Wallace to Bush


June 09, 1991|By RAY JENKINS

In the bitter debate over the civil rights bill now before Congress, there is a familiar voice that we haven't yet heard: that of George C. Wallace.

Little wonder. Today, the former Alabama governor lies in bed, day and night, requiring assistance just to turn over, in pain most of the time, so deaf that he can find scant comfort even in the perfunctory visits of family and a few faithful friends. At 71, with his mercurial political life behind him, he has more pressing matters to think about than whether Congress enacts another civil rights bill.

But if he should think about it, he no doubt will be amused over the delicious irony of it: The rhetoric of George Wallace in 1964 has become the rhetoric of George Bush in 1991.

1964 was the year that George Wallace stormed upon the national political scene. Challenging President Johnson in the Democratic primaries, Mr. Wallace campaigned on a single theme: opposition to the civil rights bill which was then before Congress, the bill to guarantee equal access in employment and public accommodations.

By aiming his message at working-class Americans, Mr. Wallace parlayed that opposition into impressive showings in such improbable states as Wisconsin, Indiana and Maryland, where in May of 1964 he crowned his campaign with a stunning 42 percent of the Democratic presidential primary vote.

Mr. Wallace's words were more colorful, it is true, and certainly a lot more provocative than Mr. Bush's.

In 1964 Mr. Wallace claimed the civil rights act would mandate "racial balancing" in the workplaces; today Mr. Bush maintains the 1991 bill would require "hiring by quota."

In 1964 Mr. Wallace talked about the insidious influence of "the black bloc vote." President Bush in a speech to a business group this week accused supporters of the 1991 bill of pandering to "different blocs of voters."

In 1964 Mr. Wallace warned of threats to "union seniority" posed by the 1964 act; Mr. Bush in 1991 speaks, a little more gently, about "fair play" in the workplace.

And you don't hear Mr. Bush making preposterous assertions, as Mr. Wallace did, that the pending civil rights law would require employers to "balance" their work forces with the proper number of "Japanese Lutherans and Chinese Baptists." But while the words may be different, the coded message being sent to white working-class America is the still same: If you don't watch out, a black man's going to get your job. Or maybe a woman.

This evolution in the politics of race from George Wallace to George Bush may be ironic, but it hardly accidental. Note well, it was not Lyndon Johnson who took Mr. Wallace out of the 1964 presidential race; rather, it was the nomination by the Republicans of Barry Goldwater, who also opposed the civil rights act of 1964 -- in more polite terms than Mr. Wallace, to be sure, but for the same reasons.

Nor was the explosive impact of the race issue in presidential campaigns lost on Richard Nixon, who was elected in 1968 by a much closer margin than we usually remember. When Mr. Nixon reflected on that close call, he saw a clear lesson: The five states that Mr. Wallace carried in the South in 1968 almost certainly came out of the Nixon column. To head off a repetition of that close call in 1972, Mr. Nixon set about refining and institutionalizing his so-called "Southern strategy" -- an electoral plan which called for winning the South by subtly co-opting the Wallace message.

And it is a strategy which has worked remarkably well -- delivering the South to the Republican presidential candidate every fourth year with the exception of 1976, when Jimmy Carter briefly drew the South back to its Democratic moorings by appealing to the regional impulse to back a native son.

By 1980, Ronald Reagan, another longtime opponent of civil rights laws, was able to make the old black magic of the Southern strategy work so well that by 1988 it was a foregone conclusion that George Bush would carry the South.

What once had been the Solid South for the Democrats has become the Solid South for the Republicans -- and almost exclusively over the issue of civil rights. Anyone who doesn't believe that George Bush hasn't sewn up the South for 1992 with his clamor over "quotas" and "blocs of voters" simply doesn't know the politics of the region.

Except for the stridence of the rhetoric, is there any real difference in the Wallace appeal and the Bush appeal? If there is, it is a distinction without a difference. At least a handful of Republicans, led by Sen. John Danforth of Missouri and Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont, seem to recognize the dangers of injecting racial fears into presidential politics. No doubt this is what Sen. Jeffords meant when he spoke of "a failure of national leadership" in civil rights as he looks at the ugly and demagogic spectacle of George Bush in 1991 sounding like George Wallace in 1964.

Ray Jenkins is editor of the editorial pages of The Evening Sun.


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