Mr. America


by Marshall Frady
New American Library, 246 pp., $5.95
George Wallace
George Wallace; drawing by David Levine

“When Congress met at the beginning of December the country was in a condition of utter disorganization. A new question had been sprung upon it before men had had time to discover where they stood or what the danger really was, or indeed whether any real danger in fact existed…. And as one passed southward, there could be no longer any doubt that the danger was real. The whole country was frantic in its coarse and drunken way with what it called its wrongs…”

The Great Secession Winter of 1860-61 by Henry Adams

George Wallace is one of those leaders whose destiny and strength are not to be larger than life, but small and mediocre, cut to the very scale of their followers, exceeding them only in shrewdness and energy. The idea is not to disguise the smallness, the meanness even, but to make of it instead the very moral and intellectual center of the appeal. This is what they have in mind when they speak, these Wallace people, so feelingly of “courage” and honesty. When you see Wallace, short and plebeian and unvarnished, coming out of his plane or mounting the platform for The Speech, the limits of his charm and grace are apparent. Strangely, you do not feel relieved that he should seem so—so nothing—and you do not feel gratefully superior. Instead all his lacks are immediately disturbing, threatening. It is unsettling to see that the usual bribes and corruptions of public life and power do not interest him. It is the harshness of power Wallace seeks, not its comforts. Nixon in his Fifth Avenue co-op, his family shopping at Saks, the slow and steady rise of a young man from hardship to country club, the apotheosis of a great Wall Street firm: here at least is a man with an investment to protect. We are all familiar with the coldness, rigidity, and calculation of an acquisitive spirit. But Wallace seems something new: he seems to ask nothing of life except the prospering of his sordid ideas.

First of all, he is not a liverish descendant of Huey Long, nor, as he likes sometimes to suggest, a sort of Television Andrew Jackson. Huey Long in his pajamas, with his ready supply of bourbon, his costly new Louisiana state house, his passion for the football team, the glory of LSU, his share-the-wealth and every-man-a-king: these diversions are quite unthinkable for Wallace and we cannot imagine him breathing under any sort of popular, comical designation such as “the Kingfish.” Wallace has chosen, or is doomed to express, in his own being and style, in his notions, the quintessential anger and misery of certain of the working people of our country. He has no ideas, no programs, that would alleviate misery; instead his aim is simply to give expression to grievance and to bring pain to his enemies. Private property, free…

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