every conceivable topic: “Why don’t you boys stop being so negative for a minute and look at all the industry that’s come to this state in the past four years, I mean the past eight years, when the rest of the country was going through the worst recession since the war, we still had jobs coming into Alabama, high-tech jobs and low-tech jobs, in Emporia and Branton and Masons Ferry and Margaretville and down in Tyler County and Camellia County and Moses County, which is where I was born, you know. This landfill in Margaretville is gonna create three thousand jobs, y’heah? That’s three thousand new opportunities for the people of this state.”
The president of the toxic waste company, who had said the new dump would create three hundred jobs, not three thousand, rushed over to Booth.
“And while we’re working on the high-tech jobs, we can’t forget about the low-tech jobs,” Fowler continued. “You know, the knitting mills and all, ’cause if there’s a shutdown and we lose hundreds of jobs, we have to find two jobs for every job we lose. So we’re actually gaining one job instead of losing one job. I mean, hundreds of jobs, thousands of jobs. So anyone can see that the people of Alabama have stayed ahead of the game for the past twelve years…”
Booth interrupted Fowler again. “Excuse me, I’d just like to clarify something the governor said a minute ago. The landfill in Margaretville will create three hundred jobs, not three thousand. I think the governor must’ve seen an extra zero there, ha ha. Are there any more questions?”
The woman who worked for UPI stood up. “Governor, are you gonna support the teacher-pay incentive bill that was introduced in the Senate this morning?”
Fowler nodded thoughtfully after Booth repeated the question. “Well, honey, I haven’t made up my mind about that yet. But like I’ve been saying all these years, you can’t create jobs without education. There were only five trade schools in this state before I became governor and now there’s thirty of ’em. Not only that, there’s free textbooks in the public schools now. Some of you folks don’t know about this ’cause you’re too young, but it used to be that every child had to pay for his own textbooks, which was hard on the poor folks who could barely afford to buy food or clothes. So I got up to make my first speech in the Legislature and I said it’s a crying shame that these poor children have to pay for their own books.”
Fowler paused. He seemed to lose his train of thought for a moment. Then he shrugged and rambled on. “I know something about this ’cause I was born in poverty, I grew up in poverty. A lot of folks don’t know this about me. They don’t know that I was born in a one-room shack on the edge of a cotton field in Moses County. All they know is the ugly things they hear about me, and so they say things like, ‘Jimmy Fowler’s a racist, he’s worse than the devil.’ But anyone can tell you that I didn’t do nothing different from what Lyndon Baines Johnson did and no one thinks Lyndon Baines Johnson is the devil. That’s ’cause he’s dead. But everyone thinks I’m the devil ’cause I’m still alive.”
For about ten seconds the room was silent. Then I took a deep breath and stood up. “Governor, have you made a decision yet on whether you’re gonna seek another term?”
Booth’s face turned to stone. He didn’t like reporters in general, but he harbored a special hatred for me. About two years before, I’d written a story about the precarious state of the governor’s health. Fowler’s personal physician wouldn’t talk to me, but I quoted several other doctors who expressed some grave doubts about whether the governor could handle the demands of his job. That made Booth pretty mad. He was as loyal as a hound dog to the governor.
With great reluctance, Booth repeated my question in Fowler’s ear. The governor seemed to perk up a bit. He surveyed the room until he found me and then he stared at me hard, as if he were trying to bring me into focus. “You’re a persistent one, Jack,” he said. “Every press conference I invite y’all to, you always ask the same thing. You must be getting bored or something. Well, the truth is, there ain’t no hurry for me to make a decision. I can take my time if I want. The deadline for qualifying for the primary is May 23rd. Ain’t that right, Booth?”
“That’s right, governor,” Booth intoned.
“There, you see, May 23rd, a whole two weeks from now. So it’s no use speculating about whether I’m gonna run or not, or whether I’m gonna endorse anybody if I decide not to run, because that decision hasn’t been made yet.”
“Representative Bledsoe held a press conference this morning,” I noted. “And he said he’d win in a landslide if you decided to run against him.” George Bledsoe, the congressman from the second district, had already qualified for the Democratic gubernatorial primary, which in Alabama was tantamount to the general election. No Republican had been elected governor since Reconstruction. “He said he had a poll to prove it.”
The governor didn’t need to have this question repeated. He’d heard the name Bledsoe and that was enough. “George Bledsoe says a lot of things, but most of them ain’t worth listening to.” He curled his lip as if he’d just bit into a cayenne pepper. “That boy goes around calling himself the New South candidate, but I’ve seen his type before, and it ain’t new. If he’s so new and wonderful, then why’s he so worried about whether I’m gonna run or not? Why don’t you tell me that, Mr. Blanchard?”
Everyone in the room turned to look at me, as if they really expected an answer. “I don’t know,” I said.
“You see, you can’t answer.” Fowler pointed his good hand at me. “I answered all your questions, but as soon as I ask you something, you run for the tall grass. Well, let me tell you something, Mr. Blanchard: the voters of this state ain’t fooled by George Bledsoe. I don’t care what his polls say. George Bledsoe is a promise-breaking, double-talking, scalawagging liar. And that’s all I have to say about him.”
