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.
The truth is, all those summers of outrage and blood and confrontation in the sun-glowered deeps of the South back during that high moral pageantry of the Sixties, in which Wallace was so centrally a grim fixture, seem now a sound and fury touchingly remote and diminished, belonging to some distant lost age of innocence. Already, the partisans and journalists who passed through those years tend to regard them with the softly panging nostalgia of, say, Lincoln Brigade veterans wistful for the bright long-gone days of Spain again. Breath, life, at least that once, truly hit the bottom of the lungs; the very air seemed more vivid with some brilliant fever of super-reality. Goodness and courage and evil and justice had then, however briefly, a marvelously clear certainty and palpability.
That swashbuckling moral saga, though, was soon assimilated without pause or intermission by the more expansive and complex anguish of Vietnam, while at the same time the South’s racial travail amplified gradually on over the rest of the nation, where it became more diffused and abstract and elusive, and perhaps more vicious for that. As Wallace himself proposed in the late Sixties, not uncheerfully, “When they start catching this mess up North and everywhere else, then you gonna see this whole country Southernized, from Boston to Los Angeles. And when that happens, we gonna seem like a Sunday school down here.”
Indeed, when one pauses to ponder what has actually taken place in the South over the past few years, history seems somewhere to have tripped into fantasy. Since those smoldering summers of the Sixties—Wallace striking his sullen stubby pose behind a lectern in the doorway at the University of Alabama, all those grave processionals advancing with an immense dirgelike choiring and clapping of freedom hymns down bleak little flat-roofed main streets, the moil and bedlam of police dogs, flailing clubs—since those convulsions that became almost like ritual tableaus in a folk agony without end or progression, a whole century seems to have suddenly, quietly passed in the South. It has now become the most thoroughly and sedately integrated province in the whole country—if nothing else, leaving one with a suspicion of how ephemeral, after all, might be the old human implacabilities of intransigence, irreconcilability.
At the same time, many have suggested that what has happened in the South also describes, to a degree, what has happened to Wallace. Indeed, it would seem some novel metamorphosis of spirit took place since his first inauguration address that gaunt cold January day in 1963, when he blared against “a mongrel unit of one under a single all-powerful government,” and bayed, “From this very heart of the great Anglo-Saxon Southland…in the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth…I say, ‘Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!”‘
It was not only such pentecostalism, and such subsequent theatrical flourishes as his dispatching over 100 state troopers in a predawn raid to clap shut a Tuskegee high school ordered to desegregate, that prompted the conclusion, as one white Alabama politician put it, “If George Wallace ain’t a racist, then thank God we got nothing to worry about, ’cause there just ain’t any in this whole country. In fact, there ain’t any such thing as a racist—they don’t exist, like unicorns.” Even more, beyond his poses in the klieg-glare of public notice, there was his eager and obsessive patter in private, such insistent commentaries as, “Whites hate nigguhs and nigguhs hate whites. Everybody knows that deep down. Hell, that’s just the way folks are.”
Thus, among all those recent spectacles of racial détente in the South with a faery quality of the psychedelic about them, none has been more surreal than those lately involving Wallace—his mid-field crowning of a black Homecoming Queen at the University of Alabama ten years after his doorway scene there, his neighborly and almost expansive reception of Martin Luther King’s father in his office at the state capitol, his buoyant appearance at a convocation of black mayors in Tuskegee recently, exuberantly and hectically snatching at hands with eager little nose-wrinkling grins and winks of cozy conviviality. At that particular gathering, Wallace chatted for awhile with the camellia-pale Southern-belle wife of the town’s black mayor about their respective kinfolks in neighboring south Alabama counties, then gave her four-year-old son a quick tight hug and exchanged a jaunty soul-spank of palms with him. It was a moment—a light fleeting gesture—which nevertheless could have been considered as intimating the seismic shift and turn of a whole social age.
Wallace’s own apparent private Reconstruction has been attributed, to no incidental degree, to certain recomputations prompted by a drastic alteration of all political equations in Alabama since blacks gained their proportionate heft of the vote. Like the titanic relinquishing ebb of the glaciers, that development has changed the political geophysics everywhere in the South. But beyond that, it began to become a kind of conventional popular sentimentality about Wallace’s racial transmogrification, like a lambent auroral glow around its edges, that the touch of death had left him genuinely and permanently deepened in some way. Out of the assumption that suffering lends resonance and magnitude to all human character, Wallace seemed to have emerged out of it all, the blood and desolation and pain, actually reborn, profoundly reconstituted. It had baptized him, finally, into, if not quite nobility, at the least into a certain respectability.
Some time last spring, there appeared, almost unnoticeably, a volume of personal reminiscences by Wallace’s twenty-four-year-old son, George Jr. Composed from his taped recollections by a West Coast free-lancer (after its publication, George Jr. remarked to an acquaintance, “You know, it was a really interesting experience—I’d like to write a book myself some day”), it is really little more than a family album of anecdotes and light reflections, intended at its most ambitious for consumption by the Wallace faithful. For all that, in an oblique and unwitting way, it amounts to a peculiarly poignant testament.
George Jr. himself emerges as a rather quiet and muted and unassuming young man, fairly innocent of complication, resolutely polite and well-mannered. “If you’re looking for cynicism, sophistication or scandal,” he readily advises, as if they more or less come to the same thing in his mind, “you’re reading the wrong book.” In fact, he would seem to answer to his father’s own spare and meager vision of mankind’s proper earthly lot: “Life isn’t on a college campus. It’s working and providing for your family and paying taxes.” While he was in school, he reports, “I made my grades, and that was it…. I got along well with my classmates and teachers and conformed to every rule.” On the whole, in such recitals, he somehow evokes that rigorously dutiful and pleasant and blankly grinning son of Haven Hamilton in Nashville.
