October 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 6
Alabama’s Lurleen Wallace is not the first wife to stand in for her husband on the political stage. “Farmer Jim” Ferguson ran his Miriam for governor of Texas five times, and twice the voters elected her
The woman’s voice, high-pitched and lacking the assertiveness of an experienced public speaker, trembles slightly in midsentcnce. The crowd stirs in the afternoon heat, impatient to have done with the two-minute formality of listening to the candidate. Her election, she explains, will enable her husband to continue his nationwide opposition to those trends that would “destroy the local government and the free-enterprise system upon which it was founded.” The audience, alert—despite its rural appearance—to the full implication, nods in agreement. Hehind the mobile speakers’ platform, the musicians quietly pack up their electric guitars, while at her right her husband, hands tightly clasped, sits studying the crowd. The cheering begins as soon as she assures them that he will be her “Number One assistant in the next administration.” Suddenly he is at her side, holding her arm aloft with one hand, groping for the microphone with the other.
This scene, repeated over and over again this spring and fall across the racially tense Alabama countryside, has a decided flavor of dèjà vu . And indeed it did happen before, not once but five times, not in Alabama but in Texas. The earlier participants were James E. Fcrguson and his wife, Miriam Wallace Ferguson (no relation to the Alabama clan), whom the newspapers promptly nicknamed “Pa” and “Ma.” Ferguson was also blocked by law from seeking re-election as governor—though by verdict of an impeachment proceeding rather than, as in George Wallace’s case, by a one-term provision in the state constitution. The historical coincidences do not end there. Wallace’s stock answer when queried as to his role in a Lurleen Wallace administration (“… let’s just say I’m gonna draw the water, tote in the wood, wind the clock, and put out the cat”) is a direct and deliberate paraphrase of Pa’s reply when the same question was put to him forty-two years ago. The quote was given him, Wallace let it be known, by none other than Lyndon B. Johnson, who was defeated in his first try for the United States Senate by the last candidate Ferguson endorsed.
The Ferguson saga, a monumental tale even in Texas, began in 1914, when “Farmer Jim”—a lawyer, banker, and rancher from Temple—decided to seek his first elective post. With customary Texas modesty, he determined to start at the top. His startling upset victory over the favored candidate, an experienced congressman named Thomas H. Ball, firmly established him as a brilliant if rather opportunistic politician. In retrospect, the ingredients of his strategy seem deceptively simple. He correctly sensed that Colonel Ball and his fellow Prohibitionists had overestimated the popularity of the antisaloon forces; Ferguson’s calculated neutrality on the issue brought him the support of the “wets” and the campaign dollars of the brewers. More significantly, he was the first politician to mobilize the “creek-bottom” vote, a growing and restive bloc of dirt farmers and cotton-choppers; seldom in political history has anyone been as successful at dividing his constituents into two economic groups, then attacking the upper one (his own) to gain the loyalty of the other.
Once in office, Ferguson delivered. He got the legislature to pass a law limiting the rents of tenant farmers to one fourth of the cotton and one third of the grain crops; he signed it, even though many in the state insisted it would be struck down as unconstitutional. It was. Texas’ new populist governor had other promises to keep: laws were enacted to establish rural high schools, to make school attendance compulsory, and to expand and reform the penal system; bills designed to tighten the state liquor codes he consistently vetoed.
Farmer Jim had no trouble winning a second term in 1916, despite specific charges by his opponent that the Governor was buying his groceries with state money, had financed his first campaign with $30,000 from a Houston brewery, and had deposited $100,000 in insurance money from a state college fire in his own bank, where it earned no interest. “Mudslinging,” the Governor insisted, and the accusations were forgotten until Ferguson, piqued at the refusal of the board of regents to fire five University of Texas professors he found offensive, vetoed practically the entire university budget. In the furor that followed, Ferguson was indicted on nine counts by a Travis County grand jury; he was never tried, but he was soon forced to defend himself before the state senate against twenty-one articles of impeachment. One accused him of accepting a huge sum from a secret source. He insisted it was a loan. “Is it a crime for a man to borrow $156,000?” he demanded, somewhat peevishly. He steadfastly refused to reveal that the unsecured (and never repaid) “loan” came from six Texas breweries. On September 24, 1917, the state senate removed him from office by a vote of 25 to 3; it also barred him from ever again holding a state position of “honor, trust or profit.”
Returning to Temple, the only impeached governor in Texas history now became a publisher: he launched a weekly broadside called The Ferguson Forum; his teetotalling enemies soon dubbed it The Ferguson For Rum . He lost the gubernatorial primary in 1918, managed to poll 47,000 votes as the presidential candidate of his own American party in 1920, and was defeated two years later in a bid for a U.S. Senate nomination. When a court suit blocked his entry into the 1924 gubernatorial primary, Farmer Jim, perched in his undershirt on a hotel bed in Taylor, Texas, calmly announced that his wife would be the next governor.
