Invisible Legacy

Although he was the harbinger of the conservative groundswell that shaped recent American politics, George Wallace today is largely forgotten, says biographer Dan T. Carter

By John D. Thomas

Two photographs, taken more than thirty years apart, sum up well the life, times, and political fortunes of former Alabama governor and four-time presidential candidate George Corley Wallace. The first shows Wallace making his infamous stand in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama in June of 1963, when he attempted to bar the admission of black students. Flanked by an all-white phalanx of hard-hatted state troopers, he stands rigidly with a defiant scowl on his face as U.S. Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach attempts in vain to reason with the arch-segregationist.

The second picture could not be more different. Taken last year, it shows Wallace attending a ceremony honoring the thirtieth anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march, which he had vehemently opposed. Slumping in his wheelchair and clad in an ill-fitting suit, an elderly Wallace holds hands with Southern Christian Leadership Conference President Joseph Lowery. In front of them is a podium that bears a poster featuring the likeness of Martin Luther King Jr., whom Wallace had described as a "phony" and a "fraud" during his first term as governor.

Placed side by side, these photographs depict the evolution of Wallace from a fiery, race-baiting demagogue to a remorseful, colorblind civil rights sympathizer. While writing his recently published biography, The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics, William Rand Kenan Jr. Professor of History Dan T. Carter says the question he was asked most frequently was, Did Wallace really change? Did the bullet from a disturbed would-be assassin that paralyzed him for life in 1972 cause him to reflect on his politics of hate and division and seek forgiveness?

"Wallace is repentant, I believe that," says Carter, who is serving as the Pitt Professor of American Institutions at Cambridge University in England for the 1995-96 academic year. "He is sorry for some of the things he did." Even though he agrees that Wallace has undergone a serious change of heart from his earlier, racist policies, Carter warns against allowing the latter image to overshadow the former. "What infuriates me is the belief that somehow, because somebody asks forgiveness, we forget what happened and we pretend that it didn't take place," he says. "It does sound sort of naive, but we can't recognize who we are unless we really do recognize where we've been and be honest about it."

In The Politics of Rage, Carter, who interviewed more than one hundred people during his research, endeavors to create a complete picture of the four-term Alabama governor, not merely to linger on his recent acts of contrition. After a decade of research and writing, he comes to the conclusion that Wallace was "the most influential loser in twentieth-century American politics."

Carter, who earned his doctoral degree in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1967, joined the Emory faculty in 1974. Four years earlier, his first book, Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South, which examined an infamous 1930s Alabama civil rights case, won five major historical and literary awards, including the Bancroft Prize, awarded in several categories by Columbia University to honor the year's best books in American history. In 1985, he published his second book, When the War was Over: The Failure of Self-Reconstruction in the South, 1865-1867. That work won two prizes, including the Avery Craven Award of the Organization of American Historians, which honors the year's top book on the Civil War and Reconstruction.

The recent past president of the Southern Historical Association, Carter says he was drawn to Wallace as a subject because the Alabama governor's political career and legacy were being overlooked and underestimated by writers and historians. "By the late 1970s, there had already been written a number of histories of the 1960s, and Wallace is invisible," he says. "He's not there, except as a kind of paper, cardboard figure, and yet he drew the support consistently of twenty to twenty-three percent of the American people. And so I kept thinking, Why is he gone, why is he not part of our past?"

Carter finds the devaluing of Wallace's political currency ironic because of his profound impact on the policies and political agendas of the neo-conservative movement that took root in this country in the early 1980s and now holds sway in both houses of Congress. In The Politics of Rage, Carter writes, "If [Wallace] did not create the conservative groundswell that transformed American politics in the 1980s, he anticipated most of its themes. It was Wallace who sensed and gave voice to a growing national white backlash in the 1960s; it was Wallace who warned of the danger to the American soul posed by the `intellectual snobs who don't know the difference between smut and great literature'; it was Wallace who railed against federal bureaucrats who not only wasted the tax dollars of hardworking Americans, but lacked the common sense to `park their bicycles straight.' "

Conservatives were happy to latch on to those successful themes, Carter reasons, but they didn't want to admit that the source was a snarling, unrefined, Southern racist. "The reason Wallace's role is underestimated is pretty obvious," he says. "The heirs of his power do not want to acknowledge the parentage. The most savage reviews I've gotten have tended to come from neo-conservatives who are outraged that I suggest George Wallace is the spiritual godfather of neo-conservatism. It's usually the followers who lift up an individual and his importance, and since the followers will not acknowledge the parent, then it makes it understandable why his role has been underestimated in American politics."

Even though Wallace had an undeniable impact on American neo-conservatism (a 1986 New York Times editorial said Ronald Reagan "sailed into the White House [on the] tide George Wallace discovered"), Carter posits that the governor's biggest influence may have been on the policies and domestic agenda of Richard Nixon. Carter was the first person to scrutinize the Nixon papers with respect to the president's relationship with Wallace, and what he found was a man obsessed. According to The Politics of Rage, "When George Wallace had played his fiddle, the President of the United States had danced Jim Crow."

Carter shows that Nixon had good reason to fear the spunky Alabama governor, whose campaign rallies were likened to a "political Janis Joplin concert." After solid showings in the 1964 Democratic primaries in Indiana, Maryland, and Wisconsin, where he garnered between thirty and forty-three percent of the vote, Wallace entered the 1968 presidential campaign as a candidate on his own American Independent Party ticket. He ended up getting close to fourteen percent of the vote and racked up forty-six electoral votes among states in the South. While that may sound insignificant, Carter shows that Nixon thought otherwise.

