Jim Lehrer and Kwame Holman are joined by Haynes Johnson to reflect on the life of controversial former governor of Alabama, George Wallace.
GEORGE WALLACE: Lastly, segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!
KWAME HOLMAN: George Wallace first earned a national reputation in 1963 with these words during his first inaugural address as the Democratic governor of Alabama. A few months later, the nation watched as Governor Wallace made good on his promise to stand in the schoolhouse door to oppose the federally ordered desegregation of Alabama's public schools, including the University of Alabama. His fiery opposition to racial integration and voting rights for blacks, mixed with his support for state's rights in the face of federal intervention, made him a popular figure across the South. Wallace saw his populist message achieve wide resonance during a second run for the presidency in 1968. Heading his own American Independent Party, Wallace took 13 percent of the vote and carried five southern states. Four year later, running this time as a Democrat, Wallace was considered a strong contender to win the party's nomination. But a day before the Maryland primary, a routine campaign rally changed his life forever. Arthur Bremer, a 21-year-old drifter with no apparent political motives, shot Wallace five times. Wallace survived but was paralyzed permanently from the waist down. In 1976, a sickly Wallace repudiated racial intolerance and apologized for his past, as he began a third run for President. But he polled poorly and ultimately dropped out. When Wallace was elected to an historic fourth term as Alabama's governor in 1982, it was with significant black support. He would go on to appoint blacks to his administration.
GEORGE WALLACE: I bid you a fond and affectionate farewell.
KWAME HOLMAN: Wallace retired in 1987, saying the pain and constant hospitalizations that were the legacy of the assassination attempt were too much. Two years ago on CNN, Wallace reflected on his life.
GEORGE WALLACE: I tried to do the best I could for the state of Alabama, and I did do a pretty good job, frankly. In fact, the people that write about it said I was one of the best governors the state ever had.
KWAME HOLMAN: George Corley Wallace died last night at age 79.
JIM LEHRER: And to NewsHour regular Haynes Johnson. He won the 1996 Pulitzer journalism prize for his civil rights coverage in Selma, Alabama, for the then Washington Evening Star. He knew and covered George Wallace off and on for years. Haynes, first tell us how you got to know him, what your relationship with him was.
HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: What you saw on that screen just a minute ago brought it back so vividly. There was this little combative figure leading, taunting. He was a boxer. He was a middleweight. He was a scrapper. He almost had - his head cocked like this - like his fists were about to come at you - and he was there, standing in the courthouse door. He was stopping the forces that were to change the segregated society of the South. He was, as all public officials are, Jim, -- he was a prisoner of his time and place. And he could never quite escape that. And I was there as a reporter, one of the many in the crowds, who covered him there, from there into Selma, and marching back to Montgomery, and you saw, then covered him, traveled on the plane with him, when he was running for president and carrying his campaign North. But he remained sort of a figure very much trapped by that place from which he came, and the tragedy we just saw here - here was a man trying with this terrible pain, the paralyzed, small governor of Alabama, and trying to change and admit he was wrong and reach out. And I find that greatly pathetic and sad and almost ennobling in its own way.
JIM LEHRER: By the way, I said you won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 - it was 1966.
HAYNES JOHNSON: '66.
JIM LEHRER: Only missed it by 30 years.
HAYNES JOHNSON: That's okay. I'll take it three years ago.
JIM LEHRER: What was he like personally, up close?
HAYNES JOHNSON: He was - George Wallace was not a guy you talked in books about; you wouldn't talk about the latest novel you read. He was sports-oriented. He loved to tell stories. He was very gracious.
JIM LEHRER: Even to the Northern press?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, he would single out - in the crowds he would single out, well, there's Mr. Johnson, he's down here from the North to report about us and tell us what's wrong with our society, and the crowds would cheer and rant and roar, and you felt isolated. It was worth - for the southern reporters it was even worse. He'd sing aloud - Jack Nelson or Gene Roberts - whoever was there - they were southerners. I came, even though he didn't know I had southern parents, but I grew up in New York, and I was covering the South. Okay. But when you were with him, though, Wallace, there was a touching quality about him. He wanted to be liked. You'd sit and have these conversations with him, and he wanted to know why people didn't like him and so forth. And I remember once on a plane - it was a very - I don't know why I remember this so much - we were flying in the Middle West on his campaign, and there was a terrible storm over Indiana - electric storm. The plane was bouncing back and forth. Wallace was terrified! This guy who was the fighter and the brawler - he had a big cigar in his mouth - and his knuckles were tense. He couldn't stand that sort of thing. I don't know what that was, why that was. He was a decent guy to talk to in private, and his own going from demagogy on the South and segregation into changing there - carrying it North - but he was also a very contemporary figure for us.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. Did you believe his conversion -
HAYNES JOHNSON: Yes, I did.
