Wallace put a face on racism in America

September 17, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

GEORGE WALLACE was God's gift to Americans in search of a conscience. Before him, racism was cloaked in layers of bureaucratic legalisms, in mean little local traditions, in people so cowardly that they hid their identities beneath hooded sheets. Wallace put a public face on all this, and the face snarled.

He told Americans to choose up sides by skin color, and thus made thoughtful people confront the true destructiveness of the racial divide: not only that it deprived black people of a fair chance, but diminished everyone else who'd paid empty lip service to American ideals. Who could link the country's professed belief in brotherhood with this fuming bulldog of a man?

When he ran for president the first time, in 1964, Wallace entered the Maryland primary. At the White House, Lyndon Johnson asked Democratic Sen. Daniel Brewster to stand in for the president there.

In a televised debate, Wallace read a racist statement and then asked Brewster for a response. Brewster, unaware he was being sandbagged, condemned it. Then Wallace leveled him: They were Lyndon Johnson's words, from years earlier.

In pursuit of his own political career, Wallace unwittingly made the country confront its own hypocrisy, past and present. If the South needed billy clubs and fire hoses and dogs with bared teeth to keep children out of schoolrooms, then who among us would wish to identify with such cruelty?

By the time Wallace ran for president in 1972, he'd learned a little finesse. He'd discovered he couldn't enter mainstream politics with the language of the gutter. But his life was coming undone, in ways no one yet knew.

Somewhere in America, a kid named Arthur Bremer shadowed the political landscape and kept a diary. In a hotel room at the old Holiday Inn in downtown Baltimore, Wallace and wife Cornelia paused for a late-afternoon rest before a big speech at the 5th Regiment Armory, and invited me in for a chat. I sat three feet from Wallace and quickly discovered he had to read my lips to know what I was asking him.

Once, he turned his head to look for a clock. I asked another question. "He didn't hear you," said Cornelia.

"I know," I said, as Wallace continued to scan the room. "He hasn't hear a word I've said. He's deaf, isn't he?"

"Yes," she said sadly.

"But I haven't read anything about it."

"Noooo," she said.

Implicit was Wallace's dread: If voters knew he was hard of hearing, would they worry about him getting on the hot line with the Russians? After his speech at the packed, howling armory that night, Wallace held a press conference in a hot, narrow side room with rows of desks. But he couldn't hear reporters' questions, and had an aide sitting next to him relay the words. I went over to a New York reporter who'd been following Wallace.

"He can't hear anything," I said.

"Right," he nodded.

"Have you written it?" I asked.

"Nah," the reporter said. "I just cover politics."

How quaint such a notion sounds today: That we would separate a politician's personal life from his public responsibilities.

Days later, while I wondered how to write the deafness story, Wallace went to that shopping center in Laurel where Arthur Bremer emerged with his gun. The shots paralyzed Wallace for the rest of his life. The deafness story seemed only a puny, unimportant footnote after that.

But Wallace's politics continue to haunt us. There are still those, white and black, who see the fault line between races and attempt to exploit it. When Wallace died Sunday night, at 79, some noted that Richard Nixon had been watching Wallace all through those early years, and formed his so-called Southern strategy out of the hard-core resentment into which Wallace had tapped. Nixon was smart enough never to overtly invoke race, though.

But the ties were even stronger. When news of Arthur Bremer's shooting reached the Nixon White House, he ordered aides to find Bremer's house and plant George McGovern campaign literature there. It's in the famous Nixon tapes.

Earlier this week, The Sun's Todd Richissin reported Bremer now says he fired his shots as a way of renouncing Wallace's racism. It sounds like Bremer's trying to rewrite history. In his diary, just days before the shooting, Bremer recounts first tailing Nixon, then reluctantly going for Wallace.

A week before the shooting, pondering an assassination attempt, Bremer wrote, "Ask me why I did it and I'd say, 'Nothing else to do' or 'I have to kill somebody.' That's how far gone I am."

Wallace spent the last 26 years of his life in agony, and in denial. He recanted all the old rhetoric of hate. He wished forgiveness from black people whose lives he'd tried to ruin. With no more races to run, and no more issue to exploit, he wanted to clear things with a God he knew had been watching.

Pub Date: 9/17/98

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