On a July afternoon in 1987, when Jesse Jackson stopped in Montgomery, Alabama, to pay his respects to former governor and presidential candidate George Wallace, a profound sense of irony surrounded the event – a sense of history having come full circle. That scene – the civil rights leader sitting down with the former segregationist – is the point of departure for Stephan Lesher’s masterful George Wallace: American Populist.
Wallace first captured the national spotlight at the University of Alabama, personally obstructing a federal segregation order. As the governor used his resultant notoriety to argue for “getting the government off the backs of the people,” to berate the Washington establishment and the hypocrisy of the “limousine liberals,” and to voice the frustrations of the middle class in the face of academic and governmental elites, his critique was obscured by the racist taint, and what would become his true political legacy was overshadowed.
For unbeknownst to his more urbane critics, George Wallace was setting the national political agenda for the remainder of this century. In electing Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and even Clinton, Lesher argues, the American people have voted for Wallace’s ideas in gentrified form in every election since 1968. For good or ill, Wallace has not only become mainstream, it was he who diverted the nation’s course. As such, in Lesher’s view, he emerges as the most important loser in the history of presidential politics. In telling the Wallace story, Lesher brings to life what C. Vann Woodward calls the “burden of Southern history,” placing Wallace and the sentiments he exploited in the context of Reconstruction and the long struggle, not just of black Americans, but of the white Southern poor as well.
Book offers kindly look at George Wallace
Days after his state troopers beat and tear-gassed civil rights marchers on a bridge in Selma, Ala., Gov. George Wallace turned up at the White House. President Lyndon Johnson had requested a meeting.
“George, you and I shouldn’t be thinking about 1968,” Johnson told his fellow Southerner — and potential 1968 challenger — on that Saturday afternoon in March 1965. “We should be thinking about 1988. We’ll both be dead and gone then. What do you want left behind? You want a great, big marble monument that says, ‘George Wallace: He Built’? Or do you want a little piece of scrawny pine laying there that says, ‘George Wallace: He Hated’?”
Mr. Wallace made it to 1988. Wallace was still alive back then, but not exactly well, in Montgomery. But the late LBJ’s words have come to haunt the once-defiant defender of segregation. Wallace, at 74 and miserable from the constant pain he’s borne since being gunned down in Laurel, in 1972, Mr. Wallace is desperately waging a final campaign.
This time, it’s not for votes. It’s to rescue his reputation — and his soul.
He wants history to remember him as more than the villain who proclaimed “Segregation forever!” and stood in the schoolhouse door to block black students. He wants those he hurt to forgive him.
The first step toward salvation, as this born-again Christian knows, is acknowledging our sins. In “George Wallace: American Populist,” written with the former governor’s full cooperation, journalist Stephan Lesher catalogs a lifetime of often ugly Wallace trespasses.
Mr. Lesher, a former Newsweek correspondent, has covered the South since the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. He conducted more than 60 hours of interviews with Mr. Wallace and had full access to his papers, family and friends. Mr. Wallace, who had used a wheelchair since the shootin, has even accompanied Mr. Lesher on book-signings in Alabama.
This union of writer and subject has produced a detailed, highly readable book that, nevertheless, leaves plenty of room for future biographers. Mr. Lesher relies far too heavily on Wallace’s own recollections of his growing-up and college years. A more dogged, skeptical reporter might have uncovered the roots of Mr. Wallace’s lifelong obsession with running for office and making headlines.
Apart from the civil rights battles that dominated Mr. Wallace’s first term, Mr. Lesher’s treatment of the Alabama governor’s 17 1/2 -year record (he served four terms and his wife 1 1/2 years) is so shallow that it reads as if one of Mr. Wallace’s cronies could have written it.
Still, the book does offer a fresh take on the man Mr. Lesher calls “the most influential loser in modern American politics.”
That’s at least a step up from cartoonish demagogue — the portrait that emerged from the last major Wallace biography: “Wallace,” Marshall Frady’s stylish, if underdocumented, 1972 effort.
As Mr. Lesher points out, Mr. Wallace trail-blazed issues and slogans that went on to become part of every winning presidential campaign since 1968.
Ronald Reagan was still host of TV’s “Death Valley Days“ when Mr. Wallace began ranting against “forced busing,” the “ultra-liberal press” and a federal government bent on “tax, tax, spend, spend.”
“George Wallace: American Populist” begins and ends with chapters sympathetic to Mr. Wallace and his quest for historical respectability. But the book’s great middle, which covers 1962 to 1970, offers an unflinching picture of a politician with little regard for anybody but himself.
He used family members as campaign props, but ignored them most of the time (George Wallace, Jr remembers growing up as a “lonely and painful time”). He abandoned his mentor (former Alabama Gov. Jim Folsom) to establish his segregationist credentials. He unseated Gov. Albert Brewer— his wife, Gov. Lurleen Wallace‘s, loyal successor — by running a vicious personal campaign against him and his family. Although Mr. Wallace claimed to be a color-blind champion of law and order, he surrounded himself with racist thugs and inspired violent acts that left 11 Civil rights workers dead during his first term.
Mr. Wallace became a victim of violence himself and came to regret his shameful past. Near the end of the book, Mr. Lesher reports that a repentant George Wallace even turned up unannounced at the Montgomery church that launched Martin Luther King, Jr‘s career. “I have learned what suffering means,” Mr. Wallace told the black congregation in late 1979. “In a way that was impossible before [the shooting], I think I can understand something of the pain that black people have come to endure. I know I contributed to that pain and I can only ask your forgiveness.”
Title: “George Wallace: American Populist”
Author: Stephan Lesher