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The President is on the Line

Jack Edwards, representative for Alabama’s First Congressional District from 1965 to 1985, relates two stories that bookend his political career.

ABOVE The Edwards family poses for a portrait in their Mobile living room during the 1964 campaign. From left to right: a 5-year-old Richard, Jolane, Jack and a 9-year-old Lane.
 

Thinking back on my 20 years of Congressional service, I thought it might be fun to tell two more stories — one from the very beginning of my political career and one from the tail end.

In 1964, I was a 36-year-old attorney in Mobile campaigning for the Congressional seat previously held by Rep. Frank Boykin. Back in those days, TV time was mostly live and mostly cheap. One day, I had this crazy notion that, for the last night of the campaign, I would buy 15 minutes of airtime on a Mobile station to make one final pitch to voters.      

For the broadcast, I was placed in a Masters chair, and next to me on a sofa was my wife Jolane, our 9-year-old daughter Lane and our 5-year-old son Richard. Now, Jolane was so nervous about being on live television that she had taken a tranquilizer. So as I fidgeted and prepared for showtime, she looked straight at the camera, with an unfazed smile and glazed eyes.

Finally, the red light came on, and I began speaking into that little doohickey camera, careful to focus my attention straight into the lens and thereby into the hearts of my potential constituents. Out of the corner of my eye, in that moment of the utmost importance, I could see that my son had half his finger jammed up his nose. I knew something had to be done, so I cut my eyes at Jolane, but that tranquilizer had done its job. She didn’t bat an eye.

My son picked his nose for 15 minutes.

When it was all over, my daughter fell on the floor and screamed, “Mama, we’re ruined!” Again, Jolane didn’t bat an eye.

The phone was ringing when we got back to the house that night. Jolane answered and found our friend Bocky Lyons on the line.

“Jolane,” he said, “y’all are the smartest politicians I’ve ever seen in my life.”

“What do you mean, Bocky?” she asked.

“Do you know that there are 35,000 nose pickers in Mobile County alone?” he asked. In the end, I guess he was right. I was elected to the United States Congress, thanks to my son Richard.

Eighteen years later, in 1982, I decided it was time to retire. That year, while I was on a visit to China fulfilling my duties as the senior Republican on the Defense Appropriations Committee, a writer for the Press-Register caught wind of my intentions and broke the story. When I returned to D.C., there were some 3,000 letters and telegrams on my desk imploring me to seek re-election. I even got a call from President Reagan saying, “I’ll never ask you again, but please stay one more term.”

I was eventually swayed to serve one last term, and I’m glad I did. But two years later, just about everybody knew I was finally retiring. I had recruited my replacement: Sonny Callahan. I had helped him run his campaign, and he was in the process of winning. Therefore, I had fulfilled my commitment to the president and to the Republican leader of the House that I would get a Republican to take my place.

With that in motion, I started getting calls from Mobile law firms wanting to talk about hiring me. Most of these firms wanted to know how soon I could bone up on trial procedure to be a trial attorney in the courts. It seemed to me that was not my strong suit, having spent almost 20 years in Washington, and I kept thinking every time I talked to one of these firms that it wasn’t what I ought to be coming home to do. I never was a great trial lawyer to begin with!

One day, I was visiting with a big firm in Mobile, sitting across from the two senior partners. We talked for about an hour, and they were going through this same line of questioning: “How soon can you prepare to be doing trial work?”

I said to them, in all seriousness, “You know, I just don’t know what I’m worth to a law firm like yours.” At that very moment, tap tap tap, a secretary opens the door and says, “I hate to interrupt y’all, but President Reagan wants to speak to Mr. Edwards.”

Those two guys almost stood at attention. Remember, this was a long time ago, so there were no cell phones or anything like that. So I picked up the phone off their desk and talked to the president for about 10 minutes. There was still one more Defense Appropriations bill to get through the House before I officially retired.

I finished my conversation with the president, sat back down, and I picked up the conversation where we left off. I wasn’t trying to be smart or anything. “I just don’t know what I’m worth to you guys,” I said.

Without missing a beat, the senior partner looked me straight in the eye and said, “You’re worth twice as much as you were 10 minutes ago.”

I didn’t end up going with that firm, although those two fellas remain my good friends. I eventually went to work with Hand Arendall, and they understood from day one what kind of strengths I might bring to the practice. But that’s a true story. Somebody once asked, “How in the world did you get the president to call during a job interview?”

I laughed and said, “Listen, if I could have gotten the president to do that, I’d be worth 10 times as much.”

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