The day after he was shot—four times, at close range—George Wallace won two presidential primaries. He survived the bullets, but one had clipped his spinal cord, so for the rest of his life, he would need a wheelchair to get around. Even so, he ran for president again, four years later in 1976, but the old ferocity and the feral instinct for the heart of his supporters' grievances and resentments were no longer there, so he gave it up. He was, perhaps, in so much physical pain himself that he could no longer connect with the psychic wounds of others. But if he was finished as a candidate, Wallace never went away. And for that matter, though he died in 1998, he still hasn't completely gone away. In a television interview recently, a congressman who was reaching for a way to rhetorically bludgeon Donald Trump called him "the worst Republican nominee since George Wallace."
Well, George Wallace was many things but he was never a Republican, nor was he the nominee of either major party. Furthermore, when it comes to political instincts, a gift for demagoguery, and a nearly transcendent sense of anger . . . Donald Trump isn't a patch on Wallace, who was the fiercest populist of them all, including, perhaps, even Andrew Jackson.
It was 1972 when Wallace won those primaries in Maryland and Michigan. He was a racist, segregationist governor of one of the deepest of the deep South states. So why was he winning Democratic party primaries in northern states? What were the sources of his appeal and his drive? How had he risen from poor, rural roots in southeastern Alabama to become the scourge of both Republicans and Democrats, of whom he often said, "There ain't a dime's worth of difference between them"?
To understand George Wallace and the connection he made with voters, one might start with the fact that he was, literally (in the pre-Biden meaning of the word), a fighter. He boxed in the Golden Gloves and went to the state finals when he was 15, losing by a decision in a tough fight in which he broke his thumb. The injury was severe enough to require surgery, but he kept fighting and playing football. In 1937, he was the Alabama Golden Gloves champion in the 120-pound division. So he not only liked fighting; he was good at it. And he kept at it through college and into the service. All politicians like to describe themselves as "fighters," but they seldom get much further than the metaphor. Wallace knew what it was like to hit someone in the face. Inside and outside of the ring.
Like most men his age (he was born in 1919), he also knew what it was like to fight in war. He served in the Army Air Corps and while he couldn't qualify as a pilot, he did fly in B-29s, as a crewman, in missions over Japan as part of the massive strategic bombing campaign that was led by General Curtis LeMay, who would cross paths again with Wallace, many years later, in another, and very different, campaign.
The B-29 was a mercurial airplane, and its engines would commonly overheat, swallow valves, and even catch fire in flight. Which happened on one of the missions Wallace flew. The crew was preparing to bail out and hope for rescue in the vastness of the Pacific when the fire was brought under control and extinguished. The experience went hard with Wallace, who was in bad health already after barely surviving meningitis during training in the States. He demanded to be grounded. The alternatives were, it seems, a court martial for refusing to fly any more missions or some way of finding Wallace medically unfit to fly. The latter is what happened.
The war was almost over. As Wallace and his crewmates were homeward bound from what turned out to be their last mission, their plane crossed paths with another called the Enola Gay, headed toward Japan. By the time he was discharged at the end of 1945, Wallace was diagnosed as suffering from "tension states, anxiety attacks and anorexia and loss of weight." He was given a 10 percent medical disability, which came with payments of $20 a month. For the rest of his life he hated flying. But there was no campaigning without flying and for Wallace, life without campaigning wasn't worth living. So he endured the flying.
The medical diagnosis that had resulted in his being grounded turned into a political issue after Wallace became a national political figure. Someone leaked his medical records to Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, who made a speech saying, essentially, that Wallace ought to have his head examined. Wallace, who was then governor of Alabama, knew something about counterpunching from his days in the ring. "I receive 10 percent disability," he said, "for a nervous condition caused by being shot at by Japanese airplanes and antiaircraft guns in combat missions during World War II. To what does Senator Morse attribute his condition?"
And then, during one of his presidential campaigns, when called a "fascist" by the inevitable hecklers, Wallace turned to them, gave them the stare, and said, "I was killing fascists when you punks were still in diapers."
He was always punching back. Harder.
With the war and the ring behind him, he went home to Alabama and into state politics, where he was seen as a comer. He had it—whatever it is—and rose quickly, winning a seat in the state legislature in 1946. He was a delegate to the Democratic party's national convention in 1948. Elected as circuit judge in 1952, he became known, unsurprisingly, as "the fighting little judge."
By the measure of those times and that place—1950s Alabama—he was deemed a moderate on racial matters, a figure more in the mold of "Big" Jim Folsom, a governor whose appeal was based on economics and a watered-down version of the populism that had made Huey P. Long a fearsome political force before he was assassinated.
