By Lansing Lamont
August 11, 1975 12:00 PM

The U.S. Apollo astronauts were about to blast into space, and Howard Hollis (Bo) Callaway was at the White House with President Ford. Would he care to watch the launch with the President? “Sorry,” said the hard-driving Callaway, spurning an invitation that much of Washington would kill for, “but I can’t.” With that Callaway turned on his heel and headed back to the Washington offices of the President Ford Committee, where the tough-minded Georgian has taken command of the 1976 election campaign.

Callaway’s single-minded devotion to duty is one reason why Ford picked the former congressman and Secretary of the Army. Another is that Callaway, 48, is uniquely suited to handle Ford’s most urgent problem—blunting a drive by Republican right-wingers to dump the President and nominate former California Gov. Ronald Reagan in his place. With Callaway, who is impeccably southern and conservative to the marrow, wooing prospective Reaganites from paths of apostasy, there may be nothing but migraines ahead for Ford’s opposition. When Reagan operative Lyn Nofziger learned that Callaway would be running the President’s campaign, Nofziger blanched and snapped to a waiter, “Get me a double gin on the rocks!”

Part of the Callaway plan appears to be the devaluation of Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller, whose name is still a dirty word to conservatives. Recently, Callaway described Rockefeller as the President’s “No. 1 problem,” and said: “the President is not committed to Rockefeller at the 1976 convention.” Some political insiders, however, saw the Callaway line as merely a ploy—albeit a humiliating one for the Vice-President—to soothe hardshell southern Republicans.

With the new federal campaign finance law clamping a $10 million lid on preconvention spending, Callaway will have to be pennywise as well as politically crafty. “Money has no value anymore,” Callaway says. “Every candidate will have the same amount.” Whereas the ill-fated Nixon reelection committee (CREEP) boasted about 400 paid staffers, the Ford committee has only four at this point. And Callaway gibes, “We don’t even own a shredder or a burn bag.”

Ordinarily Callaway is accustomed to a grander scale of command. Born into one of Georgia’s founding families, prosperous millowners who later transformed 2,500 acres of cotton land into the plush Callaway Gardens resort, he hardly had to claw his way to the top. “The minute the doctor slapped Bo on the butt, he was a millionaire,” says one Georgian. After graduating from West Point in 1949, Callaway led an Army combat platoon in Korea, later entering the family business. By the time the political bug bit him in 1964, he was a cog in Georgia’s WASPish establishment—a states’ rights Democrat who bolted his party to support GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. Elected to Congress that year as a Republican, he endeared himself to GOP Tories by aligning himself against Medicare, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He was persuaded to run for Georgia’s governorship in 1966, but his refusal to truck with local politicos (“I’ve never felt comfortable making backroom deals”) or to court the black vote (its leaders labeled him a “silk-stockinged segregationist”) cost him support in his campaign against Democrat Lester Maddox. Though he won the election by a narrow plurality, the write-in candidacy of liberal Democrat Ellis Arnall prevented him from achieving a majority, and he was defeated when the race was decided in the Georgia legislature.

Though stung, Callaway returned to politics in 1968 as Richard Nixon’s southern campaign director, embarrassing Nixon at one point by suggesting that George Wallace ought to be a Republican. The gaffe cost Callaway his chance at any high administration job until 1973 when he became Secretary of the Army.

Today Callaway begins a typical 14-hour workday by pedaling his 10-speed bike from his Arlington, Va. apartment to the nearby Pentagon for a squash game. He often plays with his son, Edward, 20, a junior at Dartmouth. Two other sons, Howard Jr., 22, and Ralph, 15, are working at a family-owned resort in Crested Butte, Colo. Daughter Virginia, 18, will be entering Yale in the fall and Betsy, 24, works as a volunteer receptionist for Callaway. His wife of 26 years, Beth, is recovering from injuries suffered in a truck-bus accident in June. At his office he fields calls from GOP contacts all over the country, talking as he works, in staccato bursts. Lunch is a cottage cheese salad at his desk, followed by an afternoon of shirtsleeved meetings. Later he may join Republican congressmen for cocktails on the presidential yacht, Sequoia. Recently Callaway and other Ford cronies helped the chief executive celebrate his 60th birthday at the White House with a raucous version of On Top of Old Smokey.

Friends of long standing, Callaway and Ford first met while skiing at Aspen, Colo. Ironically, Callaway himself might have been chosen as Nixon’s vice-presidential running mate in 1968 had he won Georgia’s governorship. In that event, Callaway could have caught the falling flag after Nixon’s resignation last summer, and it would be Callaway searching for a campaign manager for 1976. Would he have considered Gerald Ford?