The room went silent again. Then Booth said, “Okay, if there are no more questions, let’s take some pictures.”
The governor’s official photographer, a gaunt fellow with a giant Nikon hanging from his neck, started shooting the usual series of grip-and-grin shots. He photographed the governor shaking hands with the president of the toxic waste company and the chairman of the industrialization board and a dozen other yes-men and cronies. The pictures would later appear in the chamber of commerce’s newsletter and three other state-funded publications that dutifully spread the news of Alabama’s economic revival to all the thousands of people who were still, mysteriously, unemployed.
Mabel Whitehead walked over to me, just like she always did when a press conference broke. Mabel was neither a reporter nor a state official. The best way to describe her would be to call her a Statehouse groupie. She belonged to that peculiar clique of moneyed, fortyish women who had nothing better to do than wander the corridors of the Statehouse, visiting their old friends in the state treasurer’s office and the attorney general’s office, exchanging sweet talk for gossip, always eager to start a rumor or pass one along.
Mabel enjoyed flirting with me. She said I reminded her of the cadet from West Point who’d escorted her to the Capital Club Ball in 1969. Oddly enough, she was one of my best sources. Like most good sources, she had an ax to grind: she’d been involved in a messy divorce from the state agriculture commissioner. Photocopies of the most outrageous internal memoranda appeared like magic from her little pink purse.
“I think you’ve been hiding from me lately, Jack.” She clasped my hand and offered me her cheek to kiss. She wore a bright red Chanel suit, and her platinum hair was impeccably coiffed.
“Wouldn’t dream of it, Mabel.” Her cheek smelled like lavender. “You’re looking awfully good today.”
“Mr. Blanchard, you lie like a rug. But I’ll take the compliment anyway.”
“So what are our friends at the agriculture department doing these days?”
“Oh, they’re busy as bees. They never let anything get in the way of their duty to the state’s farmers. Yes, it really breaks my heart sometimes. Why, just last week, five of the deputy commissioners had to fly all the way to Puerto Rico to attend a conference on crop rotation. They even brought their secretaries with them. I bet they’re just exhausted, those poor dears.”
“You wouldn’t happen to have a copy of the expense report from that trip, would you?”
“Well, as a matter of fact, I do. It’s right here in my purse.” Mabel pulled out a folded sheet of paper and surreptitiously slipped it into the inside pocket of my blazer. The back of her hand brushed against my shirt. There was something sensual about the exchange, as if she’d just slipped a hotel room key into my pocket instead of an expense report.
“I owe you one, Mabel.”
“You owe me a lot more than one, Jack honey. The governor looks rather poorly today, don’t you think?”
Fowler was shaking hands with another Chamber of Commerce official and trying to smile for the camera. It was his tenth or eleventh handshake and you could see the lines of fatigue etching deeper into his face. After the photographer took the shot, Booth Taylor abruptly stepped in and said, “Okay, I think that’s enough.” Then he grabbed hold of Fowler’s wheelchair and hustled him out of the room.
“The governor’s been pushing himself real hard,” I told Mabel. “He went to a ribbon-cutting up in Emporia yesterday and fell asleep in the middle of the mayor’s speech.”
“I hate to see him suffer like this,” Mabel said. “It’s just so unnecessary. And why does he keep going on about Lyndon Johnson? He’s talked about LBJ in every one of the last three press conferences I’ve been to. What does he have against Johnson?”
“He thinks Johnson was just as much of a segregationist as he was, at least during the forties and fifties, but Johnson never got criticized for it because he became president and then everybody was too busy criticizing him for other things.”
“Well, it just sounds foolish. He should leave all that stuff alone.”
“Maybe he feels guilty,” I ventured.
“That’s all ancient history now. He didn’t act any different from the way most folks were acting at the time. I’ll tell you who should feel guilty. My ex-husband, that’s who. Now there’s a man who should burn in hell. But don’t get me started on him. Are you going to Bledsoe’s fund-raiser tonight?”
“I guess so. It’s at the Jubilee, right?”
“Yes, that dreadful establishment. Bledsoe wanted to use the banquet room at the Capital Club, but one of the board members is an old friend of the governor’s, so he wouldn’t allow it. My sources tell me that Mrs. Bledsoe herself may put in an appearance. If it’s not past her bedtime, that is.”
“Now, now. Don’t be catty. She’s older than she looks. I went to high school with her, you know. We were in the same class.”
“I keep forgetting how young you are, darlin’. And so much like that cadet. How old are you, anyway? Twenty-eight, twenty-nine?”
“Any brothers or sisters?”
“Oh really,” Mabel cooed. “Tell me, Jack, is he as good-looking as you?”
“He’s twelve years old.”
“Well, that’s a little too young, even for me. Is he a full brother or a stepbrother?”
Before I could reply, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and found myself face to face with Booth Taylor. He was glaring at me, his lips pressed firmly together. Something was wrong. I’d never seen him so ugly.
“The governor would like to see you, Mr. Blanchard.” His voice was like death. “Will you follow me, please?”