Callaway was born in LaGrange in Troup County in west Georgia, southwest of the state capital city of Atlanta, the son of Cason Jewell Callaway, Sr. and the grandson of Fuller Earle Callaway. He attended Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and then the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, from which he was graduated.
After serving in the Army, Callaway returned to Georgia to help his father develop and operate their beloved Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Harris County, Georgia, near Franklin D. Roosevelt's Warm Springs retreat in Meriwether County.
Like most southerners at the time, Callaway grew up as a supporter of the Democratic Party. He switched parties out of frustration with the Democrats' more liberal policies regarding desegregation. In 1964, he ran as a "Goldwater Republican" for a seat in the House of Representatives from Georgia's 3rd congressional district. He won, having defeated the former lieutenant governor, Garland T. Byrd, 57 percent to 43 percent. Callaway thus became the first Republican elected to the US House from Georgia since the Reconstruction era.
Jimmy Carter, the future president who was then a member of the Georgia State Senate, planned to oppose Callaway for reelection to the House. However, when Callaway decided to leave the House after a single term to run for governor in 1966, Carter switched races and himself sought the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
Callaway and Carter had clashed in 1961 over the location of a four-year state college. Carter wanted the school in Americus; Callaway, a University of Georgia regent, preferred Columbus, the site of the Army base Fort Benning. Both cities now have four-year institutions. Callaway and Carter graduated from separate military academies, Callaway at West Point and Carter from the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. Though he had criticized Callaway's use of "God, Country, and Motherhood" as a campaign theme, Carter himself adopted similar platitudes in future races. Carter complained to Eugene Patterson, then editor of the Atlanta Constitution, that the state's largest newspaper was partial to Callaway despite its primary preference for Democratic former Governor Ellis Arnall, rather than Carter and its neutrality in the general election. In his memoirs, Carter does not mention Callaway, an associate of U.S. President Gerald R. Ford, Jr., whom Carter unseated in 1976. However, Rosalynn Smith Carter, termed Callaway a "favorite" of the John Birch Society even though Callaway had repudiated the anti-communist group founded by Robert Welch after Welch alleged that former President Dwight D. Eisenhower had been a "conscious agent of the communist conspiracy." She further recalled in obvious distaste that a tobacco-chewing Callaway backer in Washington, Georgia, had spat upon her. Years later, Callaway recalled Carter as "a very sincere man trying to do his best who was simply over his head in the White House and was not able to be the decisive leader that the country needed."
Callaway was the first Republican even to seek the Georgia governorship since 1876. Because Republicans held no primary at the time in Georgia, Callaway was required to obtain 87,000 signatures, 5 percent of the registered voters, to guarantee ballot access. He secured 150,765 names, which were hand-delivered to the Georgia Secretary of State. Former Governor Ellis Arnall, who said that he relished a showdown with Callaway, even signed the Republicans' petition to place him on the ballot.
The media continually speculated that Callaway would wage a formidable campaign against either Arnall or Lester Maddox, the segregationist businessman who finished in second place in the first primary election. National figures like U.S. Representative Gerald Ford and U.S. Senator George Murphy of California campaigned in Georgia for Callaway.
Callaway formally launched his campaign on September 30, 1966, with a 30-unit motorcade along Peachtree Street in Atlanta. Few African Americans or blue collar workers were visible in the white collar crowd numbering 25,000. He discussed such consensus priorities as education, integrity and efficiency in government, protection of life and property, mental health issues, industrial development, tourism, highways, and natural resources.
Callaway promised that if he was elected, to alleviate overcrowded classrooms and to augment teacher salaries by $1,200 per year, but he had criticized a similar plan by Maddox as too costly. Both major party nominees opposed federal enforcement of desegregation guidelines. Callaway had sponsored a resolution in the US House to the bar US Education Commissioner, Harold Howe, II, from equating "racial imbalance" with "segregation" in the determination of the disposition of federal funds. Maddox frequently claimed that the wealthy Callaway was insensitive to the needy.
The U.S. News and World Report forecast a Callaway victory because of the Republican's business support. Republican optimism had soared in the 1966 municipal elections, when their candidates won the offices of mayor and all six city council seats in Savannah, the state's second largest city. Arnall compiled a dossier on Callaway, which he claimed would guarantee a Democratic victory in the fall, with him as the head of the ticket. He denounced the tax-exempt status of the Callaway Foundation. Time proclaimed Arnall "the odds on favorite;" Newsweek predicted that Maddox was "certain to lose." The Athens Daily News claimed that Maddox lacked "a Chinaman's chance." The Macon Telegraph said that Maddox's "anger, hate, and vengeance... has from earliest biblical times... divided and destroyed."
