During the Democrats’ first midterm convention, held at Kansas City in early December, pilgrims sought out two shrines—the Harry Truman Library, full of relics from Democratic days of glory; and the Holiday Inn suite where George Wallace was staying, himself a relic, tended and dressed, wheeled around and displayed, like a political Infant of Prague.
Indeed, the dressing of him caused some problems. It is hard to prod him out of his Montgomery cave these days; he agreed at last, and reluctantly, to attend the convention on Tuesday, two days before the opening—and only then because his man Charles Snyder telephoned him from Kansas City that all the delegates would think he was dying if he did not show up. He arrived Thursday afternoon, determined to go back Friday morning—he brought only one suit and one shirt. But all along the way he had been brightening back toward life. His reception at the airport and motel cheered him further—by the time he reached the Truman Library for a bash closed to the press (all but three pool reporters), he rolled into the building bubbly with refound confidence: “Make way for the leading contender!”
It was not an empty boast. That very day Gallup had released a poll that showed Wallace ahead of all others among Democrats (19 percent, to 11 for Humphrey and 10 for the putative “front runner,” Scoop Jackson). Even more surprising, Wallace led all other Democrats among independents, the very people that “reforms” of the sort promised at Kansas City were supposed to be attracting: among them he won 24 percent of the people’s loyalty, to 12 percent for Jackson. He came in among the first three with 32 percent of the Democrats and 42 percent of the independents. He was unacceptable, however, to 29 percent of the Democrats and 27 percent of independents.
There, in symbol, is the Democrats’ dilemma. The party desperately needs to regain the South; yet the cost is also desperately high. One way or other, the leaders seem doomed to write off a necessary element of victory—19 to 24 percent if Wallace is repudiated, 27 to 29 percent if he is embraced. The convention would live uneasily with those facts, and with Wallace himself, all through the weekend—for he did not fly back Friday morning, or (as later announced) Friday afternoon. His staff had, with his permission, bought him a new shirt in Kansas City—and quietly sent for another suit to be flown up from Montgomery. He held court all through Saturday, and almost had to be crammed into his airplane on Sunday afternoon, when the affair was almost over. By that time he was back in the air with his own buoyance, a balloon that had to be hauled down to earth again long enough to strap him into the plane’s seat.
Wallace is afraid to campaign; but he only lives for crowds, and for his power to sway them—not to run would be, for him, a subtler form of suicide. All his staff is devoted to making him president as a way of compelling him to live. It makes for extraordinary personal dedication in his entourage. One of his bodyguards was shot with him, but is back at his post. Another who was near him in Laurel was asked in Kansas City: “You’d suck the Governor’s dick if he asked you, wouldn’t you?” This brute of dedication was taken, momentarily, off guard, in strangled embarrassment. At last he said, fervently: “I just pray God he never asks!” The Wallace crew has changed far less than any other major candidate’s over the years. They are still with him:
—Bill France, the millionaire racetrack owner; he is to good old boys what Ziegfeld was to Broadway columnists, or Colonel Tom Parker to aspiring Elvises—King of the Real World of risk and overnight fame.
—Charles Snyder, handsome in a Ted Baxter way, gliding everywhere without seeming to move his legs, lest they disturb his perfect coiffure.
—Billie Joe Camp, the perfect press secretary who says nothing and says it inoffensively. When they make a life-size Ron Ziegler doll, and try to pretty it up, it will look and act just like “Bi’y Joe.”
—Joe Azbell, the genially educated bullshitter and wordsmith of the organization, who admires Murray Kempton’s style and apes Rod McKuen’s. He brews the black magic of phrases like “Send Them a Message.” In Kansas City, it took him no time at all to find a pocket of Chicanos prepared to hear Wallace out, and then he gave them a pitch in his own soft Spanish. Azbell has been a one-man J. Walter Thompson agency (only better) for his perennial candidate; and his skills are underpaid, no matter what he gets.
—And, always, the hovering hard beauty of Cornelia. She, too, came without a three-days’ supply of clothes, and went to Macy’s for some shopping. When she got back, she had acquired new buoyancy herself. She picked up a Macy’s catalogue, flipped through it, and unerringly focused in on her own image—it was one of the display photos in the section advertising picture frames.
