There’s something about Dr. Bentley

Published 1:18 am Saturday, September 17, 2011

The first time I remember seeing an Alabama governor, George Wallace was still trying to convince the world that Arthur Bremer’s bullet had not paralyzed him.

The man who began his political career as “the fightin’ judge from Barbour County” was still fighting, and he was married to a hometown girl, Cornelia Ellis Wallace, who was the niece of another governor, Jim Folsom Sr.

All of that probably had something to do with his appearance in Elba to dedicate a Vietnam veterans memorial in the 1970s. I was in grammar school, but I remember the day well, as we finally got to meet the former POW for whom many we knew had worn arm bands in support of his release. Surely, we didn’t fully grasp the full story, for the one brave question asked of him in our classroom was “What did you wear?” His answer: “Black pajamas.”

I thought about that day, and many others, after members of the newspaper staff had an opportunity to go one-on-one with our current governor, Robert Bentley, this week.

It’s not unusual for gubernatorial candidates to go stumping through towns our size and stop at newspaper offices, or make themselves available to local media at other locations, but it’s rare for a governor to actually drop in. This one is as down-to-earth as he appeared in his “Alabama needs a doctor” campaign ads.

Bentley’s predecessor, Bob Riley, liked to line up conference calls with small groups of editors and take questions that way. He sighed a lot. And I always wanted to work up the nerve to ask who fixed his hair.

Don Siegelman also worked the press efficiently, having come of political age in a time when one built grassroots campaigns by going county-to-county and visiting courthouses and local media. From the time he first became a statewide candidate, he never missed a gathering of the Alabama Press Association. He’s a great conversationalist, and is very smart about going out of his way to make small children feel special. Parents remember those sorts of things.

Fob James was alternately articulate and goofy when answering questions (remember his ape imitation?). The twice-elected governor was personable, but aloof.

I drew the short straw in 1986 and got sent to Hunt’s headquarters on election night. Everyone was certain Bill Baxley would win, as was I. Even the supporters of the former Amway salesman acted surprised.

Hunt, too, traveled the state often. I remember a day when he visited Franklin County, where the public works director always claimed that he was so overweight his belt was longer than he was tall. “Gov. Hunt, I’m the biggest Republican in Franklin County,” he said in a time when those were still rare birds. The governor replied, “I believe you.”

In every Hunt speech I heard, he talked about making Alabama a better place for our ‘chil’ren and gran’chil’ren.”

At the beginning of last year’s race, Bentley was thought to have less of a chance of winning than the naysayers thought Hunt had back in the ‘80s. The similarities end there.

Many have said that Dr. Bentley, though a former member of the legislature, is naïve about how Montgomery works. I won’t argue that point, but I will say that he’s very up-to-date on the issues he’s chosen to focus on, primarily jobs. He appears to have been doing his homework on the issues affecting Alabama.

Yes, Gov. Bentley came to our office, but he didn’t bring the usual governor’s ego. When he talks about how limiting the constant security is, you get the feeling he’d happily drive himself around the state.

Perhaps Alabama did need a doctor. Here’s hoping his genuineness can help bridge our state’s deep political divides.