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Waller’s charisma was unforgettable

Mississippi politics lost one of its more colorful personalities Wednesday when former Gov. Bill Waller Sr. died.

I only had two encounters with Waller, but they were pleasantly memorable. Here they are:

In 2005, while I was at the Yazoo Herald newspaper in Yazoo City, I covered a murder trial in which Waller represented the defendant. Waller’s client, if I’m remembering correctly, had shot the victim more than once in the back after an argument at one of the town’s nightclubs. Waller’s client was at the club planning a birthday party when the incident occurred.

Waller’s strategy was simple: Convince the jury that his client had acted in self-defense. His execution held a lot more flair.

In his opening argument, Waller put on a show. He yelled. He gyrated. At one point, when he was re-enacting the fight that ended with the victim being shot, he grabbed his chest, twirled toward the jury, and hit the deck. It was all jurors — and the rest of us — could do to maintain some kind of composure.

But it worked. Waller’s client was acquitted. In a post-trial interview, I asked Waller how he had done it. “It all goes back to the old colloquialism,” he said in his sing-songy drawl. “Who started the fight? My client didn’t start the fight. My client protected himself the best way he knew how.”

The second came in 2009, when Gov. Haley Barbour was presenting the Medal of Service to a group of Mississippians at his Sillers Building office. Waller was among them. Barbour called the winners up to the podium alphabetically to receive the medal; becase of that, Waller was among the last of the group.

Before Barbour had finished calling his name, Waller leaped out of his seat and bounded to the front. He gave an acceptance speech that went beyond cursory thank-yous.

“This is a great day to be a Mississippian!” Waller bellowed. “And I can’t wait for Mississippi to lead us out of this recession!”

Just like he did in Yazoo City, Waller owned the room. May he rest in glorious peace.

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