Like his mother Lurleen, who died in 1968, young George has wound up a conscientiously private personality, given to a feeling of vague harried unease and displacement whenever pitched into those larger public clangors where his father has always abided. He admits to being haunted by a discomfort that “some people thought that by being who I was, I should stand out more or something. But that wasn’t me. I enjoyed school, but as far as the social scene I just didn’t fit in.” Wallace himself, in a short foreword he contributed to the book, cannot resist a passing idle grumble, “He’s really not an extrovert; he’s more of an introvert. In fact, I wish he were a little more outgoing. But maybe that will come.” George Jr.’s solitary flourish of self-assertion, though, has been his devout and dogged aspiration to become a performing musician—writing his own songs, which he ventures as “intimate, highly personal,” modestly offering, “some might call it folk rock.” Whatever, he happily announces, “Music is my release, and that is why it means so much to me. In music alone do I find my freedom.”
Against the continental swoop and roar of Wallace’s rapacities, there is no slight winsomeness to young George’s proud report of how a teacher recently interrupted one of his classes so the room could hear a song of his on a student’s transistor radio: “The whole class listened…. It made me feel like I’d accomplished something.” But while he maintains about his father, “Today he leaves the guitar playing to me, and I leave the fighting to him,” one senses in Wallace’s foreword—in which, always having been a bit uncomfortable and restless with the ordinary familial sentiments, he has a rather awkward and labored time of it—some lingering grudging disgruntlement in his indulgence of this slightly irregular and exotic fancy of his son’s. “I hope that whatever he does, in whatever field, he will at least contribute something,” Wallace allows. “If you’re just a no-‘count who turns out to be a hophead, then you don’t contribute anything to yourself or your fellow man.”
Immemorially, of course, fathers who are formidable public presences have tended to devour their sons—to leave them, at the best, dim unfocused ghosts of the men they could have been. Young George has at least preserved the wit to realize he is probably forevermore caught in the larger alien furies of his father’s turbulent celebrity. He admits to usually meeting with both an enthusiasm and an antipathy “that [are] really a reflection of my father’s position…. These two strong and conflicting responses, neither of which I have really evoked myself, are awfully hard to handle.”
He has fitfully and haltingly struggled against complete assimilation—one such modest extension landing him nevertheless in a considerable furor when, partaking in one of those “social experiments” so lustily hooted at by his father over the years, he posed with a black girl at his school as a young married couple applying for an apartment in Montgomery. About the resulting uproar, young George protests a little wanly, “This happened during a primary election campaign in which [my father] was running for reelection for Governor—I really can’t say that I didn’t consider that…. But really, while I’m for my dad and believe in what he’s doing, at the same time I have to consider myself—my own being, my own consciousness, what I’m aware of, and what I have to learn…. I have my own life to live.”
Despite such gentle and vagrant demurrals, he seems a young man who has succeeded in etherizing in himself any dark, briney urges of anger or resentment or desperation—any heats whatever, in fact. He has remained, for the most part, sedulously deferential—to the point of even having dutifully agreed to perform his music, that “intimate, highly personal” creation of his in which “alone do I find my freedom,” amid the brawling blusters of his father’s rallies. At one of them, he mentions, “we found that over half the people who had pushed their way to the front were against Dad…. For my part, to know that I had to go out and play to that kind of audience was pretty disheartening.”
Wallace does concede in his foreword, “My son George has had a somewhat difficult time.” No negligible reason why, as George Jr. himself suggests, is that “I can’t recall my dad ever explaining why he couldn’t spend more time with me…. He’s never given me a lot of father-and-son advice…. Sometimes I would wonder why he couldn’t at least stay home more.” Indeed, an old associate from Wallace’s early beginnings on the campus at the University of Alabama recalls with some wonder that even then “you’d never hear George talk about home, never hear him mention his mother or father or brothers. It was like he didn’t have any. He could have been an orphan.” And ever afterward, through the course of his avid and relentless political progression, Wallace seemed, to a degree peculiar even in a politician, only marginally to notice the incidental detail that he also had a family. George Jr. quotes one of his sisters as recalling that the only emotion their father seemed to possess was “getting just nervous.”
But George Jr. even essays industrious apologias for that particular obliviousness of his father’s. “George Wallace may not have been able to spend as much time with his family as some men do,” he insists, “but he made every moment with us count…. His career was very important to him…. Thinking back, I can see how politically ambitious he was. But I don’t think a son could admire a father more than I do, really, and I always have.” There lurks, though, a certain strange and vaguely impersonal distance in his admiration, as if he is remarking on someone not so much his father as a figure, a familiar stranger in hectic commotion beyond a soundproof press-booth window on the far stage of an auditorium. “He seemed to give off an energy and a warmth of personality,” he reports, “that spoke their own clear message to everyone near him, myself included.”
He even approaches his account of his father’s shooting through the narrative of a bodyguard who, as young George oddly introduces the event, “recently told me the traumatic details of what it was like to be shot with George Wallace.” Much of his testimonial, in fact, unfolds through the curious device of George Jr. engaging in mincingly reverent conversations with his own family and acquaintances about his father—at one remove, as it were:
I noted, “A lot of people don’t realize how compassionate he is.”
“And thoughtful,” Colonel Dothard added. “It’s unusual, with the position he’s been in all these years, to be so thoughtful and compassionate.”
“I think the reason he’s popular is that people sense he’s sincere,” young George then quotes himself as rejoining.
