The Enduring Symbol of an Era of Hate
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 15, 1998; Page E1 With his oily pompadour, curling lip and diminutive stature, Alabama Gov. George Corley Wallace was a caricaturist's dream. Editorial cartoonists like Pat Oliphant used to draw him as a child-size figure behind an oversize desk covered with malevolent toys.
Yet the dimpled-chin bantamweight boxer from Clio, Ala., who died Sunday at 79, was a pivotal figure on the national political stage during the most tumultuous decade in American history since the Civil War. To national politicians and journalists peering nervously from above the Mason-Dixon line 30 years ago, Wallace was the Dracula of racial animosity a dark knight of the Southern soul ever threatening to harness the power of evil to enslave the land.
For Wallace, it was partially a game. Or at least it was until 1972, when a would-be assassin's bullet locked him into a crippled lifetime of pain.
He loved his fire-eating image, as the governor who had "stood in the schoolhouse door" in an effort to block desegregation of the University of Alabama, and proclaimed "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." He loved to jerk the chain of reporters contemptuous of the South as a backward land of bigotry and bare feet. "Funny how they like what I say in Milwaukee and DEEtroit," he'd say, chewing thoughtfully on a soggy Hav-a-Tampa in his shabby gubernatorial office in Montgomery. "Funny how they understand it in Cleveland and South Bend."
He loved serving as the national lightning rod during a decade of stormy social change. He gloried in the politics of resentment, giving voice to the fears and animosities of blue-collar voters not all of them racist angered by crime and school busing and by Vietnam War protesters who burned draft cards and spat on the flag.
But if you spent a little time with Wallace, you saw how much of it was posturing. His desk in Montgomery really was too big for him, and it was in fact crowded with model jet planes and rockets from the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. He would lean back in his worn leather chair, fiddle with his toys and hold forth on all sorts of topics, pausing only occasionally to remove his cigar and spit daintily into the wastebasket. But left to his own devices he would always return to a bitter and highly personal defensiveness the deep-rooted insecurity of a Depression-era farmer's boy resentful of those richer or better educated, convinced of the anti-Southern prejudice Wallace saw in every non-Alabamian he ever met.
He found a pathetic validation in any attention from the major national media he pretended to despise. And he convinced Alabamians that all the attention paid to him had validated them, too.
His racial rhetoric of the 1960s, along with the fears it aroused up North, was just how he brought that about, he told me one day in 1972: "You got to put the hay down where the goats can get it."
There really wasn't a dime's worth of difference between the old Wallace of the '60s and the Wallace of the '70s who eschewed the n-word, he said. "It's just I don't have to yell as loud now as when first elected. ... Like the old story about the farmer who has to knock down the mule to get his attention.
"I had no standing in the polls then. If I hadn't run the way I did before, you wouldn't be here in my office now. The Washington Post wouldn't be here in Montgomery, Alabama. Now you all listen to what I say, so I can talk a little softer."
In 1972, for example, the Wallace staff worked for three months to compile a list of presidential primary dates and filing requirements, oblivious to the fact that such a standard political research source as Congressional Quarterly had published the same information the year before. And that was even after the departure of such memorable Wallace veterans as E. Thomas Turnipseed, surely a campaign director with a name to warm the coldest of literary hearts.
Even before Wallace was shot, he had been marginalized by President Nixon's "Southern strategy," which in the person of Vice President Spiro Agnew managed to articulate and manipulate the "social issue" more effectively and cynically than Wallace ever could.
And in the end he was finished off on the national stage by what he never dreamed he'd live to see: a Southern presidential candidate embraced nationwide. That candidate was running on hope, not animosity, and his name was Jimmy Carter.
Wallace retreated to his governor's office in Montgomery, where he ruled in pain and frailty from a wheelchair. He carried the increasingly important black vote and eventually acknowledged that his racial politics of the past had been wrong. All he had ever meant to do, he explained, was protect Alabamians from the intrusive power of the federal government.
Other virulent race-baiters from those days, like Sen. Strom Thurmond and journalist James J. Kilpatrick, lived to see themselves become respected even revered as born-again champions of a colorblind society.
George Wallace never did. For more than two decades he spoke at black churches and NAACP meetings and sought almost poignantly to bury his past with Christian atonement, saying he didn't want to meet his maker with his sins unforgiven.
But the image that he died with was that of the snarling little man cloaked in the politics of fear a kind of racist Rumpelstiltskin spinning the straw of hatred into short-lived political gold.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company