“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 enterprise—he believes in these, without especially caring for their rewards. And this is puzzling.
Wallace might easily have gone in for the kind of “self-improvement”—accumulation of advantages—we allow, even expect, from a successful politician, but neither he nor Lurleen ever stepped aside from an undeviating lower-middle-class glumness, discomfort, a faithful consumption of catsup and the more shoddy offerings of Main Street. Wallace in his plastic-like, ill-cut suits, his greying drip-dry shirts, with his sour, dark, unprepossessing look, carrying the scent of hurry and hair oil: if he were not a figure, a star, he would be indistinguishable from the lowest of his crowd. In Jersey City and Newark recently what struck me was this country boy’s natural, easy union with the blighted industrial scene.
We learn from Marshall Frady’s excellent book, Wallace, that when the new governor and his wife went to the mansion in Montgomery they brought nothing with them except their clothes. Frady first thought of his book as a novel, and in its present form a great deal of the original intention remains, giving the work an unusually imaginative quality. There is a palpable Faulknerian mood to the reporting. The remembered—or taperecorded—dialogue has the sharp pleasure and truthfulness of fiction. Every upward, questioning “heunh?” of the candidate, every remembered joke of observers is put down by Frady in a fascinating swirl of outraged adjectives and disturbed adverbs. He says that Wallace is “curiously substanceless”; he is a “political Snopes,” with a “dauntless, limitless, and almost innocent rapacity…”
Wallace’s political career began in the vein of the more or less liberal Alabama politician, Big Jim Folsom. When, however, Wallace was defeated by a segregationist, he got the point—and he moved immediately beyond the local application of this new wisdom. He quickly understood race as the foundation of his political claim in Alabama and “the politics of the country.” Wallace in Alabama is only the first act and it is the least interesting because of the widespread political devastation in the South. Georgia, a profoundly interesting state, is after all guided by Lester Maddox, a feeble seg, mincing about the beautiful Atlanta state mansion, suspiciously peering, with his fixed and yet frightened little eyes, into the maze of doctrine and possibility. Maddox, nerve pulsing up in him from the example of Wallace, made a national try at the Democratic Convention in Chicago and was quickly seen to be too great a fool, too embarrassing a national peculiarity, to survive in even the Chicago circus.
WALLACE IS NOT REGIONAL and is instead, if we can believe what we are told in the press and the polls, a serious “white trash” candidate. The term is not used here contemptuously; in my view, the pity and sorrow and the guilt of the times lies in just this terrible “trashiness” of the lives of our ordinary people. Wallace very fully embodies in his person and in his ideas the misery of the working class, its joyless patriotism, its stunting deprivations which are all the worse for being unknown to those who must endure them. One of Wallace’s virtues, to his crowd, must be that political success has not put a distance between him and them. He met his wife, Lurleen, when he was buying a bottle of hair-oil in Kresge’s to soothe his ducktail—a style he kept with him a long time, before deciding upon his present, reactionary but still very provincial clip—and there is nothing in the look of him all these years later that shows any desire to shuck off the social husks of the past. His energies have not been drained away by the southern vice of snobbery, the desire to work up to the legendary genteel, the fantasy aristocracy. When he first tried to reach out and went up to New Hampshire he found the Yankees there “kinda overbred.” Wallace’s natural home would seem to be a seedy hotel with a lot of people in the lobby, and his relaxation a cheap diner. For all his knowledge of the counties and back roads of Alabama, his “Hi, honey” and his “How yuh doin’?”, he is rootless in the extreme. This is his best preparation for his “historical task”—if indeed he is to have one. There is no sign of play-acting in his role; he is one with his natural constituency.
Wallace’s unnatural constituents are foolish rightists of means and military idiots like his Vice Presidential candidate, General LeMay. That is, at the present time. If Wallace is to continue he may need to make a more prudent and thoughtful use of these groups. For the moment he is still alone. On the platform, in New Jersey, soon after LeMay had joined the ticket, Wallace hardly seemed to acknowledge that he was there; he referred to his co-candidate with almost rude brevity and pushed him back like some squat Hindenburg into a literal shadow, from whence came only the gloved handclaps and appreciative giggles of Mrs. LeMay. Wallace is perhaps impatient of organization and temperamentally unsuited to coalition. He appears to look upon his mission as a personal triumph and to be suspicious of the dilution of other groups and organizations. Frady quotes an old acquaintance: “He don’t have no hobbies. He don’t do any honest work. He don’t drink. He ain’t got but one serious appetite and that’s votes.”
Wallace’s working class supporters are unhappy white people. But they, unlike the blacks, the unemployed of the Depression, the earlier immigrant groups, do not see their wretchedness in terms of some political or economic demand upon society. The prototypical taxi driver Wallace so often addresses as the vessel of popular wisdom is a tired, underpaid, cheerless American. He would like to make more money, yes, but he has no plan to invade the free enterprise system. The Wallace union member rages against his exhaustion, but he sees his unhappiness in moralistic terms. The narrow, difficult life he leads is a mystery to him. Someone’s got to answer for the joylessness.