In fact, it’s as if the only moment of any true intimacy between them came one afternoon when George Jr. almost drowned in the surf off the Gulf shores: “I thought: ‘This is what Dad said it was like when he lay on the ground after he’d been shot—when he waited for everything to fade away and death to come,…. I had never felt as close to him as I did at that moment.” Even in that instance, it was months apart, they were miles apart, but it was only in the last loneliness of that weightless void that he was ever able to approach and almost find his father, know him for an instant.
One of the few times Wallace ever paused at home with his family was Christmas, but even then, it would be Lurleen who would wake the children in the early dawn—“She liked to see our expressions when we opened our gifts and take pictures of us”—while Wallace himself remained in bed, lounging rumpled and bleary, ruffling through the newspaper, until mid-morning. Inevitably, George Jr. came to be far closer to his mother than to his father, and he declares now, “Her loss is the greatest tragedy I have ever known…. When she was alive, there was just a magic feeling throughout the mansion.” She was, like her son, a surpassingly private and unassertive soul, simple and unprepossessing and amiably homespun, a small, tidy, pleasant lady who remained through her husband’s career an obscure and rather lonely figure—until, as it turned out, almost the very end.
When Wallace married her, an old friend recalls, “he spent most of his honeymoon just hanging around town talking to people. George’d go into town every morning with a buddy of his, and when he’d come back to the house for lunch, she’d be at the door waiting. Then, after lunch, he’d go back uptown.” Her one luxury, her one passion beyond her home and her children, was fishing with a cane pole in a tiny boat, in shorts and a baggy shirt, out in the middle of some wide lost lake on a drowsy afternoon. “I can’t remember Dad ever going fishing with her, except maybe once,” George Jr. reports. He does cherish a single memory of a night in the mansion when “Dad and Mother danced in my room…. It was a beautiful moment that I’ll never forget.”
But in 1965 at least, Lurleen suddenly came to occupy the urgent center of Wallace’s attentions. Confounded by the state legislature in his bid for a constitutional amendment allowing him to succeed himself as governor, confronted with a blankness now of four years of political limbo which to Wallace was like the terror of not being able to breathe, he finally hit upon the ploy of simply running Lurleen. Even though she was shortly to undergo surgery for cancer of the uterus, she gamely consented. She had always been at home, comfortable only in the insulations of private and nonpolitical life, away from the pandemo-nious and ravenous maw of public notice. “I was frightened every time I got near a crowd,” she once confided. But through the spring and fall campaigns that year, riding with one female companion in a separate car behind Wallace’s, she was borne from town to town, rally to rally, like a chaste icon to sanctify and legitimize the enterprise.
When she had finished her brief speech at each stop, sitting then placidly on the platform with a patient, bright little smile while Wallace’s voice blared electronically over the throng around her, her hands folded demurely in her lap as she gazed off vaguely into the distance, she gave one the impression that, when the townfolk at last scattered and everyone else returned to their cars, she would still be sitting there motionless and pleasantly smiling, until she was hauled away with the platform to the next town. It was not, in fact, until the second campaign, in the fall, that it was noticed that she was beginning to flag just a bit. George Jr. quotes one of her bodyguards as recalling that at the end of those days, returning to her motel in the evenings, “she could barely walk up the stairs.”
But whatever Oedipal rages might have guttered then or since in young George, he has kept diligently subdued. In what is probably his ultimate deference, his ultimate exercise of muted politeness, he manages to remain blandly oblivious to the barbarities implicit in his almost toneless recital of how his mother continued to serve on through her last haggard months after her election:
After finishing her cobalt treatments the first of November, Mother drove back to Montgomery with Juanita Halstead…. She wanted very much to make that beautiful drive through the South, knowing it might be her last…. That same month she was strong enough to join Dad for appearances in California, where he was signing up voters for his American Independent Party…. At Christ-mastime she was feeling the dreaded pains again, this time in her lower right side…. On January third, the doctors…confirmed the worst: she had another cancer, this time a small pelvic tumor…. Somehow Mother managed to make an appearance at the opening of the American Independent Party’s Wallace-for-President headquarters in Houston on January 11. But when the pain grew too bad at the beginning of February, Mother was admitted to the hospital….
Her last days were passed reposing in a wheelchair in a mild, pale, dreaming spring sun on a terrace in back of the mansion—a quiet, still, dwindled figure, a wraithy specter bundled in shawls, managing only to stir momentarily to scratchily sign the papers that Wallace continued to bring to her from the governor’s office. On a soft and sweetly flushed May evening, about thirty minutes after midnight, she expired—Wallace glancing up from her slight form on the bed and snapping to the doctor, “Is she gone?”
It had been her last small personal wish, earnestly expressed to friends and her minister, for at least the privacy of a closed casket. But Wallace, after some mulling, decided to present her to the public one last time, lying in state in the rotunda of the capitol building in Montgomery for viewing by the general populace. George Jr. submits the explanation, “It took a very painful kind of emotional courage for him to go against my mother’s wishes in a very private matter…and hope that she would have understood.” One veteran Wallace observer says, “She probably already understood it, knew what would actually happen, even while she was making those last little attempts to arrange for it to be otherwise.”
On the way to the capitol for a family service before the throngs were admitted, George Jr. recalls, “I held my dad’s hand in the car on the way up to the Capitol and back, and I would squeeze it to keep from crying. He managed to keep his emotions in. He was very quiet that day….” After her family had collected around her for that final short devotional, “we left her,” as George Jr. puts it, “to the people of Alabama”—and there commenced an approximate evocation of those pageantries of martyrdom that had become by then part of the nation’s mythic life. The multitudes began surging through in a dense murmuring procession that shuffled on through a day and night past her meager, inert, composed remains.
