Reassessing George Wallace
Author Josh Doggrell provides an exceptional synopsis of George Wallace’s political career and his positions which appeared in the December issue of Chronicles Magazine. This periodical provides some of the finest commentary on American culture today and is highly recommended.
Doggrell posits that “In the poisonous political climate of the 21st century, it is nearly impossible to have rational conversations about the social issues of the 1950s and 1960s. Nearly sixty years later, not only have the wheels not fallen off that bus, but the bus has become a revenge locomotive surging ahead at full speed.”
The author identifies “two main takeaways from the life and impact of George Wallace. He failed to improve his legacy as “those on the Right cannot seem to learn that trying to win points with the Left and win battles on their home turf playing by the Left’s warped rules is an exercise in futility.” No matter what, the Left still reviles him as much as the unfortunate Trent Lott who groveled in front of Jesse Jackson.
Second, Wallace won enormous support from the people. He said that “Reagan ran on everything I ran on . . . He even used some of the same phrases I used.” The author suggests that the George Wallace’s populist revolution of the 1960s made possible the Reagan revolution of the 1980s.
Reassessing George Wallace
“One can study the texts of [George] Wallace’s inaugural address and his schoolhouse-door speech from 1963 and see the consistent themes of federal overreach, State sovereignty, Yankee dissimulation, constitutionalism, free enterprise and regional pride.
Virtually ignored in the popular history of this event is that in the following three days Wallace received over 40,000 letters and telegrams, the vast majority supportive and over half coming from outside the South.
Barry Goldwater became the first presidential candidate to echo, if not incorporate wholesale, the views of candidate Wallace when Goldwater became the Republican nominee in 1964. In 1968 Richard Nixon won the presidency by sounding a lot like Wallace without a Southern accent. The “Southern strategy” was born.
Nixon took the populist threat of Wallace very seriously, instructing his personal attorney Herbert Kalmbach to make secret payments to his opponent’s campaign.
It is easy for us to forget just how well Wallace was doing in the 1972 presidential race, before calamity struck. He was riding high in the polls just before he was shot five times in Laurel, Maryland. Before entering the 1972 Florida Democratic primary, he said: “I have no illusions about the ultimate outcome. But we gonna shake up the Democratic party. We gonna shake it to its eye-teeth.”
Wallace would go on to win more Democratic primaries than anyone except the nominee, George McGovern, in a five-way race. Wallace’s popular vote was less than two points behind McGovern’s.
Nixon went on to win by a landslide – and we are left only to imagine the entertainment spectacle of a Nixon-Wallace debate.”
(Reassessing the Legacy of George Wallace. John Doggrell, Chronicles Magazine, December 2021, pp. 39-40)