It galled George C. Wallace something fierce that he had faded so far from public view that it took a retirement announcement to remind people he was still around. Lord knows, in his time, no one could overlook him.

The frustration showed in the last interview I had with Wallace at a governors conference three years ago. He was feeling too ill to come downstairs, so I went up to the hotel room. He was stretched out on his bed, with his retainers gathered round, like Yul Brynner in the final scene of "The King and I."

But the Wallace spirit still fired his wasted body. He bragged that he was the one who had started the "revolution" against Big Government, which the press and television were crediting to Ronald Reagan's account. Renewing an old quarrel, he complained that, "My fight was with the bureaucrats, not the blacks, but you people never could understand it."

Wallace saw himself as a victim of Yankee scorn for the South and of press snobbishness. The acceptance Reagan won while espousing what Wallace claimed as his own program just confirmed the Alabama governor's sense of martyrdom.

Indeed, the case can be made that Reagan, in his years as governor, was as consistent a foe of federal civil rights legislation and its enforcement as Wallace was. But he never stood in a schoolhouse door to prevent desegregation, and he never defied a federal judge's subpoena of voting-registration records, as Wallace did. Reagan's opposition was measured and steady.

By contrast, Wallace rose to power on the theatricality of his rhetoric and his actions. No one who saw him during the 1960s could forget the fury he expressed or the fanatic following he gained. Black mayors and many black voters in Alabama later came to terms with Wallace and supported him in his campaigns. But for the nation, he was frozen in the rabble-rouser pose he held before he was paralyzed by an assassin's bullet during the 1972 presidential primary campaign.

Until those shots rang out, there was no more vital or compelling political figure in America, not even Lyndon B. Johnson. At the first governors conference Wallace attended, in 1963, he stood in the lobby of the Miami Beach convention hotel hour after hour, holding court for a stream of tourists and relays of reporters. No one left bored.

In his presidential campaigns, he ran staff and reporters ragged. In cities from Flint to Orlando, Wallace often drew crowds that far exceeded the capacity of the auditoriums his aides had booked. Wallace would announce a "double-header." He would speak for 45 minutes to the people in the hall, extract contributions and volunteer pledge cards from them, turn them out into the street and then do the whole thing over for the people who had been waiting outside for their turn to hear "the message."

The message was unforgettable. I doubt that there has been a politician since Huey Long with Wallace's gift for ridicule, for the vernacular, for the telling phrase. "Pointy-headed bureaucrats," "not a dime's worth of difference" (between Democrats and Republicans) and a dozen other Wallace- isms have entered the language of politics.

Reporters who disagreed strongly with his message still found themselves chuckling at the inventiveness of his style. I remember laughing helplessly when he suggested, in tones of dripping sarcasm, that the liberals' explanation of criminal behavior was that the mugger or rapist "didn't get his broccoli when he was a little boy."

But there was far more anger than laughter in Wallace rallies. What fueled "the movement" was frustration and resentment. First and foremost, he rode the reaction against an assertive federal role in securing civil rights for blacks. But he also captured the emerging antagonism to the enlargement of the bureaucratic welfare state, the growing sense that "experts who can't park their bikes straight" were arrogating more and more power to tax and to regulate people's lives. Some of the grievances were legitimate. But Wallace was far more effective in channeling anger than in proposing solutions. His own program was a muddle of populism, states' rights and -- inside Alabama -- barrel- head transactions with major interest groups. But the anger at his rallies was real, and one of Wallace's redeeming qualities was his readiness to use humor to ease the tension and deflect the threat he could see in his listeners' eyes.

Still, he was a scary figure, a demagogue who so distracted the Democratic Party that, only a decade ago, the Democrats nominated Jimmy Carter for president largely out of gratitude for his beating Wallace in the Florida primary.

By last week, Wallace had lost his hold even in Alabama. A man of his talents and his time could have been a great governor and played a positive role on the national stage. Wallace did neither. He coined the slogan, "Stand Up for America." But it took Ronald Reagan to figure out how to make it work.