Over the following weeks, George Jr., in another one of his peculiar interviews with others about his life, quotes his sister as reflecting, “With you and little Lee and me at home with Daddy, I had to play Mother. Daddy was so heart-broken that he really couldn’t play any role at all…. I think his politics probably was the best cure for that. It got him back into the swing of things.” After a decorous interval had passed, then, Wallace surged on toward the 1968 campaign.
There ensued, of course, that brief burlesque bit of gaudiness with a bobbly glitter-haired sprite named Janeen Welch, the local Dodge girl on Indianapolis television commercials—Wilbur Mills’s more recent and famous embarrassment having always been a vulnerability endemic if not compulsive in the species, excepting not even Wallace. But that short lapse into giddiness was promptly concluded when, after being quietly smuggled into Wallace’s entourage for a while, Janeen made the mistake of beginning to advertise it about that she and Wallace were soon to be married. She instantly disappeared back into the obscurity of Indianapolis piano bars and motel lounges.
Some months later, in 1970, a correspondent for a large Northern newspaper, on one of his sojourns through Alabama, somewhat circuitously wound up one fine blue spring night at a large and fairly gusty party at Montgomery’s country club. As the evening swam on, he found himself dancing, again and again, with a tall and luxuriously shimmering brunette with a kind of darkling glamour of glad and vivid expectancy about her. “The two of us happened to be the only unattached souls at the party. And I mean, she was smokey—one damn smokey woman. We had a lot of drinks. We had a lot of dances. It began to get goddam humid, I must say. I was starting to feel awfully smarmy….”
When the party at last began spilling away, in the general tumble outside toward cars he remembers burbling to her, “Why don’t you just come on with me?” just as he realized someone was lightly but insistently tugging at his coat sleeve. He turned to see an acquaintance versed in the more delicate personal physics at play in the capitol’s inner chambers, who softly and soberly admonished him, “Fella, don’t do that. You’ll pay for it later on.” It gave him, he recalls, a sudden and unaccountable chill, and mumbling some parting pleasantry he hastily bumbled on off alone to his car.
Alabama itself really is a kind of expanded village, a state-sized small town. Cornelia Ellis Snively is the niece of that patriarchal titan of recent Alabama politics, Big Jim Folsom—a huge, baggy, calliope-hearted, populist Big Daddy out of the wiregrass of south Alabama, whose most feverish and hot-eyed protégé, back during Folsom’s first governorship in the late Forties, had been George Wallace himself. During one of Folsom’s Brueghelian parties at the mansion, Cornelia—then only seven, and living there with her mother, Folsom’s sister—slipped out of bed and perched herself in her nightgown at the top of the grand stairway to watch the festiveness through the banister railings; below her, a trim, quiet lady noticed her, and with a grin of delight came up the stairs to kiss her, followed somewhat reluctantly and laggingly by her short, wiry, nervous husband, a young legislator named George Corley Wallace.
An awesome country colossus, Folsom in time fell a casualty of his own prodigal exuberances, sabotaged in part by his epic sessions with the bottle and, politically, by the running Dixie-Babylon carnival of his diversions in office. But more than that, what finally brought him down was his heedless, dauntless, hearty booming for a kind of peaceable kingdom of racial amity in Alabama during a season of deepening distemper on that matter all over the South. It was that particular item of political blundering that finally prompted Wallace not only to repudiate Folsom but, in his own campaign for governor in 1962, to savage him with the intensity of a wolverine. Both of them had issued out of the same popular political vitalities, were creatures of the same populist impulses, and it was directly out of the tremendous ruin of Folsom’s vision and spirit and hopes that Wallace, like a lesser, grimmer, gnomish reincarnation, then arose.
Cornelia eventually turned out to be a woman also given to her uncle’s strapping gustos—baton-twirling, strenuously playing the saxophone in high school, managing to place runner-up once in the Miss Alabama pageant, even touring for a while as a singer and guitarist in a troupe with Roy Acuff, tarrying for a year in New York to study voice under Gian Carlo Menotti and dramatic arts at the Neighborhood Playhouse, finally performing as a water skier at Cypress Gardens, that presenting more ‘or less the climactic image of what her life had become, windily skimming and spanking over bright spangles of water, executing a solitary ballet on nothing but spray and speed, to sibilant patterings of applause from spectators along the shore. A pedigreed young princeling from Winter Haven, Florida, married her there. It lasted a full seven years. With that, with two small sons now, she returned to Montgomery.
It was not quite two years after Lurleen’s death that Wallace, even as he was moving into yet another campaign for governor, began dropping by the house of an old friend who resided next door to Cornelia’s mother. Cornelia often drifted over. Now in her thirties, she was a rangy, lavish, generously apportioned woman with a certain autumnal gaze of dark, hazy languor. Most of all, she had about her, still, that unflagging and almost burly vibrancy of all the Folsoms, including her mother, an uncontainably hardy lady known about Alabama as Big Ruby. It was a kind of clan personality with the Folsoms—a large, rollicking, barging lustiness that was finally alien and slightly disconcerting to Wallace’s more measured, drier, fiercer nature, and that has since afforded him more than once pinched pangs of alarm and discomfort.
