George Wallace, in word and deed

Preview: Fair-minded documentary looks at his legacy in race relations and politics.

April 22, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

OK, maybe George Wallace wasn't a virulent segregationist deep down at the core of his soul. That may make what he did even more repugnant.

An opportunistic politician if ever there was one, Wallace started his career as something of a progressive; during his first gubernatorial campaign, in 1958, he highlighted his determination to fight for Alabama's poor equally, without regard to their skin color.

But he lost that race to a candidate who made separation of the races a cornerstone of his campaign, and Wallace hated to lose. Within weeks, he told an associate that he would never again be trumped by the race card.

Thus was born the man who would pledge in his 1962 inaugural address to support "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." Who would stand in a doorway to try to prevent blacks from enrolling in the University of Alabama. Whose ties with the Ku Klux Klan became an open secret. And whose Alabama would be the scene of so many violent confrontations during the '60s Civil Rights struggle.

All because George Wallace was not a leader who led, but a leader who followed; to him, political success was paramount, moral rectitude an unaffordable luxury.

"George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire," an admirably level-headed and consistently insightful two-part installment of PBS' "The American Experience," regards Wallace as one of the most influential politicians of the second half of the 20th century. Such claims have been made for every officeholder from Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan to LBJ and Tip O'Neill, but filmmakers Daniel McCabe, Paul Stekler and Steve Fayer make a convincing case.

It was Wallace, narrator Randy Quaid and several of the film's interview subjects point out, who popularized what is called the "politics of rage" or "backlash politics." He figured out what people wanted to hear, roared it at them incessantly, stoked the fires that resulted, and reveled in the adulation of the racist masses who viewed him as their champion.

Of course, Wallace's attack wasn't all about racism. He cloaked his actions with talk of state's rights, of getting big government off people's backs, of standing up for the little guy (as long as that little guy was white).

But much of that was simply code, uttered to make his message more palatable to a wider audience -- a necessary part of his presidential campaigns.

Doubtless, he was a skilled politician. Undisputed, too, is that Wallace became an object of pity after he was shot in a Laurel shopping center by deranged loner Arthur Bremer, who was determined to kill either Wallace or Richard Nixon, figuring either act would get him on the newspaper front pages. It's also true that Wallace, late in life, repented, horrified by what his incendiary racism had wrought. Wallace was never more eloquent than when he bade goodbye to political life in 1986 as he neared the end of his final term as Alabama's governor.

"I've climbed my last political mountain," a tearful Wallace said, urging those who came after him to continue the climb.

But does that really make up for what he did?

"George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire" is just as hard on Wallace's followers as on Wallace himself -- perhaps harder, given the underlying assertion that every movement needs a leader, and Wallace happened to be this one's. It features a remarkable cast of commentators, including two of his children; his second wife, Cornelia; political operatives and associates; childhood friends; and journalists who covered his campaigns. There are also a handful of African-Americans who spent parts of their youths being victimized by Wallace's policies, and sometimes attacked by his police, including Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). Many were contacted personally by Wallace late in his life (he died in 1998); all say they have forgiven the sinner, but will never forget the sin.

The documentary suggests this may be about the best Wallace could have hoped for.

`George Wallace'

When: 9 p.m.-10: 30 p.m. tomorrow and Monday on PBS' `The American Experience'

Where: MPT, Channels 22 and 67

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