Miriam Ferguson was forty-nine years old when she entered into politics “to vindicate my husband’s good name.” Aside from her marriage to Jim, there was little in her background to prepare her for the brutal realities of Texas politics. Raised in a middle-class farm family, she was sent to Salado College and to Baylor College for Women, in Belton, to train for the role of a dignified social matron that her parents envisioned for her. Her nickname, which she privately despised, soon appeared on bumper stickers all over the state: “Me for Ma,” often with the tagline “And I Ain’t Got a Bern Thing Against Pa.”
Vindication was the purpose of the Fergusons’ 1924 campaign, but their main issue was the Ku Klux Klan, then riding high and hard in Texas and in much of the rest of the nation, North and South. But the “invisible government” was also under increasing attack from many quarters after a series of newspaper exposés, started by the Baltimore Sun , involving murder, rape, and arson. Farmer Jim again correctly read the public mood. “Hate has been the slogan of the opposition,” Miriam charged. “Venom is its password and slander, falsehood and misrepresentation its platform.” The Klan retaliated by describing Ma as a kitchen “drudge” more qualified for feeding her chickens than for administering the largest state in the union. The intensity of the Klan’s attack reached the point where the New York Times felt obliged to remind its readers that Mrs. Ferguson was, in fact, a cultured, intelligent woman, who quietly but efficiently managed a household full of servants; even her furniture, that august journal remarked, was “tasteful.” But Ma was after the governorship, not a D.A.R. invitation; she preferred to campaign in a sunbonnet, and invited the press in to watch her can peach preserves.
Like Lurleen Wallace, Miriam kept her speeches mercifully short; she would mention the persecution of her husband by a vindictive state senate, in much the same way that the Wallaces complain about the Alabama senate clique that wouldn’t change the oneterm provision for the governor in the state constitution; and Ma usually ended with, “A vote for me is a vote of confidence for my husband.” Like George Wallace, Jim was the featured speaker, and the years of defeat had taken none of the force from his delivery nor dulled the shrewdness of his homespun repartee. To persistent accusations that his wife would be governor in name only, he would retort: “I ask you, if your wife was governor, would you get mad and leave home or would you stick around and help her?”
Not that Miriam did not supply some unique contributions to the campaign. A solid five feet five, with graytinged dark brown hair and brown eyes, she moved confidently through the crowds and shook so many hands that her right arm swelled to twice its size. The handshaking paid off: Mrs. Ferguson ran a strong second in the July primary. A month later, in the mandatory run-off election, she buried the Klan-supported candidate by almost 98,000 votes. There followed an eleventh-hour court suit to have her candidacy disallowed because of the so-called common-law disability against women in office. The fact that her husband was legally entitled to her salary was no obstacle, the district court ruled. Nor could she be prevented from running simply because her husband had written in the Forum that, if she were elected, he intended to run the state; if everyone were held responsible for his campaign statements, the judge sensibly pointed out, then nobody could be elected to any post. The state supreme court affirmed the decision, and on November 4, 1924, Mrs. Ferguson, after beating back the strongest Republican opposition since Reconstruction, accepted her victory “as a daughter of Texas to the manner born.” The Lone Star state, over which six flags had flown, was now dominated by a petticoat.∗
∗ Mrs. Ferguson was the first woman elected to a full term as governor, but she was not the nation’s first woman governor. Two weeks before she was sworn in, Wyoming, the first state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, inaugurated Mrs. Nellie Tayloe Ross to fill out the unexpired term of her late husband.
The immediate mood was auspicious. Thousands crowded into Austin to hear her take the oath of office, the band that had campaigned with her played “The Eyes of Texas,” and the outgoing governor told Mrs. Ferguson that he had left her “a single white rose, an open Bible, and a picture of Woodrow Wilson.” The legislature responded by quickly passing an antimask bill that further crippled the KKK.
But it wasn’t long, as her daughter, Mrs. Ouida F. Nalle, later wrote in The Fergusons of Texas , before “the lies began to fly.” The most sensational charges concerned the awarding of enormously profitable highway construction contracts, without competitive bidding, to contractors who happened to be substantial advertisers in The Ferguson Forum . No one was ever indicted, but a number of the contracts were eventually rescinded.
And then there was the matter of executive clemency. Ma had promised the voters that she would be more lenient about pardons than the previous administration; she fulfilled that pledge with a vengeance. In her first term alone, she issued more than 2,000 pardons, including 105 on Thanksgiving Day, 1925. One story, probably apocryphal but certainly harmful to her bid for re-election in 1926, involved a father who approached Pa about a pardon for his son. While the man was pleading his son’s case, Ferguson kept talking about a horse he wanted to sell for the outrageous price of $5,000. When the puzzled father finally demanded to know what an overpriced nag had to do with his son’s release, Pa supposedly explained: “Well, I figure your son might ride him home from the penitentiary if you bought him.” It is a matter of record that some pardons were issued before the convicted person ever got to prison, and it wasn’t long before people began referring to the executive mansion as “the House of a Thousand Pardons.”
