The Wallaces of Alabama
George Wallace’s life by now has taken on symmetries of irony that would be almost too pat even for hack melodrama. It’s as if he has passed out of reality altogether, and become a character in an Allen Drury novel. Throughout his clamorous career in the Sixties, he was always invigorated by potentials for spontaneous folk combustions and popular crises; he was captivated by a kind of populist romance of violence. Riding home from a campaign rally late one night in 1967, he chattered almost breathlessly in the back seat of the car, gesturing anticly with his stubby tattered cigar in the soft flare of headlights behind him.
“Nigguhs start a riot down here, first one of ‘em to pick up a brick gets a bullet in the brain, that’s all. Let ‘em see you shoot a few of ‘em, and you got it stopped. Any truck driver, steelworker would know how to deal with that. You elect one of these steelworkers guvnuh, you talk about a revolution—damn, there’d be shootin’ and tearin’ down and burnin’ and killin’ and bloodlettin’ sho nuff. Hell, all we’d have to do right now is march on the federal courthouse in Montgomery, lock up a few of those judges, and by sunset there’d be a revolution from one corner of this nation to the other.”
Whenever he was confronted by hostile campus audiences on his forays into the North back then, he would seem almost giddily to goad forth outrage and uproars until, on repeated occasions, he had to be quickly bundled offstage by his bodyguards, he glancing back over his shoulder at the tumult he had touched off with a curiously detached expression of fascination and awe. And then outside, with his car engulfed in a riotous churn and surge of demonstrators, he would sit very still and small and chunky in his drab black suit in the back seat, seemingly on the point of being consumed himself by that popular violence which has always enthralled him, regarding the melee around him with a rapt gaze of remote abstract wonder. His mother, a brisk and brittle little lady not overly given to sentimentality, crisply declared one winter morning in 1967, “Of course, somebody’s gonna get George sooner or later. I’ve accepted that. He’s gonna get it. My only consolation is, when it happens, he’ll be doing the only thing he’s ever cared about doing anyway.”
And that glaring May afternoon in Laurel, Maryland, when suddenly he was lying half curled up like a dropped and dying squirrel on the pavement of a shopping-center parking lot, with his thin hair sprayed out like an aureole about his head, he had on his face that same expression of mild, musing, remote amazement he had worn all those times when he was huddled in the back seat of a car amid the storms of his past—as if only vaguely marveling, recalls one of …