It wasn’t long after Wallace and Cornelia began discreetly keeping regular company that Mizz Ruby, as she prefers to be called, began to blare happily about town, “My daughter’s takin’ off on trips with George Wallace!” Mizz Ruby had by this point arrived at a quick sensible peace with the past—as she explained it, “I said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you. George defeated James, and I just said, Hell with it! If you can’t beat ’em, ‘join ’em. Because I believe in keeping the governorship in the family.’ ” Cornelia herself was capable, as once when she was aiding in a suburban cancer-detection drive, of whooping across a shopping-center mall to a friend she spied, “Honey, c’mon over here and get yourself a pap smear, now!”
Her mother is fond of distributing it about that Cornelia was conceived one sweetly memorable night after she and her first husband sat entranced watching Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald warbling “Indian Love Call.” Having romped now through two husbands, both expired, and a long succession of assorted casual squires, she was having a spirited time recently at a Montgomery night club with her current consort, a snappy if somewhat well-seasoned gentleman whom she instructs visiting journalists to refer to as “Mizz Ruby’s boyfriend,” when she was suddenly whacked across her imposing nose by a glass slung at her by an inexplicably exercised lady near by, whom Mizz Ruby is now vigorously suing: “I haven’t been right since,” she announces. “It has impaired my thought attempts.”
Together, Cornelia and her mother strike one after a while as yet two more figures in a special series of rambunctious variations on Magnolia Ladyhood, like Zelda and Tallulah, which Alabama keeps producing over the years. Mizz Ruby recently informed one interviewer, “Five women in this town divorced their husbands to marry George Wallace. But George is smart. He married a woman with class, with background—a beautiful woman. My daughter is a reflection of me. Nobody can dictate to Cornelia. Cornelia’s strong as hell. George has got all he can handle with Cornelia. The only difference in Cornelia and me is that I set my mind to help other people. Cornelia sets her mind to help Cornelia.”
According to Mizz Ruby, “it was not a courtship for a long time.” Even so, as one Montgomery insider describes it, “he went about it as if he were choosing a cabinet officer.” For a short while he kept calling friends and even local newsmen at their office down the street, as if trying to gather together first a congenial consensus, fretfully inquiring, “Well, what do you think about her? What you hear from other folks, they said anything? Yeah, but what you think the effect might be, you know, with folks around the state, what they’ll think about her….” Finally, one friend (who entreated me after recounting the call, “I sure hope you’ll give me another name like Mosley or something if you use this”) gently interjected, “Uh—you ever heard of anything called love, Governor?” There was a considerable pause. Then Wallace muttered, “Sheeeutt, Mosley.”
It was during this time that Wallace unexpectedly found himself pitched into one of the most desperate cat fights of his political life. In 1970, in the first heat of the Democratic primary for the gubernatorial nomination, the random imp of capriciousness that is always lurking in political assumptions left him startlingly outdistanced by the man who had succeeded to the governorship after Lurleen’s demise—a temperate, easy-mannered, immaculately groomed and circumspect figure named Albert Brewer. Almost instantly, without a blink, as if by sheer brute instinct—in fact, as he was watching the returns in his Montgomery home that night, lunging to the television screen to tap at figures, and barking, “Goddam nigguhs, that’s the nigguh vote, every one of ’em, that’s all it is”—he reverted to that elemental recourse by which he had always managed to survive and prevail when in most critical duress. He resorted again to the tawdry, rude clamors of the Fifties which had delivered him then into the governorship against Folsom, by once more, the morning after his stunning shortfall, conjuring forth the Black Peril, couched this time as “the bloc vote,” and thereby loosed one of the most lurid and raucous racist campaigns within the memory of the state.
It was, in a way, a curious lapse back in time, a historical déjà vu into which Wallace labored to transport all of Alabama. Among the means used for that was the distribution of a clumsily faked photo of Brewer in convivial fellowship with Elijah Muhammad, along with rumors that Brewer’s wife and daughters (Brewer himself, among his other respectabilities, being a Sunday-school teacher) had frolicked at some interracial nudist retreat. As it turned out, Alabama was all too readily responsive to being spirited back into those old deliriums. Brewer was handily dispatched in the runoff. Immediately afterward, at the first query from a newsman about his gashouse-gang racist offensive, Wallace serenely dismissed the suggestion that there was any hint of such tones in his campaign.
That brief little trauma thus dispelled and disposed of, Wallace married Cornelia two weeks before the inauguration.
In his book, George Jr. offers, “I’ll tell you what I think of Cornelia. I admire Cornelia…. How do I feel about my father having remarried? Well, that’s what Daddy wanted, so if he wanted it, of course I wanted it.” In the months afterward, as Wallace began campaigning in the 1972 Democratic primaries, he seemed somewhere, suddenly, to have come by an uncommonly subdued and modulated manner—a new and strangely urbane composure. Instead of his customary sheeny beetle-black suits and starched stubby collars, he began appearing now metamorphosed into natty pastel mod togs with soft collars and wide knit ties. The effect was a bit improbable—like that of a pluggy rusty-knuckled little pool-hall bookie abruptly adorning himself in the raiment of a television weatherman. And all of it was generally regarded as the handiwork of Cornelia. One Alabama journalist recalls, “Damn if she didn’t manage somehow to lend him some approximation for the first time in his life of what passes for tone down here.” It seemed, on the whole, a rare and felicitous symbiosis. In Cornelia, he now had a wife who, if anything, was a surpassingly public creature.
Then, young George discloses with a matter-of-fact evenness, “one night in May”—May, mild May of pale dreaming sun on the back patio, four years now since that soft and sweetly flushed May evening when she died—“while we were campaigning in Maryland, I dreamed that my father was shot. In my dream, he was shot in the throat and died.”
