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 his bodyguards, Well, it’s finally happened…. It has happened. “He didn’t look at all startled,” the bodyguard still remembers. “He had a very calm look on his face.” He never lost consciousness, his son recounts in his recent family memoir. He merely closed his eyes lightly for a few seconds, waiting to see what would happen now, if the sounds and heat and the sense of his own massy weight would wane off into white hushed blankness. But they held. The world held. And, even as they were lifting him into the ambulance, he had already begun talking again, kept up a fitful and eager chattering all the way to the hospital, as if the sound of his voice, urgent and unabating, were all that was keeping everything together around him, and it did not subside, cease, until he sank at last into the ethers for surgery.
By now such blurts of violence have so often intruded to disorder the processes of government in the United States that violence itself has become something like the abiding, phantom arbiter of American history, a demonic fourth estate of power. For Wallace, that ambush came almost precisely at the moment his sun had reached its highest point—he had, a few weeks earlier, accomplished a staggering 42 percent plurality vote in the Florida Democratic primary, and the very day after being shot with a small pistol in that Maryland shopping center, he claimed both Michigan and Maryland.
Throughout his long, fierce, scrabbling political career during the Sixties, he seemed no more than a stumpy, dingy, surly orphan of American politics, a doggedly perennial outrider. Between all his exertions and that final inner magnitude of national power and consequence, there seemed to exist some lasting, immutable, almost mystic barrier, like another field of force, against which his indefatigable scrambling came to no more than a cat’s endless swarming away at a glass patio-door. But by election eve in Maryland, he had never appeared so uncannily close to actually delivering himself through that barrier into the truest and largest relevance, into serious reality. Even with what happened to him then, he yet wound up with a popular count in the primaries out-bulking that of any other Democratic contender, including George McGovern.
Since then, it has become Wallace’s brooding conviction, despite elaborate assurances otherwise by the FBI in at least two long visits with him, that his ambush was the machination of a conspiracy—a possibility which, considered retroactively now from the perspectives of Watergate, assumes a certain malarial plausibility. For that matter, the singular common denominator of all those otherwise diverse figures edited by gunfire out of the nation’s history over the last decade—Bob Kennedy, King, Wallace, even Jack Kennedy in his time (one tends to forget what a cold shock of loose windy adventure he seemed to visit upon the conventional structures of power in this country then)—was that all of them, in their various ways, posed an authentic prospect of profoundly reordering the American system of interests. Perhaps none of them boded that, in fact, more radically than King and Wallace. Anyone looking back, in the illuminations now of Watergate, of American politics since Dallas, “who isn’t paranoid these days,” as one commentator has put it, “is crazy.”
In a way, it was only another instance of the almost supernatural luck that has attended Wallace throughout his political career that, in this berserk season of assassination, he would have been the only one of them all to survive the quick obliterating strike. To be sure, when next glimpsed a few days after that sudden ravagement in Maryland, he seemed to have aged twenty years, to have become abruptly an old man—only a vague and incidental semblance of who he once was, with the drab and empty gaze, in his once hotly crackling eyes, of someone who has been scooped out inside. He managed to go through the motions, wanly and falteringly, as if on sheer lingering momentum, of finishing out his campaign. But it would be hard to exaggerate the hit he had taken. “He should have been dead,” one of his aides later declared. “Anybody else would have been dead.”
Six weeks after Maryland, a Southern delegate to the Miami Beach convention was summoned with a handful of his companions to Wallace’s suite in a somewhat frumpishly gorgeous hotel “up the beaten track aways,” and as they waited in a large outer room for his appearance, the delegate remembers, “we all had this spooky sensation of having been fetched to meet somebody who’d actually already been assassinated. It was like waiting in a dream for Bob Kennedy to come walking through the door.”
Wallace’s brother Gerald presently appeared, a small, dry, raspy grasshopper of a man, unsubduably chipper, with a tinge of the raffish and furtive about him. He assured them, “Now yawl, we really glad to have yawl here. He’s in the bedroom in there talking to Senator Jackson right now, but yawl have yourselves a Co’Cola, and he’ll be right out.” The delegate recalls, “So we stood there, and I suddenly realized everybody was talking in hushed tones. There was this strange feeling of awkwardness and embarrassment—like we were standing around in the front parlor at a funeral for somebody who had not yet quite performed the last little formal tidiness of actually becoming a corpse, was still refusing to be finally deceased.”
At last Wallace emerged from the bedroom, wheeled in by Cornelia—“and every conversation in that room stopped all at once. Because it was like a shadow was sitting there in that chair. He was like an image dulling on the screen of a television tube that had about blown.” Cornelia, standing tall and poised behind him, had on her face, the delegate also remembers, the grave, serene, translucent, ethereal look of an already widowed Southern duchess. Wallace spoke to them briefly, mustered the old doughty phrases, “I’m gonna be fine, we gonna go right on with this thing, fellas, nothing’s been changed.” But he produced these sounds in a dim canned monotone, completely absent of energy or inflection, like a talking doll with a wire pulled in its back, as if his voice had already begun receding away small and light and disembodied into the distances of the past. His hand, when shaken, was chill and leaflike. Departing, the delegates exchanged in the corridor the discreet ceremonious Southern murmurations of family members leaving the bedside of a fading patriarch: “He dudn’t look well at all. Umh-umh. Dudn’t look well atall.”
Elegies, with Wallace, have always been notoriously treacherous propositions. More than once during his career, he passed into what seemed final and irrevocable eclipse, only to flash forth again more hotly than ever. But even to those observers most familiar with his genius for self-regeneration, it began to appear almost certain that this time, after his long spectacular romp as an irrepressible and uncontainable poltergeist in national politics, though he had managed to survive even the astonishing mangling of those shots in Maryland, his day was at last done. No more than a husk of his former self, having to be repeatedly returned to the seclusion of hospitals for constant further repair, he seemed already waning into the twilight of yesterday.
Not a year was out, though, before Wallace gave every sign of having yet again gathered himself out of blank ashes like some inextinguishable scruffy bantam-phoenix, of having hauled himself somehow by his own hands back into the quick and heat and flare of life and political pertinency again. But there seemed about his nature now an elusive but elemental difference, beyond the physical fact of his maiming. And it began to be widely posited that he had acquired over the months of his solitary struggle of self-resurrection a certain inward dimension for the first time in his headlong, manic, furious political life—a measure of stillness and introspection and even gentleness, the beginnings of some personal reality after having existed for so long totally as a public creature only alive in the din and fray of campaigns.