The Governors Ferguson always insisted that most of the pardons involved violators of the Volstead Act, who were just adding to the overcrowded conditions of the jails; and that, anyway, no clemency was granted without the prior approval of the state pardons board. Nevertheless, the combination of the highway scandals and the unprecedented number of pardons had, nine months after Miriam took office, touched off another series of impeachment rumors. “Just politics,” smiled Ma. But her reply to a petition for a special session from 100 legislators was anything but humorous.
“Let them assemble if they want to,” said Mrs. Ferguson. “Let them start something. I’ll still be here at the finish. Now about this special session they want me to call. They tried to camouflage it as an inquiry into the foot and mouth disease and tick eradication. They must think I’m a bird. It’s my feet, my mouth, and my eradication they want. Some of them call me a dumbbell. They will soon find out how dumb I am. … In spite of all that mush about my being a frail, delicate woman, they will see.”
Miriam, with Jim gleefully standing not quite in the wings, now went on the offensive. She demanded the resignation of Amon G. Carter, millionaire publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram , from the state college board of regents. Specifically, she accused him of being drunk at a University of Texas football game; what was worse, she added indignantly, Carter had given vent to a “vociferous exclamation” in her ear during the game. The squabble was colorful, exciting, and eminently newsworthy (Carter ordered her statement published on the front page of his own paper); it even diverted the public’s attention from the impeachment talk; but it could not entirely repair the worsening state of the Fergusons’ political fortunes. “How does it feel to have a woman governor?” went a popular joke of the period. “I don’t know; we haven’t got one.” Ma was easily defeated in 1926 by her own attorney general, who immediately had the legislature void the amnesty law she had had passed two years before to restore her husband’s political rights. Texans, it seemed, were upset at reading about press conferences conducted by Farmer Jim (who had no official title) seated in the governor’s chair; they were tired of “government by proxy.”
Or were they? In 1930, Miriam tossed her famous sunbonnet back into the gubernatorial ring. She led coming out of the first primary, only to lose the run-off election to an oil magnate named Ross Sterling. Pa was unperturbed: “Our motto is never say ‘die,’ say ‘damn.’” Two years later, he was back on the stump, describing Governor Sterling as the “present encumbrance.” This time Ma won the run-off by a slender four thousand votes out of almost one million, then went into hiding while the Sterling forces asked the courts for time to investigate the one hundred pro-Ferguson counties where the votes cast outnumbered the poll tax receipts. Ma weathered the storm: on January 17, 1933, she raised her right hand, and for the fourth and last time a Ferguson was sworn in as governor of Texas.
Predictably, her re-election proved disquieting to a large portion of the national press that, over the years, had expressed alarm at the dynastic threat of Fergusonism. “The Fergusons … are a benevolent myth to thousands of Texas tenant farmers and workers,” the liberal Nation said solemnly. “Jim may have compromised himself with the breweries and the road contractors; ‘Ma’ may have prostituted the pardoning power of the chief executive; but those are minor failings. … [The question now is] will they institute some adequate measures of reform and relief, or will they follow their usual policy of converting the gubernatorial position into a lucrative dispensary of pardons and political favors?”
Perhaps it was the Depression; maybe Ma and Pa were getting up in years. Whatever it was, the Governors Ferguson did not create much of a stir this time. Will Rogers stopped by to say hello, and—as she had on a previous visit during her first term—Ma took him on a tour of her executive garden before cooking him a heaping bowl of chile con carne. The only incident that attracted any national attention occurred in June, 1933, when Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt was greeted at the Fort Worth airport by the Fergusons. When someone asked the First Lady to stand between Ma and Pa for a photograph, Mrs. Roosevelt received some whispered advice from—guess who?—Arnon G. Carter, and declined on the ground that this was a nonpolitical trip. Early in 1934 Ma announced that, out of respect for a long-standing Texas tradition against a third term, she was through with politics.
But in 1940, at the age of sixty-five, she reversed herself and ran once again for governor. She and Jim were obviously encouraged by F. D. R.’s third-term bid at the national level; but not many Texans were. Now close to seventy, Pa was a feeble shadow of Farmer Jim, the Temple dynamo, who had roared out of Bell County twenty-six years before to take the state by storm; to make matters worse, he was now almost deaf. Ma finished a pathetic fourth, lost in the landslide piled up by still another Texas phenomenon, Wilbert “Pappy” Lee O’Daniel, the “Hillbilly Flour” huckster.
In 1942, Ferguson threw his support to O’Daniel in “Pappy’s” uphill victory over Congressman Lyndon Johnson for the U.S. Senate nomination. Nevertheless, Johnson had only kind words for the Governors Ferguson in 1955, when Texas Democrats paid six dollars a plate in a final tribute to the awesome political force called Fergusonism. Jim and Miriam, he said, were the kind of people “who stand for the folks—four-square, without apology and no compromise. Maybe they weren’t always right, but they tried to be right, and you can ask no more of anyone.” By then the majority leader of the U.S. Senate, Johnson could afford to be magnanimous: Pa had been in his grave eleven years, and Ma, at the age of eighty, had just six years left to sit and rock on the porch of her Austin home, surrounded by memories and mementoes of those exhilarating years when Texas creek bottoms resounded to the cry—“Two governors for the price of one.”