A constant gap in vision between pleasant assumptions and the gutteral actualities runs perserveringly through the memoir of George Wallace, Jr., and that is more than understandable. But it has largely been that same polite disparity magnified to a continental popular dimension that his father’s campaigns have always operated on. They have, in a sense, proceeded on that most ominous of all disruptions and divisions in American society, beyond even race—the increasing disconnection between language and meaning in the conduct of the nation’s life.
During a television interview in 1967 at the governor’s mansion, Wallace leaned back in a maroon velvet settee when the camera lights were turned off to change film, and confided to the network correspondent, with whom he’d just been discussing on camera the problems of inequality in black schools and neighborhoods, “Of course, it don’t really have anything to do with the buildings or the environment or anything like that, like we were talking about there. You and I both know why Nigra schools and communities are inferior, but it’s not something we gonna talk about before the public. You know what I mean, but neither one of us is gonna say it out loud.” And after the television crew had departed, he squatted for a moment on a step midway up the sweeping red-carpeted stairway of the mansion, absently grubbing under his fingernails with a penknife while he mused to an aide, ” ‘Course, they were asking me all that stuff about the UN and what my policies would be there. ‘Course, the UN’s just a cannibal club. But I couldn’t be going and saying that on teevee, you know.”
During his 1968 and 1972 national campaigns, to journalists close to Wallace there began to be a hallucinatory quality about the inconclusiveness of the speculation elsewhere on the question of Wallace’s racism. Indeed, that Wallace and his strategists managed even to accomplish any serious discussion on the point was one of their more remarkable feats. Wallace has always thrived, in an inverse way, on being misfocused by the national press—from his advent, when he was dismissed as a caricature of Southern red-neck boobery. Where he has always flourished has been in that shadowy hiatus between his pose and the working realities. Then, some time after 1968, he contrived to invest himself with a measure of deaconlike soberness and gravity and circumspection which, in time, along with his mounting national import, somehow made any thought of directly and strenuously broaching the subject of his racism seem like a breach of good taste—a bit like the way now raising the matter of his infirmities tends to affront gentlemanly sensibilities.
But his very genesis, of course, was in the racial turmoil in the South during the Sixties, the white backfire to the black awakening in America was the primal energy which sustained him, and as the rancor in Alabama began to amplify—as Wallace had all along expected—over the rest of the country, his career and ambitions amplified accordingly.
During one of his Northern junkets in 1967, he confided to one newsman in the lobby of a Cleveland hotel, “Let ’em call me a racist in the press. It don’t make any difference. Hell, I want ’em to. ‘Cause if you want to know the truth, race is what’s gonna win this thing for us.” As his national fortunes gained magnitude, he scrupulously maintained a gap between the reality of this private persuasion and his public appearance of ambivalence on the matter. But as one Alabama political sage predicted in 1967, “You just watch him in the years ahead. He can use all the other issues—law and order, running your own schools, protecting property rights—and never mention race. But people will still know he’s tellin’ ’em, ‘A nigger’s trying to get your job, trying to move into your neighborhood.’ What Wallace is doing is talking to them in a kind of shorthand, a kind of code.”
Churlish it always is to invoke the offenses of anyone’s past. But if nothing else, it would be the sheer degree, the natural, glandular vigor, of Wallace’s racism through all those years that would tend to belie the general assumption now that, since Maryland, he has mutated from all that to a detached amicability.
Maryland was, of course, a demolition that could not have been more devastatingly plotted—a fundamentally sabotaging vandalism to have befallen a man of Wallace’s particular political vitalities. In his energy, in his popular effect, there was above all else the musk and voltage of a headlong, churning physicality. Inert, he seems as robbed of his essential force as a boat hulk sunk in sand. Wallace and his retainers have professed to take heart and new purpose from the triumphs of Franklin Roosevelt. But Wallace differs critically from Roosevelt in that, in every respect save mere dull still-appended matter, he does not exist below his middle: the half of him below his belt buckle is blank, void. Even when sitting, as Cornelia has told friends, he has the sensation that he’s floating on air, has even then difficulty keeping his balance.
At a campaign stop in 1966 in one scanty Alabama town, a pack of young razorbacks, collected out of a nearby poolroom and a taxi stand in front of a barbershop, loitered near Wallace to observe loudly, “He’s a rough-lookin’ little devil, ain’t he?” and Wallace turned to them, bobbed quickly over, grinning and giving his freshly de-cellophaned cigar two swift licks, and shook hands all around: “Yawl doin’ all right? Glad you could come out. Yawl hold it down, heunh?” For a personality and presence made up so much of street corner strut and swagger, the haunting humiliation now that his condition is being bantered about in all those poolrooms and barbershops and taxi stands would constitute one of its most unbearable ordeals.
This particular torment of indignity alone, according to reports, tends to plunge Wallace periodically into some of his blackest and most baroque broodings, bristling ill-tempers of suspicion. Paul Hemphill, a writer who is himself the son of a Birmingham truck driver, recently passed some months in Montgomery foraging for a not uncivil biography of Wallace, which included several genial sessions with Wallace on trips and at the capitol—until, abruptly, he found all accustomed doors inexplicably clapped shut to him. Wallace even refused to answer his puzzled inquiries why. It was only later that he learned Wallace had complained to several of his aides, “Somebody told me this fella’s going around town asking questions about my wife’s sex life.”