These men in the Wallace crowds work all week, but they do not earn enough money to have tranquility, choice, security, or to answer the constant demands of their families and their world for more money, more goods, more and more of that consumption which alone can confer a sense of inner worth. These whites are as badly educated as the blacks, but amazingly unaware of it. When a poor black welfare mother thinks of education for her children, she hopes for something more alive, original, and creative than the present public school system. The disgruntled whites, the Wallace voters, want to destroy their own schools. They will not share them with the Negro either personally or ideologically. Therefore, even when they have rid themselves of the blacks, they will have to “stomp on”—the kind of term they like—the free and inspired teacher, bottle up the flow of ideas, further degrade the already bad textbooks.
The white man comes home to his payments on the car, the mortgage on his house in the blank development, to his pizzas and cottony bread and hard-cover pork chops, to his stupefying television, his over-heated teenage daughter, his D-in-English, car-wrecking son: all this after working himself to exhaustion. He is sore and miserable and there is never enough money—and yet he is torn by feelings that what he has is of immense value and privilege. Everything tells him the car and the house and the pre-cooked dinner and the narcotic television are the glories of mankind and that he, himself, is the lord of creation, who will not take any lip from the Commies, the French, the UN, the Viet Cong. In an Alabama version, in Frady, of these conundrums of existence, a judge after listening to Wallace says, “Well, goddamn. We at the bottom of everything you can find to be at the bottom of, and yet we gonna save the country. We lead the country in illiteracy and syphilis, and yet we gonna lead the damn country out of the wilderness….”
The white men, the union members, get their strange feeling of value from the certain knowledge that America is the most powerful country in the world. In their inner being they connect with this power—no one more than Wallace—and yet they also connect with their misery and with that discomfort they cannot name, that cheerlessness beer cannot dispel because it comes from the fact that their existence is not satisfying. What good does it do you in your harassment at midnight, or at seven in the morning, to know that America is the most powerful country in the world? Somehow, if things were right, it ought to be more of a consolation. Wallace, in his own person, has the same joyless but angry life, the same energetic and empty existence. It is as if he were a sort of mythical bearer of the meagerness and the power of America.
The message is that the misery in the midst of plenty, the weakness in the land of power, is not a mystery but has its roots in the blacks, from below, and the educated from above. These working men blame their own sad hours at the plant or in traffic not on the unimaginably rich but on the unemployed Negroes roaming the streets and, as they see it, indifferent to many of the dampening claims and responsibilities taken on by the disgruntled white working class. Wallace in The Speech explains it all. The Kerner Report: “Why, it’s you people, it’s us who are responsible for the breakdown of law and order! It’s you folks who got to pay these people to keep them from burning down the country.” Wallace attacks the taxexemption of the foundations, but it is not the vast wealth that vexes him but the fact that this wealth is writing the hated “guidelines” that tell a white working man he must open his schools to Negroes, his housing development and his unions.
The union hierarchy has now undertaken a belated educational effort about Wallace’s uninspiring labor record as Governor of Alabama. Yet which of the autoworkers needs instruction of this kind? It is not wages. or benefits Wallace brings with him. No, it is respect for the prejudices, resentments and fears of disappointed whiteys, super-Americans, many of them, in the North, not so long ago Polish and Irish and Italian.
WALLACE is a mean man. The only thing he excelled in beyond votegetting was boxing. His rhetoric is shrewd in understanding resentments, but it promises nothing except the pleasures of winning a gang fight. There is a strange absence of class and political warfare in his call; it is replaced by the peculiar satisfactions of hand-to-hand combat. “Under the jail” with them, “rough ’em up,” and “knock heads,” and run down and run over and stomp ’em. “All that’s got to stop!” he says. All that is nothing less than most of the civil rights of our society.
Neither the Republicans nor the Democratic Party has made a real effort to expose Wallace. The Vietnam war adds to Wallace’s power: he’s for it and so the Democrats cannot seriously be against him. Humphrey stands on civil rights, but he bows to no one in his hatred of demonstrators and hecklers and draft resisters. If Wallace should actually turn out to be less powerful than he appears it will not be due to the qualities of Nixon or Humphrey, but rather to the limits of Wallace’s program as it is now conceived. Hatred of Negroes and their liberal allies—no doubt this is powerful stuff, but it is still a displacement. Something positive will be needed to fill the emptiness, even the relatively empty pocketbooks. For the moment they do not threaten the privileged; the program is only, in the end, concerned with ideas of exclusion. That would not seem to be sufficient forever. The movement will itself go “under the jail” or else take on new life in some unforeseen, wretched, and appropriate transformation.
November 7, 1968