GEORGE WALLACE

American Populist

By Stephan Lesher

Addison Wesley. 587 pp. $29.95

YOU MAY THINK George Wallace is not a man with whom you want to while away the hours. But Stephan Lesher's new biography of the Alabama governor and presidential contender is a terrific read. George Wallace: American Populist is both a serious book about American politics and a good old-fashioned yarn.

Wallace was no minor player on the American political stage. He became the governor of Alabama in 1962 and dominated the politics of that state until he retired in 1986. In 1964, 1968 and 1972, he ran for president of the United States, twice as a Democratic insider, once as a third-party candidate. But he was more important than this bare-bones historical sketch suggests, Lesher argues. He was the man who made the mold that set the shape of other candidacies, "the most influential loser in modern American politics."

Of course race-baiting skills were his claim to initial fame. He was a hater with a ready snarl, winning his first gubernatorial race by "out-segging" his opponent. But ironically, his hard line on the question of race only hastened the pace of racial change. Standing in the doorway, blocking two black students trying to register at the all-white University of Alabama, he shocked the conscience of the nation. The violence of Alabama officials under his direction against peaceful civil rights demonstrators ensured the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Wallace had a genius for political theater -- for spectacular and tragic shows on behalf of a lousy and lost cause.

Lesher asks us not to fixate on the racism. As the subtitle suggests, he sees Wallace primarily as an American populist. An economic liberal and a social conservative, he spoke, Lesher argues, for the man on the street and in a voice that endures. Thus he railed against the breakdown of law and order, permissive liberals, federal intrusiveness, and the collapse of traditional values.

It's an interesting and valuable argument, but the fact remains that in an absolutely crucial sense, Wallace was a period piece. The racial views he once expressed were in another era. This is an important point because it has been so ignored. The conventional wisdom is that there has been no real racial change. Thus the much-admired Lani Guinier still speaks of whites as a "permanent, hostile majority." The Rev. Benjamin Chavis, executive director of the NAACP, depicts racism as "worse today than it was in the '60s."

In fact, between the lines, Lesher tells a story about how the law did change minds and hearts. George Wallace is a reminder of how far we've come. In 1956 the Alabama Senate unanimously passed a resolution asking Congress for money to move the entire black population out of the state; today that Senate is over 14 percent black. In Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma and elsewhere memorials now celebrate the revolution that George Wallace so brutally opposed.

We've moved on, and so has Wallace. He spread terror at the prospect of change and then himself changed. In his 1982 gubernatorial campaign, he openly courted black support. In 1986 Alabama blacks (in a poll) named Wallace as the best governor in the history of the state. One year later, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, running for president, made time to pay his political respects to a man with black blood on his hands.

Wallace came around on the issue of race when his political powers were failing. And that raises a question Lesher does not directly answer: How important, in fact, was the race-baiting to his national success? In 1964 the white northern ethnics who flocked to Wallace rallies certainly feared the impact of the new civil rights law on their schools, neighborhoods and places of employment. After the race riots that began in 1965, the white backlash grew. In a 1971 interview the governor himself acknowledged the racial anger -- the need "to let off steam" -- that lay behind much of his northern support.

In addition, his other themes were not his alone. Lesher stamps a Wallace trademark on the politics of quiet panic. His politics are now our politics, he argues. Thus, "in 1992 . . . every presidential candidate . . . professed a special kinship with middle-class Americans, berated the Washington establishment . . . and responded to race-triggered riots in Los Angeles with calls for law and order." In fact, however, for two centuries candidates have been chasing the middle class vote, and suspicion of big government goes back to Thomas Jefferson. In addition, the political styles of his seeming successors were not really Wallace-like; Nixon, for instance, never electrified crowds, and Reagan was genial, not in-your-face scrappy. A better analogy is perhaps one that Lesher does not draw: Rush Limbaugh. But if the analogy holds, it only underscores Lesher's basic point: Racists have come and gone, but populism endures.

Abigail Thernstrom is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, an adjunct professor at Boston University and the author of "Whose Votes Count? Affirmative Action and Minority Voting Rights."