Indeed, an endless profusion of arabesque rumors ceaselessly shimmer and sift about Alabama these days on that count. Cornelia has become, in the common fancy, something like a hon-eysuckled Lady Brett Ashley. But by all the best indications, ever since she was glimpsed by the Southern delegate gravely delivering Wallace into that room in Miami Beach almost three years ago, she has managed to maintain that pose of exalted and ethereal Roman widowhood, that transcendent air of fragile gallantry. For anyone other than Cornelia, actually, her situation would provide the supreme beatification, in a sense, of traditional Southern womanhood, and she seems to be sustaining it with fair intrepidness herself so far. Even so, as one Montgomery political broker asserts, Wallace “watches her like a goddam hawk”—to the point, even, of unobtrusively having her telephone bills reviewed.
A veteran Wallace observer recently declared, not without admiration, “His political life has been like that of a goddam snapping turtle—just no way hardly to stop him. Think how long he’s been around. Think how many others are gone. But he’s still here, still occupying our attention and alarm and jokes and fascination. He’s simply got the survivability of a snapping turtle—you can find one of those critters on the side of the road, been hit by a truck, his shell mangled and busted apart and he’s missin’ two legs, and you try to finish ‘im off hacking at him with a tiretool or ax or something. He’ll lie there a second, and then be damn if he won’t snap at you again and then start movin’ on off—they just don’t quit.”
But even though Wallace managed somehow to scrimmage his way out of near-obliteration and back into life again, it appears that, this time, he has not been able to bring it off completely. Over the course of a day, he will range back and forth from the sodden, sepulchral inertness of a mummy to a crackling, robust animation—actually change visibly, as if glimmering physically back and forth between two different creatures. He can, in fact, rally himself now and then to those old angry energies, the apocalyptic helter-skelter incantations like those he would deliver in hotel rooms and the back seats of cars during the Sixties—
“It’s gonna be like the Thirties if it gets worse. People get more incensed about social problems during bad economic times than they do when their stomachs are full. And therefore to those who say, ‘Wallace’s issues are gone,’ well, my issue was the tax system—those issues of interference in local domestic affairs, law and order, all those things are going to be accentuated if you have an economic situation. And there comes along a group of so-called pseudointellec-tuals writing these textbooks…that feeling of our West Virginians, and I don’t condone violence to solve problems, but you just remember that that is a festering sore underneath people in this country—about law and order, can’t go walk on the street without some mother coming up—and courts turnin’ people loose who shoot and kill and steal…. They gettin’ sick of it. When the average man gets good and mad as a mass, that’s when he’s going to wind up helping straighten the country out in the proper manner….”*
One incorrigible Wallace cynic insists, “Who the hell says there’s anything about pain and affliction and being an invalid that automatically sweetens the disposition? Some of the meanest people I’ve ever met in my life have been invalids in wheelchairs.” In fact, Wallace of late has begun to fume grumpily about all the benign conjectures in the press on his racial conversion, as if in a growing irritable uneasiness with the approval of old antagonists for his supposed penitence, protesting to one journalist recently, “Now, they’ve distorted things about Wallace has changed….” Referring to his widely celebrated appearance at the convocation of black mayors in Tuskegee some time ago, he snapped, “Mayor Johnny Ford of Tuskegee knows that I was invited for two days before and that he made numerous calls and that I did not drop in unexpectedly.”
If Wallace has, in fact, mellowed at all since the mayhem performed on him in that shopping center in Maryland in 1972, it would only seem to be in the sense that he has simply dimmed—has lost that last flaring, incandescent edge and definition of his old fury and manic urgency. As one Alabama editor reports, “Even when he comes to life, there remains a certain lifelessness about it. In his gesturing, in his voice, even if he’s blaring, there’s still some inner deadness, some emptiness. It’s as if he’s only going through the motions of who he used to be.” Wallace himself doggedly insists in interviews, “I’ve never been in a period of depression. I may have been, uh—nervous a time or two in the hospital, but there’s never been any of that depression yawl writin’ about all the time.” But for all that, visitors report that he has a certain drab and elegiac air clinging to him like a lasting dankness, “a kind of pervasive mournfulness.”
Most uncannily, though, the word from the most intimate and respected sources is that, during his private moments now, Wallace has come to be ambushed increasingly by uncertainty and remorse about his past—some undefined, unarticulated, but stunning, groaning angst of dread and woe and guilt. “There’s simply no question about it,” declares one of those sources. “It’s the most uncharacteristic thing you could imagine in the man. But it’s there. It’s happening to him.” Whether it arises from contemplation at last of the bloody disarray he has left behind him through his political progress, or whether it comes from more personal recognitions (one odd thing, many have noted, is that almost never does he refer to Lurleen now by her simple familiar first name alone, but with such fleeting and detached phrases as “my wife once” or, at the most, “Gov. Lurleen Wallace back then”), all he will mutter at such stricken moments is the haunted possibility that what has befallen him “I might have brought on myself. I may have brought it all on myself.”
Now, that wildcat and slightly tatty political insurgency which Wallace mustered forth in the Sixties—a homemade Rube Goldberg contraption of peeves and rancors and abject faith which he singlehandedly, with nothing but his own dauntless audacity, willed and labored into being out of nowhere into at last a formidable relevance and reality—has in a sense taken on a life of its own, its own complex organizational machineries and volition, to which Wallace, of course, is still indispensable. But it’s as if at the very moment his long, solitary enterprise was finally and loomingly realized, he faded. And one has a feeling now that he has become somehow subtly captured in the dynamic of his creation.
