When Sen. Howell Heflin of Alabama announced last week that he would vote against confirmation of Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court, a friend who was aware that I knew the senator, chided me: "C'mon, now. Nobody really talks that way. He's got to be acting."
She was, of course, referring to Senator Heflin's legendary accent -- which might be called, charitably, quintessential hill country Southernese. I assured her that I had been listening to Howell Heflin for 25 years, and I'd never heard him talk any other way.
And yet in a way it is a bit of an act, because, to be honest, Howell is a bit of a ham. Little wonder. He comes from a long tradition in which political speaking was an honorable form of entertainment. In fact he isn't even the first Senator Heflin to practice that art. His uncle, the fabled "Cotton Tom" Heflin, sat in the U.S. Senate for a good part of the first third of this century. "Cotton Tom," who was regarded as a minor demagogue because of his obsession that Prohibition was a papist plot, could regale throngs at county fairs from the bayous of Mobile to the hills of the Tennessee Valley for hours.
From the personal experience of having tilted a glass with him, I can attest that Howell Heflin is neither a prohibitionist nor an anti-papist nor, least of all, a demagogue.
He did, however, inherit his uncle's talent for telling tales. In the age when the 30-second TV sound-bite has become the political coin of the realm, Howell Heflin can still captivate audiences with old-fashioned spell-binding political humor.
Mostly his stories involve a mythical character, a country lawyer known as "No Tie" Hawkins, whose name derived from the fact that he was constantly getting in trouble with judges because he refused to dress properly in court. "No Tie" had a cousin named "Sockless Sam," something of a courthouse loiterer who was occasionally available to provide perjured testimony when his cousin "No Tie" really had a difficult case on his hands.
Over the years I've heard enough tales about "No Tie" and "Sockless Sam" from the booming voice of Howell Heflin that I could probably make a fairly thick book out of them.
The traditions of the South run in the genes of Howell Heflin. His grandfather was a surgeon in the Civil War. Dr. Heflin had nine children, seven of whom became professionals -- unusual indeed for the benighted times. Howell's father was a circuit-riding Methodist preacher who happened to be assigned to a church in the tiny town of Poulan, Ga., when Howell's voice was first heard on this earth in 1921.
But the Heflins didn't tarry long before returning to the ancestral home of Alabama. Howell took advantage of the GI bill to go to law school. After a highly successful career as a trial lawyer, in 1970 he was elected chief justice of the state's Supreme Court.
He took over a state judiciary in a state of severe disrepair and, through cajolery and masterful political maneuvering, turned it into such a model of judicial efficiency that he was elected president of the nation's chief justices. He was first elected to the Senate in 1978, and reelected in 1984 and 1990 -- each time overwhelmingly.
In some respects he is a political anomaly. As a judge, he was a professed admirer of his fellow Alabamian, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, who is regarded by many -- not entirely accurately -- as the foremost "judicial activist."
But as a senator, he has been quite conservative -- probably voting more times in support of Reagan programs than any other Southern Democrat. He has also been something of a maverick: He provided a crucial vote -- perhaps the crucial vote -- against Judge Robert Bork in that bloody battle for a Supreme Court nomination in 1987.
Some might call this fence-straddling. If so, it works; he retains the solid support of his white constituents by voting a conservative political line; and he retains the support of his black constituents by voting a moderate-to-liberal line on judicial nominations.
In his 13 years in the Senate he has become, also, something of the Senate's ethical guardian. And that's no wonder. In all the years I've known Howell Heflin, I've never heard the slightest hint of scandal or unethical conduct associated with his name. Because of this reputation of thoughtful independence, I suspect that his surprise decision to vote against the Clarence Thomas nomination will take a lot of his fellow senators with him when the nomination comes before the full Senate, probably next week.
After all, when Howell Heflin public expresses doubts about putting an inexperienced, somewhat slippery right-wing ideologue on the Supreme Court into the next century, it's time to sit up and take notice.