Are John McCain and Sarah Palin heirs to George Wallace's legacy?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 17 2008 7:07 PM

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."

Advertisement

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?

Back in the day when John Lewis' "Beloved Community" was disintegrating into fiery urban race riots, Wallace needed no "expertise" other than race to rally a countermovement.  There was no compunction for him to see, oh, Cuba on a clear day in Montgomery. "I've read about foreign policy and studied," he deadpanned in 1968. "I know the number of continents."  And forget about citing Supreme Court cases; it was enough for Wallace to say that Chief Justice Earl "Brown v. Board" Warren, "hadn't got enough brains in his whole head to try a chicken thief in Chilton County."

Today, by contrast, there seems to be little active racial conflict for a politician to exploit. The racial milestone of the Bush era, Hurricane Katrina, presented a heartrendingly passive tableau of black urban misery in contrast to the violent uprisings of the 1960s. And so Palin has had to fall back on conflating "an old washed-up terrorist" (as McCain described William Ayers) with Islamic jihadists who represent the polar opposite of the counterculture of the '60s. The problem is, Palin's stretch is so ridiculously gratuitous, and so patently pitched at an ill-informed subculture, that it invites the question: How could she not realize how her rhetoric might be interpreted as a summons to violence?

McCain's genuine shock at the suggestion that the campaign has been doing so is evident in his raw affect and aggrieved language, at the debate and in other interviews. Indeed, many might have considered Lewis' invocation of the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., which killed four black girls in 1963, as "over the line," as Obama concurred with McCain in the debate. And none of McCain's symbolic slights toward blacks—voting against the federal Martin Luther King holiday or defending the Confederate flag to pander to white voters in South Carolina—come close to Wallace's actions. But we are talking here about rhetoric and its consequences.

Perhaps I can provide some context that will help McCain finesse a constructive lesson from the painful comparison. In September 1963, Wallace had sent his state troopers to schools around Alabama to block court-ordered desegregation. On Saturday Sept. 7, Wallace delivered the keynote at a fundraising banquet in Birmingham for the United Americans for Conservative Government, the political arm of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama. In his speech, Wallace referred to the recent bombings in Birmingham against prominent black citizens, citing the lack of fatalities as proof that the "nigras" were throwing the dynamite themselves in order to attract publicity and money.

Among the 489 attendees that night were two of the seasoned bomb makers who had given the city its nickname: "Bombingham." One week later, their handiwork blasted a hole in the wall of the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing the four girls attending Sunday school. John Lewis attended their funeral.

The governor might not have known he was addressing potential church bombers at the banquet. Surely he did not intend to embolden murderers with a fraudulent moral alibi. But even if Wallace himself "never threw a bomb," as Lewis made clear in his statement, the blame hurled at him was immediate and devastating—from the Kennedy White House to the Senate to the press to Martin Luther King, who sent Wallace a telegram that said, "The blood of our little children is on your hands." Judging from his subsequent gestures of contrition, the thought may have entered Wallace's mind as well. In 1979 he arranged a private meeting  with John Lewis to "ask your forgiveness for anything I've done to wrong you."

The South has always held up a mirror to the rest of the country, but as often as not, the nation looks into it and refuses to recognize itself. Although McCain's disavowals of racism are proper and without obvious political calculation, his subsequent challenges have been neither. His hammering of Obama for failing to "repudiate" Lewis (aside from its implicit assumptions of "those people" alikeness) leaves the false impression that Obama did not publicly reject any implication that McCain was racist. And was it prudent for McCain to escalate the conflict further by accusing the two high-profile men-who-happen-to-be-black of insulting the "hardworking people" attending his rallies? To be fair, Hillary Clinton previously sprung to the defense of this victim group of "hardworking Americans, white Americans," who could not bring themselves to vote for a black man in the West Virginia primary. But this was well before the hardworking class yelled "Off with his head!" in public.

To put it in the plainest terms, McCain has, like Wallace, disingenuously bestowed the mantle of aggrieved victimhood on an audience his campaign acknowledges includes some "fringe people"—though McCain has begun flogging a phony-equivalency, "extremists on both sides" argument that Obama events have their wackos, too. And still McCain continues to up the demagogic ante. In Wednesday's debate, and again in nearly identical language on David Letterman's show, he noted that his rallies included "veterans wearing their hats from all the wars we were in." By McCain's logic, then, when Obama and Lewis criticize those who attend his rallies, they are by implication criticizing these old soldiers as well. Thus does he plant the notion that his opponent is slandering war veterans. And among a population that considers Obama a "traitor," McCain could earn the charges that he inferred from Lewis' remarks. Let us hope that he will not also be afflicted with George Wallace's compulsion to atone when it is too late.

Diane McWhorter is the author of Carry Me HomeandA Dream of Freedom.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 19 2014 4:15 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? Staff writer Lily Hay Newman shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.