Reviewed by Robert J. Norrell
Vol. 16, No. 1, 1994, pp. 18-20
George Wallace: American Populist, by Stephan Lesher (Addison Wesley, 1994, 587 pages).
“Watch out for George Wallace,” warned Wayne Greenhaw, an Alabama journalist, in his 1976 expose of the four-time Alabama governor’s continuing political ambitions. The warning ought still to be in effect for those who care about how we understand recent Southern history, because Wallace is attempting to manipulate the politics of memory to the same selfish end that he manipulated the politics of race in the 1960s and 1970s.
His newest instrument of manipulation is this biography by Stephan Lesher, a former Newsweek reporter. Once again George Wallace has fooled the public—this time, the bookpublishing and book-reviewing public—into believing his patently misleading view of the truth. Just as he promised frightened, bigoted white folks in Alabama that he could prevent desegregation—when he knew full well he could not—Wallace is now advancing an interpretation of his life that is sanitized to make him appear a clarion of the poor masses, a “populist.”
According to Lesher, Wallace was a racist, but no more so than the average white American of the time, and Wallace has been redeemed from his sin because he admitted it and asked forgiveness. Wallace’s profound cynicism now has been matched by Lesher’s, because anyone truly interested in historical facts knows that there was nothing commonplace about Wallace’s racism, nothing average about the way that he projected that racism onto Alabama and national politics.
Wallace hardly has admitted the extent of his sins, and Stephan Lesher and his publisher have helped to cover for Wallace by presenting us with a so-called “critical biography” when in reality this is not much more than an as-told-to autobiography with a thin and transparent wrapping of the third-person to fool the uninformed reader.
And fool it has:The New York Times Book Review declared it a definitive biography, long overdue. Lesher appeared on C-Span’s influential program, “Book Notes,” a sure path to the bestseller list. Lord, save us from naive Yankees. But even some hard-bitten political reporters in Alabama who should have known better came through with amnesiac reviews, in which they forgot many realities that should have been called to the attention of the apologist-biographer.
It’s a whitewash from the prologue on. Explaining why Wallace cooperated with him when the governor had refused to help other historians and journalists, Lesher wrote that Wallace believed that “I would treat him fairly and respectfully” and that “a biography by someone whom he had considered something of an adversary would carry greater credibility.”
Lesher conveniently neglected to mention that he paid Wallace a large sum of money to “cooperate,” a fact
that he admitted to in The New York Times when the great gray omniscience, perhaps embarrassed by its creampuff review, backtracked a little. By that time, George Wallace was sitting beside Lesher in Alabama malls autographing “their” book for shoppers.
Paying Wallace also earned Lesher access to Wallace’s papers, which the governor still controls in violation of IRS rules. Wallace took a big tax write-off for donating his papers to a library, and tax regulations about donated papers deny any further control to the donor. At least that’s how it worked for Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey when they donated their papers.
But nobody challenged Wallace when he continued to control the papers after the IRS donations. So, the governor was in the position to allow Lesher, and Lesher only, the use of those papers. That preserved access for the apologist and kept away other, more critical historians and journalists. Nobody was watching out for George Wallace, and thus nobody was watching out for the historical record.
Not that Lesher’s book reveals much interest in serious historical research. He cites almost none of the relevant scholarly books and articles, even the ones that directly pertain to Wallace in Alabama politics. He apparently did not even consider the critical journalism of Michael Dorman. Nor did he cite the Presidential papers of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, or Richard Nixon, which likely contain much relevant material.
There are scores of minor factual errors and distortions of the significance of Wallace’s presidential bids, but the main sins of this author are two interpretive whitewashes, one about race and the other about corruption. Although Lesher acknowledges Wallace’s exploitation of racism in politics, he couches it as an unfortunate reality for all politicians of the time. He ignores the evidence pointing to the singular ugliness of Wallace’s racist connections. He admits there was a “faint whiff” of Klan activity in Wallace’s 1962 campaign; in fact, a “putrid stench” would have been a more appropriate metaphor for the degree of Klan involvement. He distances Wallace from Asa Carter, the notorious Klan terrorist and publicist, by making Carter the tool of a Wallace adviser. He simply leaves out Wallace’s ties to the American Nazis and the John Birchers, thus disconnecting Wallace’s racist political rhetoric from the terrorism and extremism it fostered.
Lesher has little to say about the rampant corruption of the Wallace administrations, choosing to ignore countless journalistic exposés of kickbacks—to Wallace’s kin, cronies, and campaigns—from liquor agents, bond lawyers, asphalt companies, architects, and construction companies, just to mention a few. Lesher lays what corruption he admits at the feet of Seymore Trammell, Wallace’s close adviser, who was in fact convicted of taking bribes. By his own description the “fall guy” for a federal investigation that stopped short of Wallace and his brother when the governor agreed not to run as an independent against Richard Nixon in 1972, Trammell has subsequently confirmed an all-encompassing pattern of official abuse under Wallace. Lesher simply took the governor’s word that Trammell was a bad person.
For all practical purposes, this is an authorized celebrity biography for which the only true source of information is George Wallace himself. Lesher quotes important
people—many of them still alive—passing judgment on Wallace, and the footnotes reveal that Wallace’s memory is the source of the quotes. As an as-told-to memoir, Wallace’s views on his life would have been accepted as self-serving because all such books are that, but this masqueraded “biography” is contemptuous.
Why get so exercised about a bad book when lots of bad books get published? Because the politics of memory about George Wallace is important today. His son of the same name is running for lieutenant governor of Alabama this year, capitalizing on his virtually 100-percent name recognition among voters. State politics remains full of people who learned the trade in the Wallace machine and now ply it for other candidates.
For people so apprenticed, politics by definition is simply getting elected by whatever means the times allow and then using the office exclusively for self-aggrandizement. Politics so purely cynical teaches the public that there is no place for idealism or ethics in government. Thus politics and government are immoral—and unworthy of our time, attention, or taxes. It seems to defy logic that citizens might act collectively through government to address serious problems. The cost of political cynicism is a huge penalty we pay every day, and that’s why we must still watch out for George Wallace.
Robert J. Norrell is professor of history at the University of Alabama and a member of the Southern Regional Council.