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Tags: callahan | reagan | eastwood | alabama | clinton | lewinsky

Remembering Ex-Rep. Sonny Callahan: Southern, Genteel, Not Too Serious About Himself

Remembering Ex-Rep. Sonny Callahan: Southern, Genteel, Not Too Serious About Himself
Rep. Sonny Callahan, R-Ala., on April 30, 1990. (CQ Roll Call via AP)

By    |   Sunday, 04 July 2021 03:57 PM EDT

"Dirty Harry!" is what President Ronald Reagan exclaimed whenever he saw Rep. Sonny Callahan, R.-Ala., in a reception line or at meeting during his second term as president. 

The 40th president, never known for remembering people’s names, had a unique reason for nicknaming the Republican lawmaker from Mobile who was first elected as Reagan swept to reelection in 1984.

"He had seen my name and told me how I spelled it just like Harry Callahan [played by Clint Eastwood] in the ‘Dirty Harry’ movies," Callahan later recalled to Newsmax, "We were both huge Eastwood fans.  And it stuck — I became ‘Dirty Harry’ to President Reagan."

When news came last week that Callahan died June 24 at age 88, reporters who covered the former state legislator and veteran (1984-2002) congressman swiftly remembered stories like this about him. 

A keen-eyed politician who knew the details of legislation and was intently focused on the legislative process, Callahan was also universally good natured and never took himself or his position that seriously. 

One of eight brothers and sisters in a close Irish Catholic family, Herbert Leon "Sonny" Callahan attended the University of Alabama for two years and then quit to serve in the U.S. Navy. Following his discharge, the young Callahan went to work for his family’s trucking business.

But in his ‘30’s, Callahan discovered a passion for politics.  In 1970, with his large extended family canvassing for him, he won the Democrat primary — then tantamount to election in Alabama — for the state House of Representatives. That was the same year George Wallace, two years after running for president as a third-party candidate, roared back to win nomination for his old job as governor.

Callahan loved to tell the story of Wallace speaking to a packed rally at a football stadium in Mobile with all the other Democrat candidates for office. 

"George fired up the crowd and when he was finished, about half of them left," he said, "Then came the candidates for lieutenant governor, attorney general and the other offices and each time they would finish speaking, people would leave and the audience got smaller.  When it came to me, there was one person left in the whole place and, when he came to the podium, I said ‘Thank you, brother, but I don’t know why you stayed here.’  He said: ‘Because I’m the guy who rented out that sound system and you owe me $500!’"

Callahan eventually moved to the state senate in 1978. Four years later, he made a bid for lieutenant governor.  After losing to former State Attorney General Bill Baxley — who had the backing of all-powerful teachers union boss Paul Hubbert and most of organized labor — pro-business Democrat Callahan could see which way the wind was blowing in his party and became a Republican.

When veteran Republican Rep. Jack Edwards announced his retirement in 1984, Callahan seemed to be his heir apparent in the Mobile-based 1st District. But he had to fight for the House seat. Democrat Frank McRight, a popular labor lawyer, mobilized union members and made the race highly competitive. Callahan finally eked out a win by about 4,000 votes (50.1% to 49.9%) over McRight, his candidacy undoubtedly helped by Reagan sweeping the district with 60% of the vote.

No doubt scared by his near-defeat, freshman Callahan worked hard at constituency service and being home at just about every moment Congress wasn’t in session. In 1986, he was unopposed for re-election and never had difficulty at the polls again.

The Alabamian secured a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee. When Republicans took the majority in the House in 1995, Callahan became chairman of the House Appropriations Committee on Foreign Operations — continuing his long-held skepticism on foreign aid.

(When it was widely reported that former White House intern Monica Lewinsky claimed she was having a sexual encounter with President Bill Clinton while he was in a phone conversation with Callahan, the congressman never acted as if he was insulted or scandalized but simply chuckled along with his friends.)

"Sonny was very well liked in Congress and knew how to ‘cross the aisle,’" Mike Simpson, longtime Democrat staffer on the Senate Banking Committee under Chairman John Sparkman. D-Ala., told us, "He was a very fair and civil man."

Callahan could have had the seat for his life. But he decided to retire in 2002 and, with his support, his longtime chief of staff Jo Bonner followed him in Congress.

Bill Schuette, Michigan’s former attorney general who came to Congress with Callahan in the "Class of ‘84" spoke for many when he said: "Sonny Callahan had a "sunny" disposition! He was all about Alabama, honest, hard-working, and always pleasant to everyone.  Nice dispositions like his could go a long way today. We will miss Sonny."

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.

© 2024 Newsmax. All rights reserved.

"Dirty Harry!" is what President Ronald Reagan exclaimed whenever he saw Rep. Sonny Callahan, R.-Ala., in a reception line or at meeting during his second term as president.
callahan, reagan, eastwood, alabama, clinton, lewinsky
Sunday, 04 July 2021 03:57 PM
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