The Macon Telegraph warned Callaway that he "must rise early and work late" to overcome the "little Pickrick warrior," a reference to Maddox's former Pickrick Restaurant in Atlanta. The newspaper urged Callaway to seek moderate Democrats because he could never outfox Maddox in the "seemingly popular sport of LBJ cussin'." The Marietta Daily Journal depicted Callaway as a "responsible conservative whose weapons are logic and reason in contrast to the irresponsible racist Maddox whose weapons are ax handles and intemperate epithets." The Atlanta Constitution called upon Callaway to offer specifics shared by "reasonable Georgians in good conscience." Thought it held Callaway "better qualified" than Maddox, the liberal Atlanta Constitution endorsed neither candidate. Callaway remained conservative and shunned the labels "segregationist" or "integrationist" but said he stood for "freedom of choice" desegregation plans. Both candidates ran afoul of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Atlanta, Most Rev. Paul J. Hallinan, who proclaimed that no "honest Catholic" could support a segregationist.
Callaway's Cadillac bore the bumper sticker: "I fight poverty – I work!" Callaway once joked that he had "looked all over Washington, for a money tree that supports these programs, and I have yet to find it."Benjamin B. Blackburn, a suburban Atlanta Republican congressman from 1967 to 1975, said that Callaway was not "racist" but abhorred the high costs of such federal social programs at the expense of taxpayers.
Time magazine carried a report of some voters with Callaway stickers on their cars voting in the Democratic runoff, presumably for Maddox on the theory that he would be a weaker opponent for Callaway than would have been Arnall. Maddox received 443,055 votes to Arnall's 373,004; one Arnall aide attributed the entire Maddox margin to the Republican crossovers. However, the Marietta Daily Journal dismissed the crossovers and speculated that supporters of Jimmy Carter largely backed Maddox. Callaway denied having urged any Republicans to support Maddox: "the losers always blame the other party."
After he surprisingly defeated Arnall in the runoff election, Maddox borrowed from a nursery verse: "Little Bo Callaway has lost lots of his sheep... and he can't get them back." He ridiculed his opponent as a "baby in his crib reaching for his rattler." Maddox declared reports of Democratic decline in Georgia as unfounded: "The party is not dead, it's not even sick. It has a new shot in the arm – it has a new breath of life." Maddox said that Callaway should have sought reelection to Congress rather than making the groundbreaking race for governor.
As a Democrat in 1962, Callaway had supported former Governor Marvin Griffin, who lost the primary to Carl Sanders. Then, the publisher of the Post Searchlight in Bainbridge, Griffin at first indicated that he would repay Callaway, but he instead held firm for Maddox. "I consider Bo Callaway one of my best friends, but I can't go with him in the governor's race," Griffin said. Conversely, former Governor Ernest Vandiver, who as lieutenant governor from 1955 to 1959 had quarreled with Governor Griffin, dismissed Maddox as "a pipsqueak" and endorsed Callaway.
"Go Bo" was the persistent Callaway campaign slogan. Some liberals, disgruntled with both party nominees, proclaimed, "Go Bo, and take Lester with you." Some of these individuals organized a write-in campaign on behalf of Ellis Arnall, who said that he neither encouraged nor discouraged their undertaking. Maddox likened the write-in to an attempt to "slip into the back door like a thief in the night" and called upon Arnall to renounce the drive. Several celebrities endorsed the Arnall write-in, including television personality Hugh Downs and singers Peter, Paul, and Mary, Frank Sinatra, and Sammy Davis, Jr. The Georgia civil rights activist Hosea Williams challenged Callaway on a myriad of issues important to liberals and claimed that the Republican nominee had purchased the endorsement of the Atlanta Journal.
Enthusiastic crowds and promising opinion polls falsely buoyed Callaway in late October. An Oliver Quayle tabulation for NBC News showed Callaway leading Maddox, 42 to 27 percent but with 22 percent undecided and 7 percent for the Arnall write-in. Atlanta bookies gave Maddox a 50–50 chance of victory
Callaway performed well in stump speaking but was less effective in one-on-one exchanges because his adherence to a strict schedule exuded impatience. Maddox supporters insisted that a Republican governor would clash with the heavily Democratic Georgia legislature, but Callaway called upon Republican Governor Henry Bellmon of Oklahoma, who had worked there with a Democratic legislature, to refute such claims. Callaway told students in Albany.that he would promote industrial development but charged that Maddox would undermine their employment possibilities.
