FROM GEORGE WALLACE TO NEWT GINGRICH

Race in the Conservative Counterrevolution, 1963-1994

By Dan T. Carter

Louisiana State University Press. 134 pp. $22.95

This discussion of the role that direct and indirect appeals to racial prejudice have played in the conservative revival consists of four essays. The first three -- dealing with George Wallace, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan -- were originally presented as lectures at Louisiana State University in the spring of 1991, while Dan T. Carter was working on his fine book "The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics." The fourth, about the Republican Party from 1988 to 1994, was added as an afterthought, and mostly reads like one.

On the question of race and politics in America, Carter may now be the leading authority. A professor of history at Emory University in Atlanta, he has concentrated on racial issues throughout his career. To this subject he brings not merely the scholar's emphasis on research and interpretation, but the moralist's conviction that exploiting race for political ends is plainly and simply wrong. He quotes with approval Adlai Stevenson's observation that if the "only way I can get elected is by pandering to people's fears and hatreds, I want no part of it," and adds: "By the 1990s, Stevenson's earnest disquisition seemed as out of date as bathtub gin and hula hoops. But Stevenson was correct in insisting that there was a connection between means and ends, a link between campaigning and governing. Politics, argued the Roman moralist and biographer Plutarch, is not like an ocean voyage or a military campaign, something to be done with some particular end in view, something which leaves off as soon as that end is reached. . . . It is a way of life.' The ingredients that make good campaigns increasingly make poor governance. As the chasm between fantasy and reality opens too wide to be bridged by the artful devices of Madison Avenue, the real losers are neither Democrats nor Republicans, but an increasingly cynical and confused electorate primed to switch wildly from one political patent-medicine salesman to another, reaching deeper into passivity with each election, and accepting the notion that this nation is ungovernable."

No patent medicine has been sold more frequently or ardently since the mid-1960s than racial prejudice. George Wallace, as he began to move away from Alabama and onto the national stage, "brilliantly repositioned himself away from the narrowly racial rhetoric of his 1962 gubernatorial campaign and adopted a kind of soft-porn racism in which fear and hatred could be mobilized without mentioning race itself (except to deny that he was a racist)." In so doing he established the coded language of appeals to racism that has been a central ingredient of our political life ever since.

Thus Richard Nixon, "who did not have to mention race . . when he began one of his famous discourses on welfare queens using food stamps to buy porterhouse steaks; the audience was already primed to make that connection." Thus Ronald Reagan, who "could use coded language with the best of them, lambasting welfare queens, busing, and affirmative action as the need arose." Thus, most lamentably, George Bush, who had been "consistent" in his support of black rights but who "never hesitated" when, in 1988, an advertisement featuring Willie Horton was submitted to him. "It was," according to a member of his staff, "just the facts of life. He realized that as far behind as he was it was the only way to win."

Carter's discussion of the Willie Horton ad is the best part of his final chapter; the balance is a rather lame and somewhat off-the-point discussion of Newt Gingrich and the "Contract With America." The Horton ad "worked because it was the culmination of twenty years of shifting attitudes in American society," shifts away from the tired Democratic liberalism of the 1960s and toward "growing conservatism . . . on a number of important social' issues not directly connected to questions of race: school prayer, criminal defendants' rights, obscenity, and abortion." Though these are not racial matters, "race seemed to be the glue that held it all together."

This is correct. Even if one is willing to accept House Speaker Gingrich's denials that he and others among the younger Republicans are not motivated by racial prejudice, it remains that the strength of the GOP now is in the South, and that the white South forsook the Democrats for the Republicans because of race. This is lamentable enough on its face. It is all the more so when one considers, as Carter correctly cautions us to do, that the exploitation of race is part of a disturbing pattern in American politics, in which the only product on sale is snake oil. Jonathan Yardley can be reached via e-mail at yardleyj@clark.net.

CAPTION: Dan Carter counts what he calls "a kind of soft-porn racism" among George Wallace's tactics.