After the Governor had been wheeled into the Truman Library, Cornelia boasted that her uncle, Jim Folsom, had been the only major Alabama politician to back Truman in the 1948 election. All the others had gone with Strom Thurmond’s “Dixiecrats.” She had, without realizing it, just let the skeleton out of the Democrats’ closet. The reason these delegates were here in 1974 was to be found down in the Truman Library’s basement, where a continuous film celebrates the weird election of 1948. That is when the Roosevelt coalition began to come apart, tugged in two directions by the Henry Wallace northern breakaway (presaging a later McGovernism) and the South’s walkout from the national convention.
Part of the unreality in Kansas City came from the Democrats’ tendency to explain their presence in town as a result of the divided 1972 convention, of the unfinished business of McGovernite “reforms”—really, the question whether those reforms should now be re-formed out of existence. Another (even more misleading) opinion traced this miniconvention to the angers and violence of the 1968 convention. One fond myth of liberals is that Daley’s headbusting in Chicago hurt Humphrey’s election chances. It helped them—just as Agnew’s violent rhetoric helped Nixon. It is true that the formal motion to revise rules was adopted in Chicago—as it had been adopted in Atlantic City four years earlier. But all these efforts were attempts to deal with a strain that first appeared in 1948.
The Democrats’ national trouble is very simply put. They lost the presidency when they lost the South. That largest homogeneous bloc of voters gives any party an enormous advantage. With the South’s electoral votes assured, it is comparatively easy to shop around among the other states for the necessary complement that spells victory. The importance of the Solid South to the Democratic party was for years celebrated in the mandatory choice of a southerner for the vice presidential nominee. Roosevelt ran with Jack Garner, Truman with Alben Barkley, Stevenson with John Sparkman (in 1952) and Estes Kefauver (in 1956), Kennedy with Lyndon Johnson. It is true that Roosevelt ran in 1940 with Henry Wallace; but he had previously offered the position to two southerners—Cordell Hull and Jimmy Byrnes—who each turned him down. Besides, with war threatening in Europe, the belligerent southerners could be relied on; the isolationist Midwest had to be won over, and Roosevelt assured the critics of his choice that Wallace would help get the farm vote. In the wartime election of 1944, Roosevelt took Harry Truman as a symbol of the Senate’s efforts to keep the military honest.
Roosevelt was able to keep the industrial North and agrarian South together on economic issues—protection, welfare, industrial aid—and, later, on war issues. But there was never an ideological consanguinity between the northern liberals and those presentable mild segregationists they had to run with. In 1948, that truth began to make itself felt. Through the Fifties Democrats fooled themselves that Eisenhower was a passing fad, a freak of popularity not permanently upsetting party alignments. But Eisenhower—and even Nixon, in 1960—was making serious inroads into the South. In 1964, the crushing of Barry Goldwater obscured the most important fact of that campaign—that the South had bolted from the Democratic party, even though it was running its first southerner for president since Woodrow Wilson. The challenge of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party represented the plight of Democrats; it was compromising that issue, not kids in the street, that truly haunted the 1968 convention.
Democrats flattered themselves that Nixon “almost blew” the 1968 campaign. They neglect the real factor that made the difference between Nixon’s early lead and the close election: while Wallace’s third party was denying Nixon the South, labor swung northern Wallacites back to Humphrey—only barely, and with effort (and because Humphrey was identified with Daley and a hard line on kids and war protestors). And the real lesson to be learned, down in the library basement, about Truman’s survival of the party’s first unraveling is that a gritty and somewhat demagogic appeal had only worked because of Dewey’s pallid effort (he really did blow it, by thinking it unblowable).
Party reform only arises as an issue when the party is losing. Nobody seriously questions a winning combination. The comedy of recent Democratic reform is that it misconceived its task. If the party was losing because the South had defected, reform’s job was to re-enlist that sector. Instead, reformers listened to their own ethical-culture rhetoric, and read the South even more firmly out—along with the very elements that had given the Democrats a photo-finish chance in 1968 (i.e., labor and Daley). These “reforms” were so suicidal that a complex apparatus had to be assembled for gently extruding them from the party without ever quite disowning them.
The machinery had three main parts: a) a Mikulski commission to set new rules for the 1976 convention, b) a Sanford commission to prepare for the miniconvention, and c) the Kansas miniconvention to adopt a party charter. The program, at each step, would be to ease off the 1972 guidelines with as little damage as possible—to leave the reformers with their rhetoric and little else. When stage a) staggered to a relatively harmless conclusion, the Democratic governors tried to use its formulae to obviate stages b) and c). On the symbolically critical point of minority “quotas” among the delegates, they offered “the Mikulski language” for the charter, even though Sanford was supposed to be preparing the charter. (Sanford’s own commission had broken down in its summer meeting.)