Wallace had not joined the walkout of Southern delegates to the 1948 Democratic party convention, which led to the formation of the Dixiecrat party and the candidacy of Strom Thurmond. And, tellingly, as a judge he was known for treating black lawyers and plaintiffs with respect. This came down, mostly, to addressing them as "Mister" rather than by their first names.
He carried that reputation and those inclinations into the Democratic primary of 1958, when he ran to be governor. Everyone in the state had known he would run, and some people even expected him to win, though his main opponent, a man named John Patterson, was the sitting attorney general of the state and had the backing of the KKK. Those things were not contradictory in the state of Alabama in those days.
Wallace and Patterson finished first and second in a large field and then faced each other in a runoff. Patterson made his opposition to school desegregation and other racially themed issues the foundation of his campaign, and the KKK papered the state with fliers and posters supporting him. He won comfortably, though Wallace did better than expected. Since the state constitution did not allow the governor to serve successive terms, Wallace might have comfortably assumed he could run the same campaign in 1962 that he had run in 1958 and win.
But in defeat, he arrived at a different conclusion. It is reported—and disputed—that shortly after the returns were in and it was clear he had lost, he said bitterly to a room full of supporters, "Boys, John Patterson out-n—ed me and I promise you, I ain't never going to be out-n—ed again."
He was as good as his word. And he was elected governor of Alabama in 1962, taking the oath in Montgomery on the same spot where Jefferson Davis had been sworn in as president of the Confederacy slightly more than 100 years earlier and promising, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."
Wallace launched his own pale replay of the Civil War. Davis must have had moments—say after first Manassas or Chancellorsville—when he believed success was possible and that victory might even be within reach. The battles that Wallace fought, on the other hand, ended, always, in defeat. He famously stood in the schoolhouse door to prevent the integration of the University of Alabama. Then stood aside as Vivian Malone and James Hood enrolled. He put troopers on the bridge in Selma, and that resulted in a shocking and violent scene that galvanized support for the civil rights movement and, eventually, passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As Wallace resisted, the cause to which he was so fiercely opposed only grew stronger.
Paradoxically, so did he. In 1964, he carried his message north, all the way to Wisconsin. Lyndon Johnson was in the White House, and he dominated the political landscape. At that time, Vietnam was merely a small disturbance in the political order that he had so dynamically imposed on the nation after the assassination of John Kennedy. While Johnson had not yet won his own election, the sense was that he would. Inevitably and overwhelmingly.
If Johnson would encounter resistance anywhere, it would be in the states that had gone with Strom Thurmond in 1948. Which included, of course, Alabama, where Wallace could beat anyone for any office and not need to spend 10 minutes campaigning to do it.
But outside of the old, cotton South? In, for instance, the blue-collar, union-based, industrial states? It seemed improbable, to say the least, that George Wallace's message would play north of the Mason-Dixon line. If there was racism there, it was thought, by those who were paid to think about such things, to be furtive and certainly not virulent enough to provoke good union people into voting against the leadership of the Democratic party.
Wallace disagreed. He had been reading his mail, and it convinced him that if he ran in states outside of the South, his people would turn out. He might even get more than 10 percent of the vote. The first test of this belief came when he qualified for the Wisconsin ballot after 60 or more state residents agreed to act as his delegates—the minimum requirement for ballot inclusion.
This was treated as some kind of malignant political stunt until the returns came in and shocked the political world. In those days, Richard Rovere wrote about politics for the New Yorker with a kind of stylish urbanity. His column, Letter from Washington, had a following among what was not yet thought of as "the establishment" but, in fact, was. Rovere wrote this in the issue of the magazine dated May 16, 1964:
The size of the Wallace vote has shocked and surprised most people here, which may demonstrate how far out of touch with reality Washington may be.
Substitute the names "Trump" or "Sanders" and the sentence could have appeared in Politico 52 years later.
In a curious bit of historical marginalia, these lines appeared in the Harvard Crimson after the primary:
No one but his campaign manager expected George Wallace to get 260,000 votes in the Wisconsin Presidential Primary. Consequently, political commentators face the same problem sports writers had with Cassius Clay. Like Clay, Wallace won a striking and unexpected victory, though in confusing circumstances: the Alabama Governor showed that a militant segregationist could poll a quarter of the votes cast in a Northern state.
That paragraph was written by Michael Barone, who is still at it half a century later, and has not lost the hop on his fastball.
Wallace went on to outperform expectations in another two Northern states: Indiana and Maryland. This was the advent of "white backlash," later to be known as the "silent majority." George Wallace had shaken things up and put Washington and the establishment on notice.
