In a healthy society people live with a wide time frame. They know and make use of the experience of their forebears. They build houses and plant trees that will be enjoyed by their descendants. Among the many things which our Founding Fathers took for granted but which we have lost was a social fabric in which people knew the character, at least the public character, of their leaders in depth. Public esteem was a reward of real, remembered services to the commonwealth, not of media celebrity or promises of payoffs.
Thus, in a healthy society, people would know that George Bush, running for the Senate in Texas in 1964, claimed to oppose the Civil Rights Act of that year, although this stance belied his constant support for “civil rights” bills both before and after. People would have understood that Bush was in the habit of lying on the hustings to obtain office, and no one over the age of 13 would have believed him in 1988 when he promised not to raise taxes and to bear down on thugs. Had we anything but the shortest memory, we would have known that he would likely do the opposite—raise taxes and persecute policemen for violating the “rights” of thugs.
Of course, it was not in the interest of either his opponents or the media to point out the lie, because as mutual members of the ruling class they were even more committed than Bush was to raising taxes and coddling criminals. Indeed, the)’ attacked Bush not for making false promises to the American people but for dividing the common front of the Establishment by even discussing forbidden policy alternatives. The people had little choice but to take the lesser evil. Routinely, we accept the most preposterous claims by public figures because the frame of reference of our public discourse is so short.
The other side of the unconsciousness of history is the neglect of posterity: American public discourse, which suffers from terminal infantilism, is carried on as if posterity did not exist. It does not matter if we pile up an unpayable debt (which our descendants will have every moral right and practical incentive to repudiate), nor do we even consider whether it will really be a good thing if those descendants have to live in a society dominated by Mexicans and Chinese.
These reflections are prompted by the first full-scale biography of George Wallace, as well as by a recognition of how completely Wallace has dropped from public consciousness. The biography is a good one, not sympathetic but balanced and knowledgeable. Lesher is a liberal—but also an experienced and honest reporter who has covered Wallace closely for much of the past 35 years. He has not relied solely on his own observations, however, but has done solid historical research as well, making his book as thorough a biography as we are likely to have. Not the least of its virtues is a documented, blow-by-blow account of the civil rights upheavals of the 1960’s, a subject that so far has been recounted only as mythology and that badly needs detached historical examination. The author has a feel for Wallace’s Scotch-Irish forebears, Reconstruction, and the beleaguered rural life of the South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is therefore in a position to appreciate the roots of American populism and George Wallace himself as its representative.
Lesher makes large and, I believe, well-founded claims for Wallace’s importance. “Wallace is the most influential loser in modern American politics. . . . Every President from Nixon to Clinton based his successful campaign on some key elements from the Wallace political canon. . . . From 1968 to 1992 no person was elected President without clearly embracing and articulating (though not necessarily implementing) the Wallace issues.” Accepting this argument requires an effective memory of the tepidness of Republican discourse prior to the feisty little governor of Alabama’s dashing foray into the northern primaries in 1964. In that day, no Republican would touch the “populist” issues of crime, busing, welfare, “family values”—since doing so was regarded as treasonous consorting with the enemy. (Wallace’s other issues, including the over-concentration of wealth and the excessive power of foreign capital, are just beginning to be addressed.)
Prior to Wallace’s dramatic appearance, so far as the national public discourse was concerned, the racial problems of the United States were confined to the South. The public understanding was limited to a view of noble Democratic and Republican statesmen passing legislation intended to force the South into rising to the impeccable standard of social justice enjoyed by the rest of the country. Wallace’s campaigns, along with the Watts riots, revealed that hypocrisy. It was the Wallace Democrats who made Ronald Reagan President and who sent George Bush back to Texas. Lest we forget the importance of George Wallace at the apex of his career (and students entering college now were born after he was shot and after the McGovern campaign), it is necessary to recall some figures from the Democratic primaries in 1972: Michigan—Wallace 51 percent, McGovern 27 percent, Humphrey 16 percent; Maryland—Wallace 39 percent, Humphrey 27 percent, McGovern 22 percent.