JIM LEHRER: -- from a segregationist to -
HAYNES JOHNSON: I did.
JIM LEHRER: -- what he became as real?
HAYNES JOHNSON: I did. Because the tragedy, Jim, of George Wallace, he grew up in a segregated society. He started out as a moderate. He would have been a Franklin Roosevelt progressive, but he was trapped by the politics of race. And when he lost the first time, he said he would never be out - use the "n" word again - and then he became sort of a little populist demagogue. I think, though, he understood the black people and they understood him. And later on - what we saw - that picture just a minute ago - was absolutely real.
JIM LEHRER: Well, I also covered some of George Wallace, and I must tell you later, I was astonished that blacks would later support him in a political way. You were not?
HAYNES JOHNSON: No. Because there is a sort of crazy bond that goes on between people who have been living together, grew up, and kind of understand each other. You can say, I don't like what you stood for, but you may be - there may be some redemption, and we all come out of the same territory. He was - he spoke for the little guy, the grievances of the worker, the silent majority that Nixon later claimed, the Reagan Democrats that Reagan later put into place, the Democratic Party, but it was the little guy, the working class. He was the first in our political life, Jim, to talk about us, the liberals in the press. We were the problem, or the pointy bureaucrats in Washington, or the two political parties - JIM LEHRER: Limousine liberals.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Limousine liberals, or the pointy heads, all those bureaucrats. And he would talk about the two political parties. There's not a dime's worth -
JIM LEHRER: I remember that one.
HAYNES JOHNSON: -- of difference between them.
JIM LEHRER: I remember that one.
HAYNES JOHNSON: There was a lot of the country that said, yes, you know what, he's right, so there was that part of George Wallace.
JIM LEHRER: But he was also considered very evil.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: When he was running for president and particularly when he was governor, because his views about race were truly evil, were they not?
HAYNES JOHNSON: They were inflammatory, and they were dangerous, and I remember writing pieces that he was employing the politics of revolution, the politics of revenge, the politics of vengeance. It was - it was politics of polarization. It was playing the race card in the worst way, appealing to people's prejudices, and getting the roar of approval for people who felt that they were left out, and this was the white side. So there was race at the core of it, yes.
JIM LEHRER: Now, the conversion, was that based on conviction, or based on politics?
HAYNES JOHNSON: I don't know how to read someone's soul, Jim. I mean, I would like to think that it was absolutely real. The pain he suffered, where he came from, the fact that he understood poverty, and he understood - he'd like to have a place in history - I would like to believe tonight that George Wallace really meant it, absolutely. I do remember one scene that I'll never forget. It was the '76 Democratic Convention. He was brought there in a wheelchair. And I was standing in the platform right next to where the speakers come up, and they were bringing him up, and they had the wheelchair, they had to lift him up, and I saw those legs going like this - flopping back and forth - and the pain on his face, and I thought, oh, my God, you poor S.O.B. - I don't want to say it on the word - there was that line of Fitzgerald, you know, that when he died, some - Dorothy Parker went to the funeral, said, you poor S.O.B., because he had suffered a great deal, and here he was, everything he had wanted to be had been taken from him. I'm not defending George Wallace's racism. I don't want to make a mistake here. But in human terms he suffered enormous pain, and I think there was something.
JIM LEHRER: How should we remember him, Haynes?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Contemporary figure, tragic because he couldn't escape the prism of race. The South went on and went - a different society today. Had he been in a different time, different place, he would have had a different legacy.
JIM LEHRER: He could have led the South.
HAYNES JOHNSON: He could have led it in a moderate, progressive way, and he got caught up in the politics of race.
JIM LEHRER: He had the ability to do it.
HAYNES JOHNSON: I think so. Well, you watched him on -
JIM LEHRER: Yes.
HAYNES JOHNSON: -- that famous segregation now - that was a demagogue at work. I mean, this was purely a demagogic appeal, nakedly to race, but if he could have channeled those sort of energies into doing good for people, I think he might have been a more effective public figure.
JIM LEHRER: Haynes Johnson, thank you very much.