Recollections of George Wallace

Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — Many years ago, an eminent social philosopher named George Corley Wallace, otherwise known as the governor of Alabama, identified the root cause of the nation’s woes.

It was because, he said then, that when most people were small children, “their daddies never carried them to see the Pittsburgh Pirates.” He may have meant to suggest the absence of proper parental guidance.

Or was it the way this champion of “segregation now, segregation forever” defended the existing social order in the South, considering Major League Baseball then was the exclusive domain of white men?

Wallace in other ways demeaned Yankee politicians as fools who didn’t “know how to park a bicycle straight.”

He cast his rivals from both major parties in the 1960s as knaves and clowns, interchangeable as useless public servants.

He liked to say voters could “take a big sack and you put LBJ in there, and you put Hubert Horatio Alger Humphrey in there, and put Bobby Kennedy … in there, and you shake ’em all up. Then you put this Richard Milhous Nixon, who with Eisenhower put bayonets in the backs of the people of Little Rock [to desegregate their public schools].”

Wallace would go on: “And then you put that socialist Nelson Rockefeller … and that left-winger George Romney from Michigan who was out in the streets with them demonstrators … and that radical Jacob Javits from New York, and you shake ’em all up.

Then you turn that sack over, and the first one that falls out, you pick him up by the nape of his neck and drop him right back in again, because there’s not a dime’s worth of difference in any of ’em, national Democrats or national Republicans.”

On and on it went from the snarling little peddler of venom and hate, who fortunately never reached the Oval Office. Upon reflection, Wallace was not much different from the current salesman of the same negativism, who now seeks a return to national power, likely in 2024.

While Donald Trump appears to have retained considerably more public support than Wallace ever mustered, his pitch has never approached the level of comic entertainment delivered by the pugnacious rabble-rouser from Alabama.

Wallace’s political dreams were effectively ended by a would-be assassin who shot and left him paralyzed for the rest of his life, though he did continue to campaign from a wheelchair for a time.

Once, at a Southern governors conference in New Orleans, I was alone with Wallace in his hotel room as he as he gazed down on colleagues frolicking among bikinied guests at the oceanfront. Suddenly, he said: “I never opted to be like someone else. I opted to be George Wallace.”

I believe that was the last time I saw him.

Near the end, Wallace sent me and my column partner Jack Germond a letter. “It is good to read you fellows because I enjoyed my old days with you in years past,” he wrote, “but the bullets I took in Maryland have taken their toll on me. I just wanted to let you know that I enjoyed reading you both and remember the days we used to have personal contacts together. I wish those days could happen again.”

That is the George Wallace I also prefer to remember now, many years later.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.


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