Wallace’s impact is not surprising. It takes a heroic and intelligent outsider to change the public discourse and bring focus to real issues, always. Ruling-class politicians say only what it is already known to be safe to say. Such is “the genius of American politics.” The interest of Establishment politicians is never in the truth, never in effective policy; it is, first, in maintaining their own power, and, second, in looking after the undiscussed interests of those who keep the brown bags full of cash.
Not only liberals but also Republican conservatives conducted one of the nastiest campaigns in American history against Wallace. He was, for instance, the victim of Nixon’s dirty tricks as much as or more than those of McGovern. I well remember how National Review pulled out all the stops to prevent defection from Republicans to Wallace. Wallace was a conservative only on social issues, wrote that perspicative journal; he was a populist and socialist on economic issues! After all, his state actually spent money on welfare and sought federal dollars! As if there was a single Republican governor, congressman, or presidential contender who did not do exactly the same. And all in defense of the Nixon regime of price controls and affirmative action.
From this juncture, looking over the evidence of that day, it is clear that what the left and right establishments feared was not George Wallace, socialism, or racism. What they feared was the American people. As Wallace put it in 1972: “When the government tries to force masses of people against their will to conform to certain guidelines involving their children, their taxes, their labor unions, their property, it would have been a phenomenon if they had not given vent to their antagonism and anger at this drive to make everyone conform to what the pseudo-intellectual thought the average citizen should conform to.” Or, as he said on another occasion: “When politicians succumb to anarchists in the street, then they haven’t got what it takes to lead us out of the morass.” What he said then is still true, and no one has said it any better since.
This is populism. It is a threat to the subsidies, tariffs, and contracts that Big Business defines as “free enterprise” (the only kind of free enterprise the Republican Party has ever defended). It claims that farmers and labor want a fair shake, a level field, so it is “socialism” (the only kind of socialism the Republican Party has ever opposed). Populism is also a threat to the most hallowed of all American values: respectability. America, which is nothing if it is not a land of “pseudo-intellectuals,” is governed by fashion. No issue in America is ever considered on its truth or falsehood, only on whether the “right people” find it acceptable or unacceptable. Our Founding Fathers understood that patriotism and justice would often be limited by self-interest, ambition, stupidity, and demagoguery. They could not imagine a situation in which millions were so lacking in ordinary firmness of character that they would be unable even to consider a question of truth and justice. No one wants to say something that is not in fashion. Wallace’s astounding and colorful candor had to be put down.
His was a candor that has not since been equaled, though Pat Buchanan perhaps came close—and received a similar response. I still remember with pleasure how Wallace refused to be defined and confined by the media but insisted on and succeeded in making his own points. My favorite of many is the occasion on which an arrogant Republican fouled the Senate chamber with the accusation that Wallace was mentally disturbed, basing it upon the small veteran’s disability pension that Wallace received. Said Wallace: “I receive 10 percent disability for a nervous condition caused by being shot at by Japanese airplanes and antiaircraft guns in combat missions during World War II. To what does Senator Morse attribute his condition?”
What American has paid a higher price than Wallace for his public courage? Two decades of invalidism and pain. Lesher recounts fully Wallace’s recantation of white supremacy, his deliberate efforts at reconciliation with the black people of his state and of the country at large. As he rightly observes: “It was supremely ironic that as Wallace and the South moved closer to the goal of racial reconciliation, much of America was turning in the other direction.” But Lesher, I fear, does not really know the true explanation for this irony. It is not that the South, for the first time in its four centuries of history, has been converted to the abstract ideology of equality. It is, rather, that the South, unlike modern America, is still predominantly a Christian society.
[George Wallace: American Populist, by Stephan Lesher (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley) 320 pp., $29.95]