by Geni Certain; New South Books, 2012; 257 pages; $25.95
Glen Browder was the apple of George Wallace’s eye.
From the moment the Jacksonville State University professor set foot in Montgomery, full of high-minded plans to transform democracy in Alabama, the ailing governor seemed to latch onto him.
Not previously a Wallace supporter, Browder was a freshman legislator who, without much trace of irony, hoped to become a real-world version of Plato’s Philosopher-King. Yet Wallace, the personification of a corrupt political culture, stood behind Browder as he proposed bill after bill intended to drain the swamp of Alabama politics.
Browder’s friendship with Wallace is just one of the surprises in Geni Certain’s new book “Professor-Politician: The Biography of Alabama Congressman Glen Browder,” a friendly, more-or-less official biography of the conservative Democrat who represented Calhoun County and its neighbors in Congress through George H.W. Bush’s administration and Bill Clinton’s first term.
Nationally, Browder is probably best known as a member of the Blue Dog coalition, a group of conservative Democrats who, in the 1990s, kept Congress from separating along the deeply partisan divide we see now. Locally, the retired JSU professor of political science is an elder statesman more known for writing about politics than for being written about.
Certain’s book reminds us of why Browder is worthy of a biography. He never seared himself into our minds with Wallace-like grandstanding or lurid scandal, but Browder did leave his mark on the state as a legislator and later, a secretary of state. There are still a lot of holes in Alabama campaign finance law, but before Browder’s Fair Campaign Practices Act, candidates could more or less raise money in secret. As a congressman, Browder failed to keep Fort McClellan open, but he held off the closure for a few crucial years, while pushing for the destruction of Russia’s chemical arsenal and offering, with other Blue Dogs, a middle-ground option in the historic mid-1990s budget conflict.
The book’s biggest narrative challenge lies in Browder’s own level-headed, analytical approach to politics. Competence is, by itself, boring — compromise even more so. In the foreword to the book, Browder explains that he launched his career in hopes of becoming an American version of Plato’s Philosopher-King, a Professor-Politician. Set in Alabama’s political climate, that plan sounds like a great setup for a comic novel — especially when the idealistic protagonist gets mired in scandal. But Browder kept his nose clean and inched progress forward a little, which isn’t nearly as much fun to read about.
Browder is most entertaining when he’s away from the Professor-Politician role he created for himself. Certain’s account of Browder’s South Carolina, mill-worker’s-stepson childhood is a familiar Southern success story, accessible to millions of white Southerners who climbed into white-collar jobs in the last quarter of the 20th century. A teacher dug into her own pocket to give a young Browder some spending money on a school trip to Washington — a touching story that still happens today, no doubt, yet feels strangely distance from the current political conversation.
The best parts of the book revolve around Browder the Campaigner. A pioneer of modern, research-based campaigning, Browder could be super smart and mildly rascally on the campaign trail. As a member of the Democratic Party’s executive committee, he took part in the Saturday Morning Massacre, the infamous moment in 1983 when a court decision invalidated state House and Senate elections and Democratic leaders hand-picked the party’s nominees for a special election. Browder went on to mastermind the write-in campaign for rejected candidate Lowell Barron — a campaign that fed largely on anti-Massacre anger. When an opponent in the race for secretary of state refused to debate him, Browder held a mock debate against a poster bearing her image — in the State Capitol.
And then there were the trees. Throughout his political career, Browder made a point of traveling around the state to plant apple trees — apropos of nothing, it seems, except that people would remember the nice man who planted them.
“I think there was a multitude of meanings,” former Browder aide Ray Minter says in the book. “But the trees themselves, it was growth for the future.”
The great power of political biography lies in its ability to take known events and link them into a narrative that shows their moral force and meaning. Somewhere, surely, some of Browder’s apple trees are still growing. Certain’s book is an effort to count those trees and show that they still bear fruit.
Capitol and statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter: @TLockette_Star.
MEET THE AUTHOR...
WHAT: Book signing with Geni Certain, author of “Professor-Politican,” and former Alabama Congressman Glen Browder
WHEN: Tuesday, May 14, 2 p.m.
WHERE: Public Library of Anniston-Calhoun County, Ayers Room
INFO: Call 256-237-8501 or email firstname.lastname@example.org