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Wallace Redeemed?’: An Exchange

In response to:

Wallace Redeemed? from the October 20, 1994 issue

To the Editors:

C. Vann Woodward’s review of my book, George Wallace: American Populist [NYR, October 20], combines misinformation, innuendo, and suggestions that I am a closet racist. Much of his criticism appears to be based on material furnished to him, and accepted by him as unvarnished truth, by a fellow academic whom he does not identify, raising the possibility of his source’s personal or pecuniary interests in demeaning and undermining my work.

Professor Woodward dismisses me as “misinformed as well as uninformed about the relevant past,” and yet relies entirely on my text in crafting a 2,500-word cogent summary, including quotes and descriptive scenes, of the personal and political history of Wallace and the Wallace family dating to Reconstruction. Additionally, he concurs in my essential argument—that many of Wallace’s non-racial positions have become mainstream and that no serious presidential candidate dares ignore Wallace’s views regarding such issues as taxes and big government.

Professor Woodward finds fault with my research, specifying my extensive use of ” ‘recollections’ of witnesses of events that took place a quarter of a century or more ago. Such off-the-cuff testimony is notoriously unreliable and often self-serving.” In each and every instance, these “recollections,” including my own, were derived not from memory but from extensive notes recorded, for the most part, by professional journalists within hours of the events they witnessed. Even a casual reading of this material, much of it never before published, demonstrates that it is hardly “off-the-cuff.”

He also complains that I “failed to see…such highly relevant manuscript collections” as the papers of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. In fact, I used materials from both the John and Robert Kennedy papers and from the Johnson papers; the abundance of materials available to me concerning Nixon’s obsession with Wallace obviated my need for his papers, many of which, in any event, were inaccessible to the public.

As the backnotes in my book testify, I interviewed dozens of key people, was given extensive access to Wallace, consulted scores of works of history and, in addition to the Wallace papers, thousands of published and unpublished reports, documents, and collections. The result was a book recognized by one respected academician (Alan Brinkley of Columbia University) as “the first…serious study of one of the 20th century’s most important political figures,” by a second (Abigail Thernstrom of Boston University and the Manhattan Institute) as “both a serious book on American politics and a good old-fashioned yarn,” and a third (Douglas Brinkley of the Eisenhower Center and the University of New Orleans) as “a well-written and judiciously researched biography (that) enables us to understand the paradoxic influence that Wallace had on American politics.”

Professor Woodward, apparently questioning the book’s validity, both misstates the terms of my financial arrangement with Wallace and neglects to mention its central condition—that I possessed total editorial control. My open discussion of this arrangement dates to an Associated Press report of January 9, 1987, shortly after I signed a contract with a publisher. The editors and publishers with whom I worked over the years on this project were fully aware that I was compensating Wallace for his time, expenses, and access to his papers. If I had it to do again, I would have mentioned the agreement in my acknowledgements, and am doing so in the next edition of the book. But I suspect that those eager to do me and the book harm will continue to ignore or distort the truth.

Employing a technique better suited to the New York Post than to The New York Review of Books, Professor Woodward uses an unnamed source to excoriate my sources and research. “Checked for accuracy by a well-informed scholar who has sent me his findings, [Lesher’s] footnotes revealed an appalling amount of error and carelessness…” Neither he nor his unidentified source offers a single, specific example of error, so I don’t know what they are talking about and am unable to respond. If, indeed, there are specific allegations, a journalist receiving them from a source wishing to remain in the shadows would have given the accused an opportunity to reply or explain; apparently, such standards do not obtain in academia.

