Richard Hyatt: One vote may have changed history

March 18, 2014 

When their timelines converged in 1966, Bo Callaway and Tom Buck were headed in different directions.

Callaway was on the verge of becoming the state's first Republican governor and Buck was 27, a newly minted member of the Georgia House who was about to cast his very first vote. But before they slipped into the history books, key chapters had already been written.

Callaway, the state's first Republican congressman since Reconstruction, announced he was running for governor. That led Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer from Plains, to forsake a run for Congress to challenge Callaway, a foe since their high school days.

The final domino was Jack Brinkley leaving the Georgia House to run for Callaway's seat, which opened a spot up for Buck -- a silver-spooned lawyer with a fondness for black and white saddle oxfords.

The 1966 gubernatorial campaign was chaotic. Former Gov. Ellis Arnall came out of mothballs to run along with Carter but the Democratic nominee was Lester Maddox -- known for fried chicken and for being a staunch segregationist.

Callaway met Maddox in the General Election but Arnall didn't know when to quit. His write-in votes kept Callaway from getting a majority, sending the deciding vote to the Georgia House.

Buck was a freshman Democrat but he could count. And as an at-large legislator, he knew what to do. "I didn't really know Bo, even though I played a lot of golf at Callaway Gardens," Buck said. "Callaway had swept Muscogee County and Mr. C. Ed Berry was the only legislator to support Maddox."

Maddox prevailed 192-66, sending Callaway back to his family's azalea gardens in Harris County. He became a senior statesman in the GOP, serving as Secretary of the Army in two administrations. He also managed Gerald Ford's unsuccessful campaign for president against Carter in 1974.

Callaway died Saturday and his funeral Mass is today in Pine Mountain, Ga. His death renews an ageless game of what-ifs.

If Callaway was elected governor in 1966, would Carter have been elected in 1970 and would Callaway have been in line for the White House? If Carter stayed in the congressional race, what would his future have been? If Brinkley hadn't run for Congress, Buck might have stayed at home.

Maddox served one tumultuous term and never remembered Buck's name. "He had been through town and had seen Buck Ice & Coal. I was from Columbus so I became 'Ice Man,'" Buck said. Buck stayed around long enough to see Sonny Perdue become Georgia's first Republican governor since Reconstruction. He left the House in 2004 as its senior member and the only survivor of the day Maddox was elected.

During his first hours in office, he became a footnote to history. "I never thought my first vote would be the most historic one I ever cast."

-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at hyatt31906@knology.net.

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