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"'Machine' is real, but not humble"
John Archibald
The Birmingham News
February 19, 2006


It's possible politicians and newspaper folks are the only ones concerned with the secretive University of Alabama confederacy known as "The Machine."

Those who spent college years outside Tuscaloosa might even doubt the group exists. How could a secret coalition of select fraternities and sororities thrive for decades, grooming politicians and crowning homecoming queens, ruling campus activities and punishing foes?

And there's a bigger question. Who cares? It's just college. A time when life is viewed through a magnifying glass, every issue is clear and every flaw obvious.

It's not the real world. Right? But then, maybe it is.

Last week the Crimson White, UA's student newspaper and historically The Machine's Public Enemy No. 1, printed a story in which SGA President Mary Margaret Carroll acknowledged The Machine's existence. The Machine is not really that secret, she said. Just humble.

The Machine exists. Wow, what a surprise. I think I could have told you that. Or John Merrill could. He was the last independent to beat the Machine. He won the SGA presidency in 1985, but only after Machine goons were caught burgling his office. Other candidates have been run off the road, assaulted and bullied.

Which would mean little if it all stayed on campus. But it doesn't. Student politicians learn to run the campus so they can later run Alabama. Machine members have done both. Think Richard Shelby, Lister Hill, John Sparkman and Bill Baxley. Even two candidates in the current gubernatorial race have strange ties. The Machine backed former Gov. Don Siegelman when he ran for SGA president, but Machine thugs attacked Gov. Bob Riley's daughter when she opposed their candidate.

It can be an effective teacher, or a farm club for sleaze.

Machine fraternities and sororities take their role seriously. They endorse candidates and expect members to elect them. Failure to vote can mean a $100 fine. And fear of independents - or non-Greeks - has been played like the race card.

"They'd say that if we didn't fight the independents, they would take the Greek system away," said a woman I know. "We had to be ever-vigilant, because the GDIs hated us."

I bet you can figure out why they call independents GDIs.

That woman was forced from her sorority after a series of mutinous acts. She supported a friend's non-Machine candidacy and got a warning. She wrote about The Machine at the Crimson White and got threats ("The last girl who did this had her tires slashed ... you wouldn't want that to happen to you, right?"). She dated a GDI and got the boot. Sort of.

She had a choice, her alumni adviser told her. Dump that boyfriend and quit the newspaper, or turn in her Phi Mu pin.

But she did not compromise. I know this, because Alecia Sherard married me, anyway. Call it a happy ending, but never, ever tell me The Machine is harmless. Or humble.

John Archibald's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.