A poor legacy

September 15, 1998|By Ray Jenkins

THE OBITUARIES of George Wallace this week quite fittingly focused on his "legacy" in national politics during his 40 mercurial years in public life. After all, he ran for president four times, and while he never had the remotest chance of being elected, he is widely credited with having been the catalyst for a major shift to the right in national politics.

But he was elected governor of Alabama four times -- five times, if you count the time his dutiful wife was elected as his surrogate -- and that "legacy" gets almost no attention in the tender tributes bestowed upon his death at the age of 79.

That's little wonder. While Mr. Wallace's national machinations constitute enthralling political drama, when it comes to his "legacy" in Alabama, there simply is a great void.

For the entirety of his 18-year stewardship of the state, Alabama essentially ran on automatic pilot -- a state administered by bureaucrats, some competent, many corrupt, all lacking any semblance of a comprehensive vision of the state's dire needs.

As a result, at a time when other states of the region began to thrive and prosper under the creative leadership of "New South" governors -- men like Carl Sanders and Jimmy Carter of Georgia, Ernest Hollings and John West of South Carolina, and Leroy Collins and Reuben Askew of Florida -- Alabama drifted like some languid banana republic.

Given this reality, is it any wonder that at the end of the Wallace hegemony, Alabama remained mired near the bottom in almost every socioeconomic measure? During the Wallace years -- 1962 to 1987 -- Alabama's population grew by only two-thirds of the national rate, and barely over half the regional rate. When Mr. Wallace left office, two out of three Alabamians had graduated from high school -- the lowest level in the nation.

Alabama's poverty rate stood at 18 percent, while the nation's rate fell to 14 percent. Infant mortality remained 20 percent higher than the national average. Most devastating of all, at the end of the Wallace era, median family income in Alabama stood at 43rd in the nation -- $5,000 below the national average.

These are irrefutable figures. More problematic is the impact on Alabama of Mr. Wallace's national "legacy" of serving as a political John the Baptist for the less abrasive yet no less harsh form of conservatism embodied by Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich.

In the end, Mr. Wallace fretted about the forces he had loosed when, on the last day of his governorship in 1987, he remarked to his son, "I hope the rich and powerful don't take over now."

As a consummate political brawler, Mr. Wallace had little use for economics -- that was a domain of "pointy-headed intellectuals" -- but as one who began life as a New Deal populist, he must have known in his gut that the gap between the rich and the poor had widened alarmingly, in Alabama and the nation, during his time in public life.

What he could not face was the fact that his own priorities inexorably led to that result.

A dictatorship

One chilling episode speaks volumes: In 1965, when he had achieved a Huey Long-type dictatorship in Alabama, he made it clear that until the state legislature bowed to his demand to lift the constitutional ban to his running for a second term, "no goddamn bill is gonna pass . . . no goddamn money for any goddamn school is gonna be appropriated." Given this nature, George Wallace was all but incapable of performing the workaday routines of running the government of a needy state.

And these failings do not even take into account the rampant violence -- the Birmingham church bombing in 1963, the brutal state police assault on the voting-rights demonstrators at the Selma bridge in 1965 -- which occurred against the backdrop of Mr. Wallace's incendiary rhetoric.

Every public man cringes at the prospect of going to his grave confronting the undying punishment of history's condemnation, but that was the risk that Mr. Wallace took when he struck his Faustian bargain to win the acclaim of the moment by basing his political career on the old Southern bugaboos of fear and prejudice.

In his final years, Mr. Wallace seemed to recognize that the devil had come for the tribute when he plaintively lamented, "I had to do things -- say things to get elected in Alabama that made it impossible for me ever to be president."

Not even the most intractable critic of Mr. Wallace's crass manipulations could fail to be moved by the spectacle of the aging gladiator spending his final years making piteous pleas for forgiveness from those who suffered his most outrageous slings and arrows.

A native son

But the fact remains that any dispassionate analysis reveals a frightful price Alabama has paid and will continue to pay for its eager embrace of its rambunctious native son and his all-consuming obsession to become president.

It is one of the ironies of Southern history that few of his adoring followers will see this fact through their tears as George Wallace is at last laid to rest this week in his beloved heart of dixie.

Ray Jenkins, who retired in 1992 as editorial page editor of The Evening Sun, covered George Wallace for most of his political career as an editor and reporter in Alabama before coming to Baltimore in 1982.

Pub Date: 9/15/98

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