In a leisurely session with him last May, one journalist who has tracked Wallace now for many moons finally blurted, “You’re really going to run again, aren’t you? What in the world do you want to do that for?” Wallace mumbled, “Well, you know, you get to going here, and”—and suddenly he seemed to be laboring for once to enunciate and define the almost metaphysical thrall that was keeping him in it, as much to himself as to the journalist—“there’s all that organization there, and all that money, you know, and all those letters, you have all those people out there, been believing in you, all these years, made sacrifices and all, and they want, they want you—“
“Yeh,” said the journalist, “but it’s almost as if, I mean I sort of get the feeling almost that you don’t even want to—“
“Naw, naw,” Wallace barked. “Naw, it’s just that sometimes people who get involved in a movement, you know, sometimes you have to do more than maybe you expected when you got into the movement back there in the first place….”
The awesome engines and equipages of that movement now—the vast mail-order solicitations, the bulletins and circulars and “delegate-liaison task forces”—are of a sophistication and complexity simply gained by accretion over the long course since those first early primeval years when Wallace was capable of jauntily calculating his national financial strategies with quick off-hand scribbling of a ballpoint pen on the back of a stray envelope. The almost childlike directness and simplicity of his expectations then constituted both his absurdity and his genius. He seemed, in fact, to regard all formal political organization with a vague disdain and impatience, as a sign of effeteness and impotence, as if he were already naturally blessed with what organization exists to create.
In a sense that was true. In his case, the phenomenon preceded its apparatuses—it has simply been a long and, by now, almost epic political revival meeting which, since its garish and dumpy beginnings in the early Sixties, has never really ceased or paused, with its organization merely improvised along the way of its popular proliferation to manage and maintain it. But for all its imposing machinery now, it yet remains essentially a rump operation, outside the pale of the conventional political estate: a kind of political version of Glenn Turner Enterprises. It is still devoid of conspicuous or dominant figures beyond Wallace—merely plumbing and technicians: Charles Snider, national campaign director, a home-grown Montgomery chap with the aluminous precisions and glib, earnest, dapper sheens of a Pontiac showroom salesman; press secretary Billie Joe Camp, a primly efficient clerk with a manner of communication reminiscent of Pentagon press briefings during Vietnam; Joe Azbell, the amply bulking and canny national public relations Merlin.
It is a movement that has no true existence in itself as an ideology, or even a coalition of interests: it consists finally of a single figure, the myth of a single presence. And should he vanish, the immense organizational edifice that has accumulated around him would only linger on as a kind of memorial institution, continuing a commerce in Wallace wristwatches, records of his speeches, and Wallace souvenir sofa pillows.
Since Maryland, it has become in fact utterly the case that all of his life is politics. Indeed, all along he had possessed a quality something like that implacable, metallic, almost impersonal ferocity of Faulkner’s Popeye—finally curiously substanceless; never once, as George Wills noted, has he uttered a single phrase or concept that has lingered in the national memory like Huey Long’s “Share the Wealth” and “Every Man a King.” He has been instead only noise and heat and motion. And now he has become the political Popeye perfected, like him now in every other sense too.
If it was already true before Maryland that Wallace had no existence and no reality outside of his political lusts and glees—the ultimate political creature—then he has at last, in a way, completely atrophied into that absorption. There is literally no life left for him now but that. Receiving a delegation of touring Russians recently, he eagerly fastened on a cinema actress among them—a tall, lithe, luminously pretty girl—and clung tightly to her hand as he effusively muttered how beautiful she seemed to him: “He just wouldn’t let her hand go,” recalls someone who was there, “he kept burbling to her on and on and hanging on to her hand.” Static, halved now, yet he must keep running. The governorship is now a kind of cul-de-sac: he cannot run again for that. All that is left for him now is 1976. And that, in all probability, will be all—his last time, ever.
He had always been somewhat listless about actually administering the offices he has so obsessively and avidly pursued all his life. But now it’s as if he can barely nudge forth the spirit even for a pretense of presiding as governor over the daily governmental maintenance of the state. One indication of his final distraction from those concerns is that, of the few bills he has vetoed in the legislature this year, most of them were introduced by his own floor leaders, who, after the vetoes, then promptly engineered efforts to override. In the past, such temerity would have tempted quick political effacement at Wallace’s hand. But he seemed hardly to notice. It was recently reported that House and Senate leaders, summoned once with an air of emergency to Wallace’s office to try to parse out a resolution of a critical legislative impasse, suddenly realized after floundering loudly among themselves for a while that Wallace had barely spoken a syllable. They glanced over to see him sitting across the chamber gazing out of the window over the capitol lawn, absently munching on a Baby Ruth candy bar.
If there remains no life for him now but the 1976 campaign, that movement is still made up of those old swarming angry electricities of his which created it, that image of what he used to be. So it’s as if, whatever his own soft unfocusings from the savage glare of that image since that afternoon in Maryland, whatever the secret harrowings of his soul now in solitude, he must continue to perform publicly that simulation and mime of his prior self from now on if the movement is to live, if he is to live. There is then no release from his past. He must reenact himself forever.
It’s as if, then, he has himself come, like Lurleen, to serve as the icon of the movement he accomplished—still critical to its existence, it too being all his breath and being now, but also strangely apart from it, even as, like Lurleen, he must act as its token, its totem: an effigy of himself before that final blast of violence, kept most of the time in studiously designed seclusion unglimpsed by the general eye, and so in a way already beginning to vanish into impalpable legend. He is dressed and tended and trundled about like a doll, produced only for those carefully selected and programed occasions where he conjures forth imitations of his old cocky, waggish, eye-glinting fury, giving one the impression now that when the crowd scatters and the last lingering echoes ring away in a hush, he will be wheeled off, slumped and blank, and stored to wait for the next appearance.
He sits now in his wheelchair on the patio in back of the mansion, in the mild, pale, dreaming sun.
Cornelia sits beside him.
October 30, 1975