But if Wallace had national ambitions, he still needed a platform, which meant Alabama. And he was constitutionally prohibited from running for reelection in 1966. But then, he had the example of Huey Long, who never let little things like law or protocol get in the way of his ambition. Long had once served simultaneously as governor of Louisiana and as U.S. senator from that state. When the people are with you . . . all things become possible.
So after failing to get the law that kept him from running changed, Wallace persuaded his wife, Lurleen, to run for governor of Alabama. Simplest thing in the world. Just run for office as Mrs. George C. Wallace, with the transparent slogan, "Let George do it!"
Lurleen Wallace ran and won. But she had undergone surgery for fairly advanced cancer shortly before the election. The cancer came back, and George Wallace was holding his wife's hand when she died, less than two years after taking office. Her body lay in state at the capitol building in Montgomery. She had asked, before she died, that the casket be closed. Wallace ordered it opened.
Not long after her burial, he was back on the road, running for president. It was, he said, what Lurleen would have wanted.
If 1964 had not looked like a particularly ripe year for a Wallace presidential campaign, 1968 might have been designed for just that purpose. It was a time of riots in the cities, crime in the streets, the Tet debacle in Vietnam, protests on campus, and assassinations, first of Martin Luther King, who had been Wallace's antagonist in so many of the bitter fights in Alabama, and then of Robert F. Kennedy, another of his fierce enemies from those days. All this made for a generalized and ominous sense that things might be coming apart for America.
And George C. Wallace was just the man to exploit these fears and dreads.
He ran as the candidate of law and order, on a third-party ticket (the American Independent party). After reports that protesters had blocked the route of a presidential motorcade by lying down in front of the lead car, he promised that, if he were elected president and some demonstrators tried that, "It will be the last car they ever lie in front of."
He baited hecklers, and when they chanted obscenities, he would tell audiences that there were at least two four-letter words the hecklers did not know: "s-o-a-p" and "w-o-r-k."
He ridiculed "pointy-headed bureaucrats riding to work on a bike in their three-piece suits with a peanut butter sandwich in their briefcase."
He knew how to work his kind of crowd but this was not all political theater. He spoke, late in the campaign, in Madison Square Garden at what was called the largest political rally in New York City since Franklin Roosevelt was president. There were 20,000 people in the audience. Thousands more protested in the streets outside.
Wallace had become a force. He had left the primitive, overtly racist appeals behind, but he was still appealing exclusively to white voters. But the message was now about how they had been disenfranchised, forgotten, and neglected. It was a message that brought him a measure of respectability and recognition by writers on the left, like Jack Newfield, who noted that, unlike Johnson in 1964 or Hubert Humphrey in 1968,
George Wallace has been sounding like William Jennings Bryan as he attacked concentrated wealth in his speeches. . . . From 1960 to 1968 liberal Democrats governed the country. But nothing basic got done to make life decisively better for the white workingman. When he bitched about street crime, he was called a Goldwaterite by liberals who felt secure in the suburbs behind high fences and expensive locks. When he complained about his daughter being bused, he was called a racist by liberals who could afford to send their own children to private schools.
As the campaign went on, Wallace inched closer and closer to political respectability. He took away support of the white Southerners Nixon was attempting to make into Republican voters at the same time he was appealing to working-class whites in the North that Humphrey needed to hold on to. It seemed plausible he might win enough electoral votes to deny a majority to either national party. George Wallace would, then, be a kingmaker.
His instincts seemed so finely matched to the needs and hungers of the electorate that it is still a mystery why he chose as his running mate retired Air Force general Curtis LeMay, who had been in command of that strategic bombing campaign that included the B-29 missions Wallace flew over Japan.
The war in Vietnam was as much at the root of America's discontent as race or crime, and Wallace essentially tried to talk around it, echoing the "win or get out" sentiment of many of his supporters. He was never especially clear on which of those alternatives he supported or believed possible. LeMay made the issue into one that worked against the ticket when he seemed to suggest he might support the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam. And even if he was not in favor of using nuclear weapons, he'd made it clear in 1965 that he was for a more aggressive conduct of the war:
My solution to the problem would be to tell [the North Vietnamese Communists] frankly that they've got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression or we're going to bomb them into the stone age.
The general feeling is that LeMay cost Wallace votes, especially among women. The war was plainly winding down, and there was no appetite for ginning it back up. It wasn't a winning issue, either way, for Wallace.
Still, he won 13.5 percent of the popular vote. Almost 10 million Americans voted for George Wallace. He carried five states, but their 46 electoral votes were not enough to deadlock the election. Richard Nixon was elected president.
