In trying to assess the possible impact of Montana congressional candidate Greg Gianforte’s assault on a reporter last night, one searches in vain for parallels. There have been plenty of late-breaking developments in political contests that sent candidates reeling, from “October Surprises” that changed the dynamics, to last-second attack ads, to mysteriously well-funded whisper campaigns. But a candidate committing a criminal act (albeit a misdemeanor) on election eve? In front of witnesses? That may be a new one.
In terms of self-sabotage, however, Gianforte’s high jinks may remind old-timers and students of political history of a famous incident in Alabama in 1962, when the legendary Big Jim Folsom appeared on statewide television the night before the gubernatorial primary, in what appeared to be a state of extreme inebriation. Chris McFadyen explains:
Folsom hoped to stage a coup on election eve with a 30-minute TV documentary. The film canister mysteriously disappeared and Folsom had to extemporize well beyond his planned intro—filmed live with family members in a Montgomery studio. He couldn’t remember the names of his children and stammered and lurched through an impromptu harangue of [primary opponents] Wallace and deGraffenried as “just a bunch of me-too candidates: ‘Me too! Me too! Me too! Me too!’”
It became known as Folsom’s “Tweety Bird speech,” and many Folsom diehards still swear that legendary Big Jim must have been slipped a Mickey.
That may be true, though Folsom was extremely well-known as a man who liked adult beverages. On an earlier occasion, when he was governor, Alabama segregationists shrieked in rage at reports he had invited Harlem’s African-American Congressman Adam Clayton Powell to stop by the governor’s mansion “for cocktails.” Folsom responded: “The people of Alabama know that’s a damn lie. I drink corn liquor just like they do.”
In any event, the “Tweety Bird speech” almost certainly robbed Folsom of a runoff spot, which in turn made it easy for his former protégé turned race-baiter George Wallace to win the governorship for the first time, going on to dominate Alabama politics for decades. They didn’t have much early voting in those days, so Folsom was not protected from the full consequences of his actions the way Gianforte may be (two-thirds and maybe more of the voters in the Montana race could have already voted by mail before yesterday). But then again, Big Jim wasn’t brought up on charges, either.