By and large the strategy worked, even though the black caucus, with women’s support, gained a further technical point beyond the Mikulski language (on burden of proof about unbalanced delegations). The two major sides claimed victory, Jackson’s man Ben Wattenberg acting as pleased as Willie Brown did for the blacks. Only some labor diehards, like Al Barkan, complained that they had been betrayed by Robert Strauss, that shrewd Jewish Texan and nonideological operator. Strauss knew the charter was something the party had rather to survive than to achieve; and it survived, to fight (itself) again another day. Asked why the party had to go through the ordeal of public self-criticism in Kansas City, Strauss said: “Being chairman of the Democratic Party is like making love to a gorilla. You stop when it is ready.” After all the picky attention to language, the main job of the convention was to get Daley and Jesse Jackson back under the same roof, and on waving terms, with McGovern and Wallace.
And Wallace was the real test. He did not go to the convention floor—arranging that would have meant an earlier decision to come in the first place. It was a mistake not to put in a brief appearance there; everybody got a warm embrace in that hall. But if Wallace did not go to the floor, the floor did everything it could to go to him. Daley called up. Delegates clogged the approaches to his suite. And Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the keynote speaker, came to consult very visibly with Wallace on the party’s future.
Actually, Byrd meant the consulting to be more visible than it was. As word spread of his meeting, a flock of newsmen gathered in his wake, went up in the elevator with him to the twenty-seventh floor, down the hall, and to the door. There Wallace’s loving bodyguard interposed, bulkily, his body—and singled me out for a healthier shove than the occasion seemed to demand: “You got in once. You won’t again!” Another journalist asked him, that night, over drinks, why he shoved me: “Because he called me pig-eyed.” Oh, yeah; I had forgot.
Byrd’s aide was still trying to get us in as witnesses to the summit meeting; but Wallace’s people said no; only a few photographers were allowed to enter, after the two had been carefully posed, Byrd on a lower seat than Wallace—two small southern boys from dirt-poor towns putting on an act for the city boys. With their slithery combination of dry eyes and thin yet liquid lips, they almost winked at each other between furtive glances toward the camera. Appearances are almost everything to most politicians—to Wallace they are everything. He must never be caught on camera in pain or weariness. Montgomery journalists have learned the one sure way to talk with Wallace whenever they want to: just tell Billy Joe they hear the Govnuh is feelin’ pohly: he is soon on the phone, “I hear you got me dyin’ any day now.” In Kansas City, taking a breath mint to counter the ever-present bite of cigar, Wallace flourished the package so all could see it: “Now don’t you go saying that Wallace has to take pain pills. It’s just a little old Certs.” The photographers filed obediently out after Wallace had done his vigorous look from the wheelchair.
Byrd’s aide had promised us an impromptu press conference after the talk inside. But what had first been billed as a ten-minute call dragged on, more than half an hour, approaching an hour. Flowers were delivered, and messengers came and went; then two men came sheepishly down the hall, old men not looking comfortable in their ties and shined shoes, one man rather sickly (he was, in fact, on his way to the hospital, but had to put that off until he had seen George). After a whisper to the burly guard, they went in. Wallace broke off his talk with Byrd: “I have to greet some old friends.” One of the men drew out of his crinkly suit five brand-new twenty dollar bills: “It’s old Bad Boy here to see you again.” Wallace put his arm around Bad Boy, who was crying.
Later, I found out that the place to meet Bad Boy Brown, retired wrestler and ex-cabdriver, is at Allen’s Bar. Allen, the owner, was the other man in the hall, now in a hospital. Until recently, the West Side political club, a dim remnant of the old Pendergast organization, had met next door to Allen’s, and political talk is still a staple in the bar. It is all Wallace talk.
Bad Boy is a miracle of survival. Soft-voiced and courteous, his face is a palimpsest of every kind of violence. The ear on one side looks half-swallowed, and it is totally innocent of cartilage or stiffness. The other ear, though, is fresh-looking as an artificial flower: “Plastic. Feel it!” Bad Boy’s nose goes in and around where most stick out; it is a fleshy little whirlpool in the middle of his face. After World War II, Bad Boy had been banned in most states for his wrestling tactics; but in Alabama he met a young lawyer named George Wallace, who took up his case and got him reinstated. He has kept in vague touch since, and even now he squeezes more tears out of that clenched face when he talks of the assassination attempt in Laurel, Maryland. When Wallace came to Kansas City to speak at a television station two years back, Bad Boy made his way through the crowd and dropped five twenties on his lap, laboriously saved from social security payments—the ritual he had repeated that morning in the Holiday Inn.
