A reading by Dan T. Carter from his book, "The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics."
Listen to the excerpt in RealAudio
Go to real.com to download the free RealPlayer.
As a historian, I have been drawn to the sheer incongruity of the story. How in the end, could a man like George Wallace, provincial to the core, bereft of any of the traditional bases of national power, capture such a place in a time of change?
I have discovered that most people ask a quite different question: "Did he change?" Did the man who rose to power and national prominence on the wings of racial hatred in the 1950s and 1960s mean it when he grasped hands with black constituents and asked them to support him, to vote for him, to pray for him? George Wallace's success was possible only because he convinced his listeners that he would not stoop to the polite euphemisms of traditional politicians; he would tell the truth no matter what. Did he really mean it?
I have come to realize that the refrain, "Did he change," is more than simply a question about sincerity or authenticity. Evangelicals, particularly black evangelicals, were able to forgive George Wallace because the act of redemption sprang from the core faith of an oppressed people. For many of the rest of us, there is the promise: if Goerge Wallace could wipe clean the slate of his past and reach across the divide of race, his is a story with an uplifting ending which offers hope for us all.
It is easy to tilt the scales from condemnation to forgiveness, particularly when we see in our mind's eye a broken and penitent George Wallace. After all, in succumbing to ambition, he was not alone. In the last angry days of segregation, southern politiciansas well as others threatened by the backlash of white racismoften confronted a choice somewhere between principled martyrdom and a surrender to demagoguery. If we refuse to distinguish among these choices, however, we dishonor those men and women who compromised and compromised again, and retreated from what they believed was rightuntil they reached a point at which they recoiled: "No more. This I will not do."
We can never weigh with certainty the mix of calculation and contrition that have marked the last years of George Wallace's life. "Men's hearts are concealed," the English biographer Boswell wrote to his friend Samuel Johnson. "But their actions are open to scrutiny"
Two decades after his disappearance from national politics, George Wallace seems vindicated by history. If he did not create the conservative groundswell that transformed American politics in the 1980s, he anticipated most of its themes. It was Wallace who sensed and gave voice to a growing national white backlash in the mid-1960s; it was Wallace who warned of the danger to the American soul posed by the "intellectual snobs who don't know the difference between smut and great literature"; it was Wallace who railed against federal bureaucrats who not only wasted the tax dollars of hardworking Americans, but lacked the common sense to "park their bicycles straight." Not surprisingly, his rise to national prominence coincided with a growing loss of faith in the federal government. In 1964, nearly 80 percent of the American people told George Gallup's pollsters that they could trust Washington to "do what is right all or most of the time." Thirty years later, that number had declined to less than 20 percent.
If George Wallace did not create this mood of national skepticism, he anticipated and exploited the political transformation it precipitated. His attacks on the federal government have become the gospel of modern conservatism; his angry rhetoric, the foundation for the new ground rules of political warfare