In failing to disclose his source, Professor Woodward opens himself to questions about the motivations of this “well-informed scholar” who, apparently, believes that his or her identity as critic-in-the-wings might prove embarrassing. Among other possibilities, this “scholar” might lack credible credentials in regard to Wallace (in which case Professor Woodward is dissembling), or bear a grudge for something I wrote in an earlier book or article (obligating Professor Woodward to provide me an opportunity to reply). Or the anonymous source could be preparing a competing biography of George Wallace and would profit handsomely if someone of Professor Woodward’s stature denounced my work and decried what he acknowledges is “the virtually unanimous praise the book has received, both here and in England.” (An academician has been under contract with Simon & Schuster since 1990 to produce a Wallace biography that its author says will appear next year.) If the source is indeed writing a competing book of which Professor Woodward was unaware, then he has been deceived; if he did know, he should be ashamed.

Lastly, Professor Woodward, trying to demonstrate that I am a Wallace apologist, uses loaded words to imply that I might harbor “ambiguities” in my racial attitudes. He writes that “Mr. Lesher admits” that the 1970 Alabama governor’s race was dirty and racist, and that “Lesher…admits” Wallace “thundered his racial policies” in a 1962 campaign (emphases added), implying that I defended Wallace’s racism except when forced to do otherwise. He says that I recorded Wallace’s “ugly record of racism” with “seeming candor” (emphasis added), as if my real agenda were to cagily excuse that record. Professor Woodward accuses me of presenting Wallace’s racist policies with “tones of exoneration,” but no fair reader could possibly reach that conclusion. Wallace himself issued a statement disputing my portrait of him as a racist. And in my epilogue (p. 501, and reproduced on the dust jacket of the book), I write that “though (Wallace) had purported to be the champion of the poor and the helpless, he had trampled on the poorest and most helpless of all his constituents—the blacks.” If that constitutes “tones of exoneration,” Professor Woodward must be tone deaf.

Professor Woodward goes so far as to describe me as Wallace’s “friend” making my best effort to “provide [him] some measure of rehabilitation.” “To judge by the book’s reception in the press,” Woodward concludes, “Lesher has so far been remarkably successful.” The book makes no effort to rehabilitate Wallace but, rather, to delve into his impact on modern American politics. I maintain only that “had Wallace not reached beyond race, he could not have aroused the tens of millions who either voted for him or who switched only when mainstream candidates adopted many of his positions.” As to Wallace’s extraordinary, latter-day transformation on the race issue, I emphasize that even if his motives were purely self-serving, the result was a positive one and “a breathtaking reminder of the sweeping, constructive changes of which American democracy is capable.”

In closing, Professor Woodward reveals his true intent—promotion of another Wallace biography, perhaps by his own “friend”: “A careful study remains to be written accounting both for Wallace’s shrewdness and popularity and for his capacity for viciousness.” It strikes me that Wallace still may have something to learn about viciousness from the hallowed halls of academia.

Stephan Lesher

Katonah, New York

C Vann Woodward replies:

Mr. Lasher seems bent on defining our differences as those between academic and non-academic historians, elite professors and honest journalists—this reviewer on the one side and himself on the other. He goes further to speak of “viciousness from the hallowed halls of academia,” of which he and George Wallace are victims and his reviewer the perpetrator.

Let me assure him that he is mistaken in his assumptions, at least those concerning my respect for historians outside the “hallowed halls.” I did say that “I think his main trouble lies with the sources he used, as well as the sources he failed to use.” Prominent among sources used are those he describes in notes as “recollections.” I shall return to them later.

More relevant to the question of academics versus non-academics is my complaint that he neglected such archival sources as the papers of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. He replies that he did use “materials from” the Kennedy and Johnson papers and (more remarkable) that “Nixon’s obsession with Wallace obviated my need for his papers.” In his book I find no evidence of more than very superficial use of the Kennedy and Johnson archives. Nixon’s obsession with Wallace would seem to make his papers more rather than less essential. Other historians—non-academic as well as academic—have found them of prime value. As examples of fellow non-academicians who have made extensive use of archival sources he might consider David McCullough’s huge biography of Truman and John Bartlow Martin’s books on Adlai Stevenson. Deep archival digging is not confined to stuffy academics.

