A Legacy of Resentment
Are McCain and Palin Wallace's heirs?
I finally understand the switch of doom that tripped somewhere deep in my soul during Sarah Palin's speech at the Republican National Convention. Her rhetorical star turn—the exuberant snideness, the gut-level rapport with the audience, the frank pleasure at being a yokel on the big stage—reprised the great gifts of the politician who dominated my youth: George Corley Wallace, perpetual governor of Alabama and frequent candidate for president of the less-than-United States.
U.S. Rep John Lewis of Georgia also noticed the similarity. He issued a statement last week accusing Palin and John McCain of "sowing the seeds of hatred and division." He invoked "another period, in the not too distant past," when George Wallace "created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who only desired to exercise their constitutional rights."
So how is Sarah Palin like—and not like—George Wallace? And how much is John McCain relying on tactics Wallace used? The answers: more than she can probably know and more than he appears to have admitted to himself.
Wallace is a pivotal figure in American politics, the man who yoked white racism with middle-class cultural grievance when the civil rights revolution and the Vietnam War protest movement provoked a (so far) permanent counterinsurgency of "real Americans." At the time of his ascendance in the 1960s as Alabama's "Segregation Forever!" executive, Wallace seemed to be on the wrong side of history, a "stumpy, dingy, surly orphan of American politics" (in the words of Marshall Frady, whose work I rely on here) standin' in the schoolhouse door of enlightenment. He turned out to be the godfather, avatar of a national uprising against the three G's of government, Godlessness, and gun control. There is ample analysis—see especially Wallace biographer Dan T. Carter, whose book I also rely on—tracing the line from Wallace to Ronald Reagan and on to Newt Gingrich with his 1994 junta. Now comes Sarah Palin.
Clearly Lewis' harsh analogy got under McCain's skin; McCain has said that Lewis, who got his skull fractured by Wallace's state police while marching for civil rights in 1965, is one of his heroes. McCain's objections rippled well beyond the 24-hour-news cycle, providing the only fresh emotion in Wednesday's presidential debate and spilling into his appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman on Thursday night.
McCain's impassioned rebuttal—the essence of which is, "I am not a segregationist"—is certainly true. But to define Wallace so literally is to miss his broadly toxic influence. It was the seriousness of Wallace's third-party presidential candidacy in 1968 that compelled Richard Nixon to devise the seminal "Southern strategy," using a coded form of bigotry palatable to moderates. Four years later, adopting a platform of what Carter describes as "soft-porn racism" for himself, Wallace was chalking up impressive primary victories as a Democrat when a crippling would-be assassin's bullet ended his campaign. The landslide Democratic loss that ensued raises an unsettling thought: "The Guvnor" may have been closer to mainstream America than the eventual Democratic nominee, George McGovern.
So any comparison between George Wallace's program and the current Republican campaign must acknowledge the truth reflected in the fact alone of a black presidential nominee: The country today is a long way from the America of 1972. By the same token, that stunning achievement is the very fact that gives this debate over Wallace's legacy its urgency.
The most obvious tactic shared by Palin and Wallace is their cranky assault on the "elite" national news media. Wallace would often single out reporters at his events from "the Life magazine," "the Time," and "the Newsweek," but he thoughtfully assigned them bodyguards in case his "folks" got too riled up. When Palin deprecated Katie Couric at a rally, the crowd shook thunder sticks at the press section—and one supporter told a black network soundman to "sit down, boy."
Like Wallace's base, Palin's "true Americans" owe their authenticity to their rebellion against American institutions. Wallace's campaign slogan evolved seamlessly from the separatist "Stand Up for Alabama" to the more subtly defiant "Stand up for America," promising a culturally displaced nation-in-exile its rightful place in the White House. Likewise, Palin lowers her voice in intimate solidarity with Americans who are "always proud" of their country—even though her husband once belonged to a political party advocating secession. Such disloyalty is excused, even exalted, by the nature of the enemy they face: "Washington, D.C." For Southern politicians, the capital was always the place that forced civil rights legislation down their throats, but Palin's Beltway villains lack such racial resonance—or even the colorfulness of Wallace's "bearded bureaucrats." After all, those diabolical people running the government are members of her own party.
So other than hitting the "community organizer" thing a bit too hard, Palin's demagoguery has no rationally decipherable racial code. ("Drill, baby, drill" has the testosterone of retributive aggression, but the implied scapegoat is the planet rather than a race.) Absent any obvious color semaphores, can rhetoric be racial? Or is the old Wallace code now so automatic that the racial pitch is audible to anyone with the ears to hear it?
Diane McWhorter is the author of Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama—The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution and a young-adult history of the movement, A Dream of Freedom.
Photograph of George Wallace from Wikipedia Commons. Photograph of Sarah Palin by Darren McCollester/Getty Images.