Jimmy Carter, who had sat out the Democratic runoff election between Arnall and Maddox much to Arnall's outrage, finally endorsed Maddox, having described the Democratic state platform excluding racial matters as "more progressive and more liberal" than the Republican alternative. The Macon Telegraph found nothing "liberal" in Maddox, whom it dismissed as "a grave threat to peace, dignity, and progress." The publication denounced "inept and erratic leadership" that could thrust the state into a "tailspin, poison race relations, stagnate the growth of jobs and payrolls, ruin the accreditation of schools, and make Georgia a laughingstock of the nation."
Callaway won a very narrow plurality over Maddox in the general election, but the Arnall write-in effort denied the Republican a majority of votes. Using rural returns, the national television networks forecast a Maddox victory, but the projections failed to gauge Callaway's strength in urban areas. Three days later on November 11, 1966, Callaway held a slim lead, 453,665 to Maddox's 450,626. Arnall obtainced 52,831 write-in votes. Maddox led in 128 counties; Callaway, in 30; Arnall, only in Liberty County in the southeast. Callaway overall led by 121,000 votes in urban areas but trailed by 118,000 in rural precincts. In Atlanta, a correlation existed between Callaway voters and racial and income factors. Callaway took 79.5 percent among affluent whites but only 43.9 percent from working-class whites. Among the middle class, he received 51.7 percent. Lower-income whites gave 72.2 percent of their ballots to Lester Maddox. Poor black voters split evenly between Callaway and Arnall. Middle-class blacks voted 53.5 percent for Callaway, 43.2 percent for Arnall, and 3.4 percent for Maddox. In Macon, Callaway polled 87.4 percent among blacks; poor whites there gave Maddox 47.4 percent, nearly 25 percent points lower than in Atlanta. The Callaway plurality hence resulted from anti-Maddox blacks. The vote further fragmented along religious and educational lines. Maddox polled 53 percent from his fellow Baptists but only 20 percent from his opponent's Episcopalian denomination. Maddox also drew 20 percent from Methodists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans, and 5 percent from Jews. Sixty percent of whites with less than a high-school education chose Maddox, while only 13 percent of college graduates supported the Democratic nominee. Maddox led among voters who felt underpaid and with those lacking social or civic club memberships.
Under Georgia's election law then in effect, the state legislature was required to select a governor from the two candidates with the most votes. Dominated overwhelmingly by Democrats, the legislature selected Maddox. After certification of the election returns, a three-judge federal panel, including future Attorney General of the United States Griffin Bell, a Democrat, and Judge Elbert Tuttle, a Republican, struck down the constitutional provision permitting the legislature to elect the governor. The judges said that a malapportioned legislature might "dilute" the votes of the candidate with a plurality of the ballots. Bell equated legislative election to the county-unit principle already struck down by the courts. The judges granted a 10-day suspension of their ruling to permit appeal to the United States Supreme Court and stipulated that the state could resolve the impasse so long as an alternative to legislative election was reached. The American Civil Liberties Union, critical of Republican crossover votes in the Maddox-Arnall Democratic runoff election, opposed legislative intervention or a new general election without write-ins being permitted. Instead, the ACLU sought to reopen the primary process. Other citizen groups proposed a special election. The Democratic state chairman insisted that anything other than election by the legislature would be "a sad commentary on the decline of constitutional government."
In the state's appeal, Attorney General Arthur K. Bolton emphasized that state law permits write-ins in all elections. A general election runoff, which then had no precedent but was later adopted in Georgia, could lead to another deadlock because of the write-ins, Bolton reasoned. Therefore, Bolton argued that the legislature should choose the governor despite malapportionment. A special election could not be called prior to the tabulation of returns on January 10, 1967.
In a five-to-two decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Bolton's reasoning and cleared the path for the legislature to elect Lester Maddox. Justice Hugo Black, a former Democratic U.S. senator from Alabama, took the strict constructionist line by emphasizing that the Constitution does not dictate how a state must elect its governor. "Our business is not to write laws to fit the day. Our task is to interpret the Constitution," Black explained. The two liberal dissenters, Abe Fortas and William O. Douglas, ironically supported Callaway's position. Fortas contended that the 1824 provision for the legislature choosing the governor "belittled the equal protection clause," which did not become operational until 1868. "If the voting right is to mean anything, it certainly must be protected against the possibility that victory will go to the loser," said Fortas.
In light of the ruling, Callaway supported a resolution by State Representative A. Mac Pickard of Columbus for a special runoff election without write-ins. Lawmakers tabled Pickard's motion, 148 to 110. When Callaway sought a meeting with Maddox to discuss the issue, he was told to contact Maddox on January 11, 1967, in the governor's office.
