Bo Callaway and the crossroads of modern Georgia history

By Tom Baxter

If Bo Callaway had become governor in 1966, it’s quite possible the obituaries of the past weekend would have proclaimed him the most important political figure of his time in Georgia. But by losing the race in which he got the most votes, Callaway’s real impact on our state may have been far deeper than it would have been if he had occupied the governor’s office.

Twice since the Second World War — a cynic might say at least twice — the leadership of Georgia has been determined by something other than the pure will of the people. One episode — the chaotic period  following the death of Eugene Talmadge, the governor-elect, in 1947 — led directly to the other in 1966.

A court ruled the state legislature acted improperly when it elected Herman Talmadge to replace his father in 1947, so after the younger Talmadge was elected governor by the people in 1948, he passed legislation formally ratifying the legislature’s power to elect the governor if no candidate got an absolute majority in the general election — the law that would deny Callaway the governor’s office in 1966. And Ellis Arnall, the young one-term governor who briefly held on to the office in the confused period after Talmadge’s death, nursed an ambition that blossomed again years later in the 1966 governor’s race, with a totally unexpected result.

That race was the crossroads of modern Georgia history. Callaway had become the first Republican since Reconstruction to win a U.S. House seat from Georgia in the 1964 Goldwater wave. At the beginning of 1966, his arch rival, Jimmy Carter, another son of a landed South Georgia family who’d gone to a military academy and come back from the service to work in the family business, planned to challenge Callaway for his congressional seat. When Callaway announced he was leaving his seat to run for governor, Carter walked away from what might have been a good shot at a congressional seat to run for governor himself.

Party-wise, the primaries that year were the reverse of our current pattern. Like Jason Carter this year, Callaway was his party’s anointed nominee, with lots of business support and no opponents within his party. That led to a lot of optimism among Republicans as a big field of Democrats, including Arnall, Carter and Atlanta restauranteur Lester Maddox, tore into each other.

From what’s been written about the race, it appears Arnall was looking ahead to Callaway and not paying enough attention to his primary. He ended up in a battle with Maddox, whom he disdained for his segregationist rants and his hucksterism, and was blindsided when Carter refused to take sides in the runoff. There were people who voted for Talmadge in 1948 who voted against Arnall with a special vengence in 1966.

With a choice between Maddox, who had been widely viewed as a sideshow in his several unsuccessful runs for mayor of Atlanta, and Callaway, whose voting record in Congress shared a lot with Maddox’s views on civil rights, some Democrats launched a write-in movement for Arnall. They won enough votes to send the election to the Democratic-majority legislature, which elected Maddox even though he had trailed Callaway by nearly 2,000 votes.

One could look back on that outcome as sort of an original sin from which many partisan evils were sprung. But it should be remembered that in that time when race was still the cardinal issue, the partisan lines were less distinct.

There’s a school of thought that had there not been a write-in campaign for Arnall, the majority of moderate white Democrats would have gone to Callaway and elected him outright, but we’ll never know that, or how it might have affected Callaway’s approach to governing.

The legislative election was challenged once again, and this time it went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where only the court’s two biggest liberals, William O. Douglas and Abe Fortas, saw things Callaway’s way.

If Callaway had been elected governor, would Jimmy Carter have been elected governor four years later, and eventually president? For that matter, would Newt Gingrich, who got a lot of support and coaching from Callaway in his early years, have been the same anti-establishment politician if the stage had been set differently?

Had Callaway been elected, Gingrich said last week, he might have been his party’s vice-presidential nominee in 1968 and a presidential candidate later. The evolution of politics in Georgia would have been dramatically affected, with a generation of Republicans taking the reins of state government nearly 40 years earlier than they eventually did. As for how race relations might have been different, with a polished conservative who’d voted against the key portions of the Civil Rights Act rather than Maddox, who eventually would go on to do a comedy routine with a black comedian, it’s hard to say.

Callaway left the state for a number of years after the election, serving as secretary of the Army, developing a resort in Colorado, losing a U.S. Senate race and chairing the state GOP for several years. But one of the Democrats who broke from the majority to vote for him in 1966, George Busbee, became governor after Carter. To a great extent Callaway’s pro-business 1966 platform prevailed in his absence.

Callaway in his later years had a firm conviction worthy of consideration by both Republicans and Democrats. He thought the partisan gerrymandering of legislative and congressional districts, and believed that districts should be drawn to produce the narrowest, and not the largest, majorities. Let the two sides fight it out, he argued, from a lifetime of experience.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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