Reviewed by Steve Suitts
Vol. 17, No. 3-4, 1995 pp. 24-27
The Politics of Rage: George Wallace and the Transformation of American Politics, by Dan T. Carter (Simon and Schuster, 1995, 572 pages).
Beginning in Clio, Alabama (evoking the name of the Greek muse of history), and ending not too distantly in the future, George Wallace’s life seemingly has been destined to be one of the grand morality plays of American politics, full of human pathos, the rough pageantry of consumptive ambition, and the ironies of forgiven mortal sins. His is also an essentially Southern story, one in which losers like him–be they good or evil–have more to tell us about ourselves and our times than many of the victors of our national history.
Now, with the arrival of The Politics of Rage: George Wallace and the Transformation of American Politics, Southern historian Dan ‘F. Carter has captured the essence of this tragedy in an easily readable, remarkably insightful biography of both Wallace and “Wallaceism,” recreating how the man and his movement “to stand up for America” reshaped the language and limits of today’s American political system. Seldom has a living politician’s biography explained so clearly, so convincingly, both the person’s complex nature and his unacknowledged, en-during influence on national life. And, like relatives enjoying a dishonorable inheritance about which they never speak, rarely have the heirs of a politician’s achievements been so reluctant to admit the source of their legacy.
As in most worthy biographies, Carter’s book begins by exploring how Wallace’s formative years, spent as a poor white amid a rural, south Alabama county that was largely black, poor, and profoundly segregated, helped to shape his sense of the world. Despite a few choppy transitions in this early chapter (I bet from the hands of an impatient commercial book editor insisting that readers always want to get to the juicy stuff quickly), the rendering is nonetheless lively and persuasive. Wallace came of age during the Depression under the strict, watchful eye of a mother who, by default, reared her children virtually alone. As a boy, George excelled at boxing, although he played other competitive sports. “We were fighters because we went through a period of time when we fought to exist,” Wallace recalled. Yet, as insistent as the hard times in Barbour County was a tradition of white supremacy, assumed whenever necessary over the decades with force or violence, by both the county’s “best” and lowliest citizens.
By the time Wallace went to the University of Alabama during the Roosevelt era, his combative nature was mated with a love of politics–and its opportunities to cajole, entice, and excite people to believe in him. In campus politics, as a flunky in Montgomery, and later as a state legislator from Clio, Wallace coalesced and supported a wide range of politicians who held nothing in common but public office. He ran errands for a crusty, old reactionary legislator; associated with hill country Republicans (including Frank M. Johnson, later a fearless, faithful federal judge whom Wallace condemned in personal terms for more than thirty years); and within eight consecutive years supported the policies of both a conservative governor and “Big Jim” Folsom, one of Alabama’s few liberal governors. If Wallace had a political philosophy, it was simply whatever people wanted to vote for. As Carter expertly reminds us, Wallace’s passionate ambition throughoutthoughout [sic] his career was winning votes, charming
and seducing voters, receiving the wholehearted adulation of those who did not know him. Not the ideology of segregation or oppression, not the lust for power nor the seediness of greed, but his unsatisfied hunger for others’ boundless, unreasonable admiration seemed the fuel for his prodigious, combative journey toward the highest offices in Alabama and the nation.
When George Wallace ran for governor in 1958 in Alabama, he was barely able to support his family, whom he saw infrequently, even before the all-consuming race began. After his loss, he was penniless, bitter, and exhausted. His marriage was at best a formality; his family an afterthought. Yet, on the night of his defeat he was already preparing another race in four years, as he vowed to friends that no one would ever “out-nigger” him again in politics. Over the next ten years, Wallace made good on his promise.
After winning the governor’s seat in 1962 on a campaign of “Vote right, vote white, vote for the fighting judge,” and staging soon afterwards his masterful, nationally televised “stand in the schoolhouse door,” George Wallace quickly became the leading spokesman against racial integration across the South and, increasingly, the nation. With small contributions from millions and the large donations of a few of America’s wacky wealthy like Bunker Hunt of Texas (who believed that civil rights was a communist plot), Wallace ran for president in 1964,1968, and again in 1972, until Arthur Bremer, a deranged white man seeking a moment of personal infamy, crippled Wallace for life with pistol shots at close range. In 1964, as the South’s most popular politician, Wallace won more than 30 per-cent of the votes in Democratic primaries in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Maryland. In 1968, as an independent candidate, he received more than ten million votes; in 1972, he won Democratic primaries in Florida, Indiana, Michigan, and Maryland before his permanent paralysis ended an active candidacy.
Back in 1962, after Wallace’s inaugural speech as governor pledging “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” Martin Luther King, Jr. warned the American public that “Wallaceism is much bigger than Wallace.” King’s prophetic words came to pass within ten years, as Wallaceism reshaped the nature of American politics. Frequently on national television, in interview programs and on the news as a presidential candidate, as well as in countless campaign rallies and campus speeches, Wallace defended segregation and racial discrimination as matters of “states rights,” “law and order,” and “anti-communism,” as had most segregationists before him. But George Wallace did something far more potent, far more damaging: he also convinced millions of whites, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon, that they, not segregated black folks, were the victims of a misdirected society.