The combined Georgia House and Senate chose Maddox, 182 to 66. More than thirty Democrats defected to Callaway either because he held a slim statewide plurality or had carried their districts. Elliott Levitas, Arnall's law partner from Atlanta, backed Callaway. In 1974, in a heavily Democratic year, he unseated the Republican US Representative Ben Blackburn. Also in 1974, George Busbee, another Callaway supporter, defeated Maddox for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination and then trounced the Republican nominee, Ronnie Thompson, the former mayor of Macon. Under a change in the law, Busbee became the first Georgia governor to serve two consecutive terms.
Another group appealed to the Supreme Court of Georgia, which ruled five-to-two in favor of having the legislature break the impasse. Chief Justice William Henry Duckworth, a Democrat partial to the Pickard resolution, questioned allowing the candidate with the lower vote tabulation to become governor. "Strip the citizen of his right to vote, and you render him a helpless victim of a dictator," Duckworth dissented.
The Atlanta Constitution concluded that "flabbergasting circumstances" had turned the gubernatorial campaign into "a page from Ripley's. In defeat, Callaway said that the GOP had "a long way to go to achieve a competitive force. Let us pledge to work twice as hard to make Georgia a shining example of opportunity." Callaway promised the Republican faithful that they would "meet again on another day in another race," lending incorrectly to speculation that he might challenge U.S. Senator Herman Talmadge in 1968. The Atlanta Constitution described Callaway as a "lonesome, sad figure."
A week after the Maddox inauguration, Callaway replaced former President Eisenhower as director of Freedoms Foundation, a nonpartisan group dedicated to patriotic causes located in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. A few months later, he became the Georgia Republican national committeeman and Richard M. Nixon's 1968 "southern coordinator," which secured Nixon's nomination through the Southern Strategy with the help of other Deep South figures, such as Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and the state chairmen Charlton Lyons of Louisiana and Clarke Reed of Mississippi. In 1973, Callaway began a stint as Secretary of the Army under Presidents Nixon and Ford and was an important figure in managing the post-Vietnam transition from the draft to the all-volunteer army. After managing the first phase of the Ford election campaign, Callaway resigned in 1976, when NBC News alleged his involvement in a conflict-of-interest case relating to the United States Forest Service in Colorado. A congressional investigation found "no positive evidence of impropriety." In 1977, Harper's Magazine concluded that Callaway had been a scapegoat in the matter.
In 1976, Callaway and his family subsequently moved to Colorado, where he acquired the Crested Butte Mountain Resort. In 1980, he was an unsuccessful candidate for the Republican nomination for the US Senate in Colorado, having been defeated by an intraparty moderate challenger, Secretary of State Mary Estill Buchanan. Buchanan then narrowly lost to the incumbent Democrat Gary Hart despite the victory in Colorado of the Reagan/Bush ticket. From 1981 to 1987, Callaway served as the chairman of the Colorado Republican Party and as head of the political action committee GOPAC.
Callaway's son-in-law, Terry Considine, also a Republican, is a former Colorado State Senator who ran unsuccessfully for the US Senate in 1992, losing to Democratic (later Republican) U.S. Representative Ben Nighthorse Campbell.
Callaway died at an assisted living facility in Columbus, Georgia, on March 15, 2014, of complications of a cerebral hemorrhage suffered two years prior. He was 86. His wife, Laura Elizabeth "Beth" Walton Callaway (1926–2009), a native of Hamilton in Harris County, Georgia, was a daughter of Ralph Outlaw Walton and the former Octavia Perry. She met Howard Callaway in the sixth grade. A chemist and a graduate of Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, the couple married in 1949 and was together for more than sixty years until her death. In 1979, she received a Master of Science in Botany from Western State College in Gunnison, Colorado. Mrs. Callaway was a founding member of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas, and served as well on the board of visitors for the Ida Cason Callaway Foundation and the board of the United States National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. Lynda Johnson Robb, older daughter of Lady Bird Johnson called Mrs. Callaway "a take-charge woman, and when she gave her heart to Mother Nature, you knew that native plants and the environment were better off."
Howard and Beth Callaway have five surviving children, Elizabeth Callaway Considine of Denver, Colorado; Howard H. Callaway Jr. of Bristol, Virginia, Edward C. Callaway of Hamilton, Georgia; Virginia Callaway Martin of Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Ralph W. Callaway of Columbus, Georgia, and sixteen grandchildren.