In the chamber of the Alabama House of Representatives, where he served in the 1947 session, George Wallace announced Wednesday, "I have climbed my last political mountain." The once combative politician spoke for only a few minutes, his voice slurred and his words hard to understand. He has suffered much from the gunshot wounds he suffered in the 1972 campaign and seemed unable to work much as governor. He has been trailing in recent polls and evidently decided to get out of the race so he wouldn't leave office a loser.
What does he leave behind? In Alabama, a record of political dominance unmatched by any of his fellow veterans who ran for office just after returning from World War II and who dominated American politics for most of the 1960s and 1970s. He ran for governor in 1958 and lost; he won in 1962, and, in defiance of the one-term limitation then in force, ran his wife, Lurleen, in 1966; after her death, he took on her successor, ALbert Brewer, and narrowly beat him in 1970; he was reelected to a second consecutive term easily in 1974, left office in 1978 and then returned in 1982. His local base was strong enough for him to run for president four times, in Democratic primaries in 1964, 1972 and 1976, and as an independent in 1968, when he got on the ballot in all 50 states (but not in the District of Columbia), and won 13.5 percent of the popular vote and 46 electoral votes.
Gov. Wallace always thought he had lost the 1958 primary because he was "outsegged," and vowed that would never happen again; he ended up years later courting black votes and hosting a 20th- year reunion of the leaders of the march in Selma. To those old enough to remember the first phase, the second was bizarre. It is hard now to remember how fervently Mr. Wallace campaigned for "segregation forever" at a time when many southerners imagined that was possible and when it was far from clear exactly how they would be proven wrong. Mr. Wallace was the only southern segregationist politician who understood how to translate his appeal into northern idiom. Other southern governors made a show of defying integration orders. George Wallace won presidential primaries in Maryland and Michigan.
"Send them a message," Mr. Wallace urged voters across the nation, tell those "pointy-headed bureaucrats" what you think of their pushing you around. You might argue that the Reagan victories or even the Carter victory amounted to a kind of vindication of Mr. Wallace's anti-fed politics. But it was always clear that George Wallace fell on the wrong side of the line between responsible national candidates and those who should never win. He has long since repudiated racial segregation and called for equal rights for blacks. But in that he did not lead, but rather was led by the South; and if he never seemed a sincere bigot, it is not clear how sincerely tolerant he is either.
George Wallace has been a brilliant political opportunist, with an intuitive sense of how to appeal to the resentments and complaints of ordinary American voters. But he has been dogged by tragedy -- not only the personal tragedy of his shooting, but the professional tragedy of a skilled politician whose talents, whether because of circumstances or his own decision, were not used constructively enough in politics or government.