The states Wallace won were all in the South, but nobody who found him a frightening figure took consolation in that. He'd won plenty of votes outside of the South. His appeal was to that vast segment of the American population that Nixon and his people would identify as the "silent majority." The Nixon team had the machinery and the tactics for appealing to these people, and they knew how to mobilize them. But Wallace could get to them in a visceral way that no other figure in American politics could match or come close to.
Wallace hated Nixon, it is said, because Nixon had once referred to Lurleen as a "dime store clerk." This, in fact, is what she had been when Wallace married her. And if Nixon had made the remark at that time, Wallace would no doubt have punched him out.
They were beyond that sort of thing now, but they recognized each other as enemies and a threat to their dearest ambitions. When Wallace went back to Alabama to run for governor in 1970, Nixon found a way to get $400,000 into the campaign of his opponent.
But it was money badly spent. Wallace won. By the time he died, he had been elected governor of Alabama four times, not counting the race his wife ran and won, after which he had served as first gentleman. Richard Nixon was reputed to have finely tuned political instincts but if he actually believed that George Wallace could be beaten in the state of Alabama by anyone, with any amount of money, he had taken leave of those instincts.
As Nixon must have known, Wallace's interest in administering the government of the state of Alabama took a distant second to his lust to campaign, a third time, for the presidency. And this time, in 1972, he meant to do it as a Democrat. If he finished strongly enough, he believed, in enough primaries, then the Democrats might be compelled to put him on the ticket, even if he didn't win outright. The prospect of a Democratic ticket that included George Wallace must certainly have struck fear into the hearts of some of those famously paranoid Nixon operatives.
Wallace was now the anti-Washington candidate. In the Florida primary, he went after the votes of people who were opposed to school busing with the objective of achieving racial balance. It was an issue that might have been created with Wallace's ambitions precisely in mind. The children of middle-class families were bused at the command of elites whose kids went to private schools and who deplored the racism of those opposed to busing. The gods could not have created a more perfect issue for George Wallace.
Most of the other candidates—George McGovern, Edmund Muskie, Hubert Humphrey, and John Lindsay, prominently—supported busing. To do otherwise would have been to betray their status as members in good standing of the Democratic left. Only Henry Jackson ran as an opponent of busing.
Wallace took 42 percent of the vote in Florida. The second-place finisher, Humphrey, got 19 percent.
Wallace went on to a second-place finish in Wisconsin, the state where his national ambitions had first been validated, in 1964. He came in second, also, in Pennsylvania. Around this time the field narrowed, as Muskie, Lindsay, and Jackson left the race.
With Maryland and Michigan coming up on May 16, he was riding high in the polls. Then Arthur Bremer shot him. It wasn't even political. Bremer was just a "disturbed loner." It is said that he was the model for the character of Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. And maybe so.
What is certain is that he put a finish to Wallace's campaign that year and, ultimately, to his presidential ambitions. Wallace recovered enough to put in an appearance, from his wheelchair, at the Democratic convention in Miami in July. George McGovern was nominated as the party's candidate at that convention, and there must have been some Nixon operatives thinking, as this went down, that when Wallace took those four bullets, they had dodged one of their own.
Wallace tried, one last time, in 1976 but quickly dropped out and endorsed Jimmy Carter, who was a new kind of Southerner. One who might have been able to defeat even a healthy George Wallace.
Things had changed that much since the days of "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." So much, in fact, that Wallace himself had taken to repudiating that sentiment or, at least, to saying that he hadn't meant it the way that it sounded, that he wasn't a racist, really. He was, he explained, a constitutionalist. And he made a point of appointing African Americans to state jobs and of traveling to Tuscaloosa to crown an African American as homecoming queen at the University of Alabama, just 10 years after attempting to prevent its integration by "standing in the schoolhouse door."
In his pain and his disability, and through two bad marriages after Lurleen's death, Wallace seemed to bear a heavy sense of guilt over that early version of himself and to feel a need to atone for it. He met with Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, and John Lewis, among other prominent African Americans, and apologized. When Wallace died, Lewis, who had been beaten bloody in the Selma march of 1965, eulogized him in the New York Times under the title "Forgiving George Wallace."
In the end, it seems, the hate had left him and in its place there was this need. In 1979, he went to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Martin Luther King Jr. had once preached and had organized the Montgomery bus boycott. Wallace spoke from his wheelchair, saying to the congregation, "I have learned what suffering means, in a way that was impossible before I was shot. I think I can understand something of the pain that black people have had to endure. I know that I contributed to that pain. I can only ask for forgiveness."
The congregation and the choir granted Wallace that wish, and as he left the church, rolling between the aisles in his metal chair, they reached out to touch him, and they sang the words to the old hymn:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but Now am found Was blind, but now I see.
Geoffrey Norman, a writer in Vermont, is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.