As for sources he did use liberally, the “recollections” of journalists we are now told are derived from “extensive notes” they made at the time of the events witnessed. But neither this nor the location of such notes is mentioned in his book. There we learn that he “interviewed dozens of key people,” but fewer than one dozen are cited in his notes. Far the most lengthy and most often cited interviews are those with Governor Wallace himself, sixty hours of them recorded on tapes. The tapes have disappeared and the transcripts have not been made available to historians as yet. I will not repeat the skepticism of excessive reliance on interviews and oral history voiced in my review of Mr. Lesher’s book, but I do not believe I have been unfair in expressions of it in this instance.

Mr. Lesher surely has the right to demand specific examples of errors charged. For one example, he cites an article by Walter Rugaber in The New York Times, November 18, 1968, as the source of quotations it does not contain, though it does contain a quotation he wrongly attributes to another journalist made years later. And incidentally the Times article is on page 48, not page 1, as cited.

A similar example of carelessness occurs in Lesher’s reporting of white brutality and violence in Marion, Alabama, in which an unarmed black protester, Jimmie Lee Jackson, was shot and killed by state troops. Martin Luther King later preached at his funeral. The same night that Jackson was shot three white newsmen were beaten by white toughs. Lesher cites three articles, two in The New York Times of February 20, 1965, and one March 4, 1965, in support of his statement that Governor Wallace expressed regret over the killing of Jackson. One of the articles does report the governor “shocked and saddened” by the beating of the newsmen, but I found no mention of regret for Jackson’s death in any of the sources cited. Errors of this sort are inconsequential, to be sure, but they do not inspire confidence.

Neither do reports of two speeches of Wallace that were not given, or not as reported by Lesher. One of them pictures Wallace as a youth of twenty-nine capturing national publicity at the Democratic convention of 1948 by seconding the nomination of Senator Richard Russell of Georgia for president in a speech paraphrasing William Jennings Bryan’s famous rhetoric, this time with the South “crucified on the cross of so-called civil rights.” Actually young Wallace was nominating Russell for vice-president after the senator refused to allow his name to be put forth. Wallace made his gesture with a one-sentence speech that included the “cross-of-civil-rights” line another delegate had used in nominating Russell for president. The vice-presidential nomination was quickly forgotten and Wallace received no national publicity.

Another undelivered speech was the one he was alleged to have given at Harvard in 1963 that had been prepared by his Ku Klux speech writer Asa Carter, and was full of racist slurs and epithets that his biographer says were booed by his outraged audience. So it was reported in Alabama papers. But Wallace had better sense than to use racial slurs and insults before that audience. He would have been howled down. Instead he confined his formal speech in Cambridge to constitutional defense of states’ rights against the Supreme Court, especially the Brown decision on segregation, containing long passages from the Federalist Papers. This was reported by local papers and Harvard publications, which also told of Wallace winning over the Harvardians by clever witticisms and wildly cheered jibes at Yale for violating free speech by withdrawing an invitation for him to appear there. A transcript of Wallace’s address by the NAACP, which would hardly have overlooked racial slurs, contains none.

We all make mistakes. Mr. Lesher might take some comfort in my acknowledgment of errors of my own that were pointed out by another reader of my review. One placed the national Democratic Convention of 1972 in San Francisco instead of Miami Beach, where it did meet, and another gives the wrong date for Wallace’s last race for governor. As the author of a book bearing the subtitle Perils of Writing History, I am quite aware that error is not a fault confined to non-academic historians.

I accept Mr. Lesher’s denial that his present contract with Governor Wallace takes the form of a fifty-fifty split of royalties and returns on the book and his statement that it gives the author editorial control of the contents. While he does admit making a “financial arrangement with Wallace,” he does not disclose the sums involved and he does not explain why the arrangement was not mentioned in his book. It is good to learn that he now regrets his failure to inform his readers of these matters and that he intends to do so in a future edition.

Readers will form varied opinions of the extent to which Lesher may be regarded as an apologist for Wallace. In my review of the book I have stated my own opinions on this question and some of the reasons for them. Further reflections on the matter have given me no cause for changing those opinions.

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