Kissing Honest Politics Goodbye, Again?
By Steve Suitts
Vol. 5, No. 6, 1983, pp. 1-3
George Wallace’s election with significant black support in Alabama in 1982 reaffirmed that politics makes strange bedfellows in the South. This November, Bill Allain’s close election in the Mississippi governor’s race suggests in 1983 that bedfellows make strange Southern politics.
A state attorney general who has opposed Mississippi’s big utilities and the Delta leaders of the state legislature, Allain almost lost his bid for governor when, three weeks prior to the general election, supporters of his Republic opponent produced affidavits from three black males alleging that Allain had sought their services as male prostitutes. In the middle of October, before the public allegations, Allain was leading in the polls by a margin of more than thirty percentage points. After the disclosures, he won by a margin of less than ten percent of the vote.
While the truth of the allegations remains undecided, the episode is the clearest instance of a new trend in the dirty politics of guilt by association. In the South’s politics, the most durable form of such trickery is, of course, race baiting. For generations, any white candidate associated with blacks or black causes earned instant discredit with white voters.
As late as the 1960s and ’70s, key segregationists owed their political careers to race baiting. One of the most effective recent examples came in 1970 in Alabama when George Wallace’s supporters used a photograph to taint his opponent, Governor Albert Brewer. After the primary election, Wallace found himself behind Brewer in a run off. Faced with the need to get out as many white voters as possible, the supporters of Wallace went to work. At almost every crossroads store in south Alabama, leaflets appeared showing Brewer’s daughter holding hands and smiling at a young black teenage boy.
While Brewer agonized publicly about the “vicious attacks” upon his family, he was fixed. He could not attack Wallace directly for doctoring the photographs. Because a good black turnout was absolutely necessary to defeat Wallace, Brewer could not make the Southern white politician’s traditional response: that he would never allow his daughter to hold hands with a black boy. His failure to rise to the charges was sensationalized into the political imagery and gossip, picturing Brewer as approving race-mixing, interracial dating and interracial marriage. With a heavy turnout from rural, white counties, Wallace won the election.
These techniques are still found in local politics in the South, but race-baiting in statewide Southern politics now appears to be the exception. Although the 1984 North Carolina Senate compaign is already heated with racial rhetoric, most candidates seeking statewide office today seek black support. Those who do not, usually fear the reaction of whites to a campaign of race-baiting. Yet, as Bill Allain’s problems show, “gay-baiting” has now arrived, and in several instances, has succeeded race-baiting in statewide campaigns.
The Mississippi race isn’t an isolated instance of gay-baiting, only the most recent and most public example in Deep South politics. In the last two races for governor in Alabama, rumors have been spread to taint one of the candidates as a homosexual. In 1978, Attorney General Bill Baxley was seeking the governor’s chair and political gossip suggested that bachelor Bill was gay and hired homosexuals on his staff. The stories spread and were accepted with amazing credulity even among the most crafty political observers. A lawyer who had helped mastermind George Wallace’s election in 1962 on a segregationist platform said to me in 1977, “Of course it’s true. Look at the boy’s rosy cheeks. He’s funny all right.”
Last year, gay-baiting reappeared in Alabama’s governor’s race. Lieutenant Governor George MacMillan, who has a high-pitched voice and a gentle, if energetic, demeanor, was running for governor against George Wallace. Rumors spread that MacMillan was homosexual. The gossip was supported by reference to MacMillan’s physical traits. “Just listen to that boy. Watch him. He’s as sissy as they get,” I was told in 1982 by a Montgomery lobbyist. MacMillan lost the runoff.
Now in Mississippi, the political technique has been refined even further: rumors are “substantiated” with news conferences. For several weeks before the news release against Allain, rumors were spread across the state that the state attorney general was a homosexual. Allain is single by divorce. He is also so white-skinned that his cheeks flush very visibly at times. Qualified by stereotypical characteristics, Allain was rumored as a sex-starved homosexual who cruised Jackson streets in search of male prostitutes. In late October when the signed affidavits were made public, the attorney general angrily denied the charges. His ex-wife went on television denying them. Still, Allain’s standing among Mississippi voters dropped and he lost much of his enormous lead.
While Allain and other candidates can deny these sorts of charges without fear of offending a large segment of statewide voters, they have trouble making an effective political response. In Mississippi, Allain and his ex-wife’s defense was met with references to their divorce papers in which she alleged that the two had not slept together for a few years. Allain also could not run the political risk of viciously attacking, in the racist rhetoric of the old Southern politics, the personal credibility of his three black accusers. He was dependent on blacks as voters, not as scapegoats.
While Allain’s responses were politically limited, his opponents were able to taint and taunt him, a white male Southern politician, with the accusations of interracial homosexuality.
In Alabama, when candidate Baxley faced the rumors, state political reporters speculated that both his marriage and subsequent fatherhood conveniently met political needs.
Four years later, facing rumors about his sexual preference, George MacMillan began every political speech by calling his wife and children to the podium. MacMillan also began speaking and acting more imperatively and abruptly–an obvious effort to show some “manly” mannerisms. At the end of the campaign, he appeared at times a caricature of a Southern orator with exaggerated gestures that seldom matched what he was saying. His efforts simply made him look awkward and inarticulate, contradictions of the two characteristics which had won him past political success.
Although no candidate’s defeat can be attributed only to rumors of homosexuality, the charges obviously have a deteriorating effect upon politics in general. Physical attributes take on unreasonable importance. Gay stereotypes go unquestioned or get carried to greater extremes of exaggeration. Significant issues are abandoned for precious days or weeks during a campaign while the media and public explore what a candidate does between the bed sheets. And, the most likely victims of gay-baiting in
politics, as with race-baiting, turn out to be those candidates with support from progressive or liberal voting groups in the South.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the prospect of gay-baiting is that nothing in the present Southern political scene appears to be an obstacle to its increased use as a ploy. While the increase of black voters was able to slow down race-baiting, the South’s gay population is not a political force in any statewide election and is not likely to become one in the foreseeable future. Thus, supporters of candidates who spread rumors or bankroll the search for affidavits about a candidate’s homosexuality have nothing to lose and every advantage to gain if their rumors and charges are circulated.
In Mississippi today, Governor-elect Allain portrays his victory as the repudiation of gay-baiting. Yet, political strategists are not likely to ignore the fact that he lost twenty percent of his support in only three weeks simply because of the allegations of homosexuality. Rather than demonstrating a firm rejection of this trick, Mississippians have made it an even more seductive come-on for the Southern politician who lusts for victory at any cost. With the passing of race-baiting as the universal ploy in this area of the South’s statewide politics, gay-baiting may become the surest political kiss of death.
Steve Suitts is the executive director of the Southern Regional Council.