Wallace tapped voter resentment, paving way for Nixon, Reagan


WASHINGTON -- George Corley Wallace, who died Sunday at 79, never had any realistic chance of winning the presidency. Nonetheless, the Alabama governor had a profound and lasting influence on U.S. politics.

Mr. Wallace came to national attention in 1963 as the segregationist governor who "stood in the schoolhouse door" at the University of Alabama to resist racial integration of its student body. He didn't succeed, but the next year he challenged President Lyndon B. Johnson in a series of Democratic presidential primaries and came away with enough support to shake up the political establishment -- 30 percent in Indiana, 35 percent in Wisconsin and 43 percent, including a majority of the white vote, in Maryland.

Mr. Wallace loved talking about those primaries and, in particular, his vote in Maryland. Early returns showed him leading in the state until it was announced that a "recapitulation" of the vote count found him running behind President Johnson after all.

"You have to watch out for that recapitulation," he would say, stretching the word out syllable by syllable. "Yes, sir, anybody says he's going to re-cap-it-u-late on you, watch out."

Working-class following

The first inference drawn from those primaries was that there RTC

was a significant vein of racism in the North as well as the South. But over the next three presidential campaigns, Mr. Wallace showed that it was more than race, that there was a strong resentment of big government and social engineering among working-class voters.

Mr. Wallace presented himself as the champion of "the average citizen," whose lives were being affected by the decisions of "pointy-headed bureaucrats." He loved to deride social theorists who made apologies for some kid who went bad "just because his daddy didn't carry him to a Pittsburgh Steelers football game."

His message caught fire, and he carried five Southern states as a third-party candidate in 1968. He became a major figure in the 1972 Democratic primaries until shot down by drifter Arthur Bremer at a shopping center in Laurel.

Though paralyzed from the waist down, he continued to campaign in 1976 and was effectively stopped only when another Southerner, Jimmy Carter of Georgia, defeated him in the Florida primary.

Mr. Wallace's early success in exploiting voter resentments was not lost on major party candidates -- first Richard Nixon and later Ronald Reagan -- who could play on the same factors without being accused of being racists. Indeed, that same kind of class-warfare, anti-government politics is still being practiced in many campaigns today.

Crusade for respect

Mr. Wallace remained extremely popular in Alabama through all those national campaigns, in part because he depicted his candidacy as a crusade to force other Americans to stop "looking down their noses" at his home state.

Mr. Wallace had an ambivalent relationship with the national press. Walking through an airport trailed by reporters and camera crews, he would gesture over his shoulder and announce to bystanders, "I've got the national press with me. We're going on a distortin' trip." Then he would tell the reporters, "You don't mind me saying that. The folks like it and I don't mean anything by it."

At the same time, he was extremely sensitive to how he was portrayed. Eating lunch with a reporter shortly after a magazine article had described his penchant for smearing ketchup on his food, Mr. Wallace hesitated to use any until the reporter seized the bottle and poured it liberally. "You like ketchup, too," he hooted, "that means you can't write about it, heunh."

By the time he won his final election as governor in 1982, Mr. Wallace was in constant discomfort from his paralysis and other illnesses and deaf enough so he had trouble carrying on a conversation. But he still loved to talk about his glory days -- how they recapitulated on him in Maryland and how he carried Boston in the 1976 Massachusetts primary and how the crowds had once surged around him.

By the time he died, George Wallace had been off the national stage for 20 years. But his message lingers in American politics today.

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 9/16/98

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