Condemning “permissiveness,” crime, busing, big government, Godlessness, and briefcase-toting bureaucrats with their “racial quotas,” George Wallace found the modern code for the language of social issues–language and issues that allowed a significant number of whites, especially men, not only to escape the reckoning of their consciences about racism, but also to blame blacks for creating society’s real problems without ever once mentioning the word “nigger.” Wallace also rehearsed how to harness religious fundamentalism in politics through his direct mailings and his own rallies, which often included the techniques of a Billy Graham crusade or church revival.
It was this emerging Wallaceism, Carter carefully documents, which led Richard Nixon to fear that George Wallace, more than almost anyone else, could topple his ambitions for Republican hegemony. Between 1968 and 1972, Nixon watched Wallace carefully and whenever possible, by illegal campaign contributions or IRS investi-
gations, attempted to ruin him. During the presidential campaigns, Nixon skillfully shifted his own rhetoric, tactics, and policies in order to incorporate the emerging Wallaceism without Wallace–a political packaging that provided most of America’s white voters with an even more attractive seduction. While Wallace, the presidential candidate, made racism feel virtuous with his coded language of social issues and blame-the-nameless-blacks, the national press and television kept capturing Wallace, as an Alabama politician, making direct racist appeals at home–a political expediency that helped to keep the governor’s chair and state government as the base for his national campaigns.
For some of us who lived in Alabama during these times, this particular duplicity hardly seemed to rank among George Wallace’s sins. Another deception was far more damning and dangerous. For while Wallace often spoke both at home and across America consistently about “states rights” and “law and order,” his state government in the 1960’s was focused on only one objective: to preserve segregation at any cost, including the lawless and unnecessary injury of hundreds of peaceful protesters and the lives of more than a dozen civil rights workers and black children–all victims of shootings and bombings which Wallace and the state police explicitly condoned, attempted to ignore, blamed on outsiders or civil rights workers, or worse. Finally, in Carter’s work, we have documented what some of us suspected at that time–that Wallace’s men, including the head of the state police, worked to keep killers from being caught or convicted for these offenses. What we already knew, and what Carter illustrates, is that George Wallace encouraged the violent hate groups and nurtured the climate of lawlessness in Alabama, from which despicable white men could and did kill without remorse or even a real public accounting for their crimes. Wallace was also among the first of the Southern governors to set up state spy organizations using police surveillance, planned mischief, and public pressure to keep local citizens from challenging his administration’s policies. Sadly, this kind of gross abuse of power was something that neither George Wallace nor Richard Nixon needed to learn from anyone.
Over the last two decades, in the long, irregular shadows of Watergate, these misdeeds of George Wallace have been all but forgotten, as Wallace the politician has faded away. In fact, a biography by Steven Lesher published last year blindly, extravagantly reconceived Wallace as the political godfather of both Republican conservatives and Southern moderates like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, remembering Wallace’s role as a Southern segregationist as if he was just a choir boy following the music sheets of history (see Southern Changes, Spring 1994). Wallaceism, however, has survived and grown. The recent heirs to Wallaceism–Ronald Reagan, Ralph Reed of the Christian Coali-
tion, and Newt Gingrich, among others–have created a much more polished imagery, one in which both the coded words and the politician’s own fashionable style go down well at the country club and the Lions Club, although many of the symbolic terms (“welfare cheats,” “permissiveness,” etc.) remain the same; moreover, the heirs of Wallaceism like Ralph Reed have attempted shamelessly to disown their lineage by turning history on its head and claiming, as their own, the legacy of Martin Luther King instead of George Wallace.
Ironically, George Wallace also separated himself from Wallaceism after 1972. Confined to a wheel chair, often in deep pain, Wallace sought out civil rights leaders to tell them he was sorry for what he did, while repeating assurances that he never was really against blacks. In 1974 and again in 1982, unable to extinguish his need for mass approval, Wallace ran for governor seeking and receiving substantial black support despite both his in-ability and disinterest in governing a state. Left with no better choice on the ballot than an old reformed seg who at least knew how to please “them that brung him,” Alabama’s black voters were willing to forgive, if not forget. Hence, in the twilight of his public career, ignored by the heirs of his political legacy, George Wallace was embraced by the people whom he once oppressed.
In September of this year, in a published interview with John F. Kennedy, Jr., George Wallace stated that he has asked God to forgive his sins, although when pressed to name an act for which he might need forgiveness, Wallace showed a moment of his old spirit: “I tell my sins to God, not to people like you,” he replied to Kennedy. Wallace also repeated like a daily prayer his claim that, while he mistakenly fought to preserve segregation, never was he against black folks and never has he sought to be forgiven by any mortal for any of his past.
It is as if George Wallace wants others to confess their forgiveness of his sins, without anyone here on earth ever undertaking a strict accounting of them. There may still be something left, after all, of the old political alchemist who gave so many Americans a way to forgive and forget their own racial sins, and of the man who sought the distant adulation of multitudes and the genuine love of almost no one. It is, in any event, an act of moral vainglory that ought to be granted in the presence of a helpless, tortured old man who is so near his own final judgment.
Yet, when that day comes, if St. Peter’s accounting of the life of George Wallace and of Wallaceism resembles the one that Dan Carter has so scrupulously given us, George Wallace and his political heirs can hope only that God will have mercy on their souls since the muse of history surely cannot.
A native of Alabama, Steve Suitts was executive director of the Southern Regional Council until earlier this year when he began his status as a Southern ne’er-do-well under-taking independent research and writing