The Man the Democrats Need

George Wallace
George Wallace; drawing by David Levine

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…

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