< Governor Leaves the Stage

Transcript

Friday, June 27, 2003

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Two Southern politicians who rose to power on a segregationist platform died this week. South Carolina's Strom Thurmond retreated from that position during his long career as more and more Blacks went to the polls. In fact, he was the first Southern Senator to hire a black aide. But there was no such rehabilitation for former Georgia governor Lester Maddox. In 1964 he earned a kind of fame for driving black customers out of his chicken and burger restaurant with pick handles and ultimately closed it down rather than serve them food. As governor, even as he hired Blacks to government posts, he continued to espouse racism. Here was Maddox in 1976, 5 years after he was voted out of office.

LESTER MADDOX: I'm a segregationist. You are too, more than likely. A, a segregationist is a person that cares enough for his own race, has enough racial pride and integrity for his race and other races and loves and wants to protect and defend 'em. And do you want -- do you want the races destroyed? If you don't, then you're a segregationist.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:But strangely, what he may best be remembered for is his brief moment of television history when, insulted by the liberal media establishment, the governor stormed off the Dick Cavett show. We have Dick Cavett on a terrible phone line from Montauk, Long Island. Dick, thanks for doing this!

DICK CAVETT: That's all right. I was -- I just happened to be passing and some guy grabbed me and pulled me in. [LAUGHTER]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, so let's go back to that day.

DICK CAVETT: Yeah!

BROOKE GLADSTONE:It was a typically whimsical lineup for the Dick Cavett Show. You had the flamboyant Truman Capote, the legendary football player Jim Brown and the notorious segregationist Lester Maddox. This is the TV equivalent of running with scissors, isn't it?

DICK CAVETT: How would anyone have expected trouble? [LAUGHTER]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So can you describe that moment in exquisite detail?

DICK CAVETT:Well the thing that really started the trouble, I guess -- it might have gone off as a sort of strained but pleasant, ironic show -- was for some reason I chose to say -- in going to commercial -- a question that began with "Of the bigots who voted for you--"

BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] For some reason, that caused trouble.

DICK CAVETT:Yeah. I don't know why. I mean I asked everybody that but-- [LAUGHS] [LAUGHTER] Anyway. The next thing I hear from Lester is-- [MIMICKING] You've got one minute to apologize! You've called all the people of Georgia bigots - and the people of Georgia are not bigots! And this went on for a bit, and then I finally said -- all right. If I've called anyone a bigot who isn't a bigot, I apologize. Well, Lester saw through this and pulled out or -and exited. And then Truman had the wit to say: [MIMICKING] You know, I went to his--restaurant and I-- ate there, and I had the chicken. And it wasn't finger-lickin' good. [LAUGHTER] I bet you thought I had Truman right here, talking into the phone. [LAUGHS]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know I did. So if anything, did that incident with Lester Maddox have any particular significance for you?

DICK CAVETT:None at all. Other than the fact that it was a, a show that was [LAUGHS] asking for it. Lester, also, I think I must have revealed somewhere since then was winking at me with his upstage eye -- which takes a certain amount of knowledge of camera and -- the way you would at somebody you're trying to say I'm just kidding but I don't want the other people here to know that I am.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Really!

DICK CAVETT:Yeah. And I also-- pointed out that Lester, being a politician, and a canny one, knew to -knowing the value of television time - walked off a scant 88 minutes into a 90 minute show. [LAUGHTER]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:You know it, it struck me when I heard of his death that this was a kind of defining moment in television! Maddox was set up by the Eastern Establishment Liberal Media Elite to look dumb, which admittedly was extremely easy to do because the guy was a troglodyte, but could this said to be a moment - perhaps the moment - when the American media and parts of mainstream America began to diverge?

DICK CAVETT:My God, you've given someone material for an entire Masters or PhD thesis with the word zeitgeist in it. [LAUGHTER] I mean it certainly wasn't the first example. There were much more crude and egregious examples of-- looking Mr. Left and Mr. Right or Mr. Fag and Mr. He-Man on shows.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you didn't go into this like an innocent, newborn babe.

DICK CAVETT: No, in fact I didn't book the show. I like to stay out of the booking because-- I could always think of a reason that I didn't want somebody who turned out to be really good. [LAUGHS] [LAUGHTER] Oh, I, I should probably tell you that the best piece of hate mail I ever got -- and there was plenty after the Maddox show -- I got something like 6,000 where maybe 300 would have been a lot normally -- but my favorite came from Waco, Texas. Dear Dick Cavett, You little sawed-off faggot Communist shrimp. I wrote right straight back I am not sawed-off. [LAUGHTER] Wonder if they got it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But I mean what I'm saying is that, you know, Lester Maddox did not represent Middle America by any means. He was an extremist. But the--

DICK CAVETT: He didn't even represent Middle South, really.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:Right! But if you want to talk about class, there may be something there, and, and it -perhaps it is because of the Randy Newman song that I thought of that! What do you think of that song that references the incident? He puts himself in the role of a Maddox constituent and refers to you as a "smart-ass New York Jew."

DICK CAVETT:You know-- this'll come as a shock to both of us -- I have never heard this thing. You know it's one of those things I kept thinking I'll do and I'll hear it, and I never, ever got around to it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: I'm astonished.

DICK CAVETT: And I, I - I am too! I'm-- astonished! I'm embarrassed!

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well thank you so much.

DICK CAVETT: How can you be more than welcome?

RANDY NEWMAN: [SINGING] LAST NIGHT I SAW LESTER MADDOX ON A TV SHOW WITH SOME SMART ASS NEW YORK JEW AND THE JEW LAUGHED AT LESTER MADDOX THE AUDIENCE LAUGHED AT LESTER MADDOX TOO. WELL HE MAY BE A FOOL BUT HE'S OUR FOOL IF THEY THINK THEY'RE BETTER THAN HIM THEY'RE WRONG SO I WENT TO THE PARK AND TOOK SOME PAPER ALONG AND THAT'S WHERE I MADE THIS SONG WE TALK REAL FUNNY DOWN HERE WE DRINK TOO MUCH WE LAUGH TOO LOUD WE'RE TOO DUMB TO MAKE IT IN NO NORTHERN TOWN WE'RE KEEPING THE NIGGERS DOWN [INSTRUMENTAL CONTINUES UNDER]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:That's it for this weeks' show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price, Katya Rogers, Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Sean Landis; engineered by Dylan Keefe, Rob Christiansen, and Debbie Daughtry, and edited by me. We had help from Sharon Ball and Andy Lanset. Our web master is Amy Pearl.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:Arun Rath our senior producer and Dean Capello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at onthemedia@wnyc.org. This is On the Media from NPR. Garfield will be back with me next week -- I think! I'm Brooke Gladstone. [FUNDING CREDITS]