Joe Azbell is a great hero at Allen’s Bar, one of those places he has a genius for sniffing out in each town. “Who’s for Wallace in here?” Everybody—or everybody with the nerve to answer at all. Several men, including one of the bartenders, are planning a trip to Montgomery. Can Joe get them in to see the Governor? Sure. “Yesterday, when I was in here, I think everyone I talked to compared Wallace to just one man. Who was that?” he asks a drinker standing by. “Mr. Pendergast.” That isn’t what Joe wanted: “Yesterday it was Truman they were all comparing him to.” “Same thing.”
There is something to that comparison—to both of them. Wallace is the only important national candidate of the Sixties to maintain his hold into the Seventies. In a place like Allen’s Bar, outside the deep South, there is an empathy with him that is oddly touching. Rough men are not ashamed to weep over the attack on Wallace. “He is on our side. He knows what it’s like. He takes on the big guys.” At Dixon’s Chile Parlor, there are autographed pictures of Harry Truman eating the eponymous chile. Joe asks if the proprietors would like a signed picture of Wallace to put there alongside Truman’s. “Sure would!”
Wallace, like the South he has come to symbolize, originally stood apart from the rest of the nation on the issue of race. But, also like the South, he appealed to the rest of that nation at some level of gut respect for blunt defiance. He has all the paradoxical charm of crudity, that drag on the heart that bold ruffians possess. Truman had just a crucial touch of it, and it carried him through. But southerners come by it with especial ease. There is an earthiness, a warmth of human contact, a realism about their own bullshit that looks good in a time of “cool” TV packaging for candidates. A hug for Bad Boy Brown is good public relations precisely because it did not start as public relations.
American politics is the South’s revenge for the Civil War. Congress was wrapped up and delivered to its ancient southern chairmen. National elections turn quietly on the “givens” of the South while suspenseful attention is directed to swing states that make a difference at the last minute. The national press is disproportionately stocked with southern boys, bred up in the fascination with the lurid game. The South is another country, not only for race relations but for religion, patriotism, family, and fighting. It has preserved what Democrats are trying to foster elsewhere—“ethnicity,” neighborhood, populism, a blend of tradition and rebelliousness. One measure of this was the way that people, dithering back toward some kind of populism in Kansas City, hoped to run against Hoover one more time. BATH buttons were popular (Back Again To Hoover), and a great deal of talk returned to Old Dealer Hubert Humphrey. But the New Deal was launched with the South’s support, and Hubert prompted the walkout back in 1948. Humphrey is not the one to defuse the Wallace threat.
Nor are most of the southern candidates who put themselves on display against the pale green-and-orange artdeco interior of the K.C. Convention Hall (built in 1900 for the convention that nominated William Jennings Bryan). The candidates rolled around those curvilinear ramps and bumped the chrome fixtures like too many balls clicking down the slope of a pinball machine, sharpies and smoothies who made unconvincing good old boys: Lloyd Bentsen, Dale Bumpers, Terry Sanford, Reuben Askew, Jimmy Carter, Bobby Byrd. Most of them reflect the northern liberal’s hope that a southerner will come along who talks just like The New York Times, a man to lead his benighted neighbors into civilization. College president, nuclear physicist, superlib—they will even accept a tailor’s dummy like Lloyd Bentsen if they have to. They are missing the point—a point made most easily by saying this: the ideal Democratic candidate in 1976 would be Sam Ervin twelve years younger. If you want patriotism and religion and connectedness, you have to take them with all their dangers and ambivalence, and find a man good enough to control them from within. And if you want all that, the South is the place to find it. Southerners are fighting fools, but not fanatics; they know what it is to lose, and even do it gracefully at times. Their politics is rough and realistic, and roguish. Lyndon Johnson could have taught us this, if he had not been obsessed with Kennedys and stuck to the Vietnam tarbaby. Stylish black operators like Andy Young know it, and their time is coming. (Young is backing Jimmy Carter this year; someday it may be the other way around.)
Democrats have spent all the years since 1948 trying to make the South join the rest of the country. Maybe their only hope is to give in and join the South. Not the Wallace South, surely. But not Lloyd Bentsen’s, either. Isn’t there some young Sam Ervin coming up?
January 23, 1975