"Wallace did have his strongest support within the South, but he had succeeded in attracting a surprising eight percent of the voters outside the region . . . ," Carter writes. "Even more ominously, George Wallace threatened the Southern foundation of the future of the Republican majority Nixon hoped to build. The most salient numbers to emerge in the wake of the 1968 election came from pollsters Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg: four of every five Wallace voters in the South would have voted for Nixon with Wallace out of the contest."

Carter's groundbreaking research into Nixon's papers reveals that's exactly what the president wanted--Wallace out of the contest. He notes that Nixon not only pumped $400,000 in untaxed funds into then-Alabama Governor Albert Brewer's unsuccessful attempt in 1970 to defeat Wallace, but that the president also marshaled the forces of the Internal Revenue Service to put a stop to Wallace's third party aspirations, which he thought had the potential to throw the presidential race into the House of Representatives and potentially jeopardize his reelection. The latter effort was code-named "The Alabama Project," and Carter writes that "[b]y August 1970 more than seventy-five men and women . . . pored over the past tax returns of Wallace, his brothers, and virtually every financial supporter who had done business with the state. They examined the records of state agencies as well, in an attempt to link the awarding of state contracts to political contributions."

The IRS investigation did not result in an indictment of Wallace or any of his staff, but Carter finds that Nixon got what he wanted anyway. Twenty-four hours after the investigation was dropped, on January 12, 1972, Wallace met with reporters in Tallahassee to announce he was pulling out of the race as a third-party candidate in order to seek the Democratic Party's nomination. Carter writes, "With that announcement, Wallace enormously improved Richard Nixon's chances of reelection."

Even though Carter never locates any smoking gun directly linking Wallace's third-party pullout to the dropping of the IRS investigation (he does point out that potentially enlightening portions of the Nixon papers related to this issue are still unavailable to the public), he discovers that even one of Wallace's closest aides, Seymore Trammell, thought the inference was undeniable. In The Politics of Rage, Trammell is quoted as saying that " `Nixon and Wallace made a deal after the two-year investigation of the Wallaces, [and] that deal was for Wallace and his brother Gerald to be indicted or face prison or for Wallace to kill the third party.' "

Perhaps the most chilling example of Nixon's obsession with Wallace happened after the governor was shot. On May 15, 1972, a disturbed, out-of-work janitor from Milwaukee named Arthur Bremer attempted to assassinate Wallace while he campaigned for the Democratic nomination in Maryland. The gunshot wound left Wallace paralyzed from the waist down. After the shooting, Nixon sat in the Oval Office and worried that if his campaign literature were found in Bremer's apartment, it might jeopardize his reelection. "Wouldn't it be great if they [sic] had left-wing propaganda in that apartment?" he said to Charles Colson, special counsel to the president. "[Too bad] we can't plant McGovern literature." Soon after, he and Colson concocted a plan to send a former CIA operative to Milwaukee to do exactly that. The only thing that foiled their attempt was that several journalists had gained entrance to the apartment first and took photographs and an inventory.

For Carter, his extensive examination of the Nixon papers not only yielded crucial information about Wallace's political career, but it also reconfirmed some ideas concerning America's thirty-seventh president. "It tells us and reinforces what we knew about Richard Nixon," he says. "It should remind us that this was a man for whom Watergate was not an aberration. This was part and parcel of his way of looking at government, which is that you simply manipulate without regard to the Constitution, without regard to law, without regard to any kinds of constraints at all to get your political ends."

Richard Nixon manipulated George Wallace to achieve his own political ends, and readers of The Politics of Rage can't help but speculate what political ends Wallace himself might have achieved had he not had to drop his third-party candidacy and if he had not been shot and paralyzed. Carter admits he has spent some time musing on the possibilities. He believes that in the short run, Wallace may have wreaked havoc on politics as usual, but his long-term outlook as a national leader was bleak.

"Even though you're a historian, and you're supposed to look backwards and not forwards, you can't help it," Carter says. "You're following the threads of history, and [you wonder], how would the fabric have ended up being woven if it had been allowed to continue instead of being cut off? And it seems to me that in the short run, Wallace could certainly have continued to play a very destructive role in terms of the electoral politics in 1972. That is, if he had not been backed into a corner and forced to go back into the Democratic party but continued on as a third-party candidate, it is conceivable that he would have done exactly what Nixon most feared and what he almost did in 1968, which is throw the election into the House of Representatives. His power was enormous, and his appeal was enormous.

"In the long run, I think his moment had passed. . . . As soon as another figure came along who could take his message and domesticate it and make it more appealing than Wallace the person, then Wallace was going to be sidetracked. Ronald Reagan takes many of the same ideas, many of the same values, many of the same things that Wallace did, but in a much more appealing way, and sells them to the American people. So I think Wallace would have eventually been eclipsed by a Reagan or someone like that if he would not have been shot."

During interviews, Carter is not shy about expressing his personal dislike for much of what George Wallace did as a politician, and some critics have said those feelings are overly reflected in his book. According to a review in the September/October 1995 issue of Lingua Franca, Carter evidences "considerable animus towards Wallace," and The Politics of Rage "bristles with unshaded antipathy toward Wallace, and pushes questions of absolution to the side." Carter doesn't see it that way.

"Anybody who can look at what George Wallace did as governor, as a political power, and say they have nothing but neutral feelings, I'm not too interested in them, frankly," he says. "I find it astonishing that someone would take that position. Does that mean I have such animus toward what George Wallace did that I can't be fair? I believe I can. My book is not bristling with animus toward George Wallace as a whole. I tried to be fair about Wallace. . . . But I can understand why people feel like that because I have turned all these rocks over."

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