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Jewish World Review / September 15, 1998 / 24 Elul, 5758

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg George Wallace: All the South in one man

SOMETHING THERE IS IN THE GOTHIC AIR OF SOUTHERN POLITICS that seems to corrupt our greatest talents, our largest spirits, our most promising sons. It seems to send them whoring after the whole gallery of strange gods. Whether it is political viability (Bill Clinton) or power (Huey Long) or the race issue (George Wallace) that trips them up, our political geniuses always seem to take a wrong turn. Just as the genius of the South itself did some time after Jefferson --- with the most Gosh-awful results circa 1861-65. And long after. Maybe it's the lingering curse of slavery still working itself out in our best that makes them our worst, too.

George Corley Wallace was such a personality, such a politician, such a genius. Not in the narrow intellectual sense of genius but in terms of his natural -- no, his preternatural -- gift for influencing others. He didn't just galvanize the people around him -- those he could see, talk to, wink at, wave at -- but the millions of his countrymen he could conjure up thanks to his fingertip feel for our hopes and dreams, and especially for our fears and resentments.

George Wallace didn't need any polls to tell him what people were thinking and, especially, what they were feeling. He knew. He studied our emotions the way a botanist would a plant --- if the botanist were a plant himself. For this man was so human.

Somebody who knew him in Alabama once commented that, in any room George Wallace occupied, he was the most alive creature in it. No wonder eyes just naturally gravitated toward him. No wonder, at his death and final relief from pain Sunday (Sept. 13) night, everyone seemed to have the most vivid memories of him. Because each moment with George Wallace tended to be finely engraved -- like the raised lettering on a brand-new $100 bill.

I spent only a few days with The Governor when he took a bunch of us inky wretches on a highly guided tour of his Potemkin Alabama in April of '65. The tour itself consisted largely of visiting every country club in the state; the one unforgettable sight, experience and fascination was George C. Wallace.

Every scene in which he played is still instantly recallable: The Governor holding forth by the side of some motel swimming pool in the middle of the night. The Governor using us as foils. The Governor finding out the most arcane details of our personal history and then reciting them at his press conferences. This man had no use for abstractions. He always went directly to the personal --- on a statewide and later a nationwide scale. He wasn't just the master of ceremonies of this tour, he was the whole show.

The man's intuitive feel for what people wanted to hear, and what they wanted to say, or at least exorcise, wasn't limited to South of the Mason-Dixon line. The size of his presidential vote upset all the conventional wisdom in 1968, when he carried Arkansas and four other Southern states.

By 1972, he was taking much of the rest of the country by storm. Then he dove into that crowd of well-wishers on a parking lot at Laurel, Maryland, and took five shots, one lodging next to his spine. For the next excruciating 25 years, his body would be only a wracked black-and-white image of the immensely colorful mind now locked within it. The day after he was shot, George Wallace would win both the Maryland and Michigan presidential primaries.

Early on, he had vowed never again to be, as they used to say, out-niggered in an election. And he wasn't. But having lent himself to evil, he repented of it in more than words. He would linger on in pain for the next 25 years, long after his "Segregation Forever'' had become a simple: "What I did was wrong.''

George Wallace would end his political career with the overwhelming support of Alabama's black voters despite many of their leaders' protests. There is no more forgiving a people than Southern black folk. George Wallace understood that very well, even when he was using them for his own base purposes. Calculation may even have played a role in his repentance; he needed the black vote by then. What he didn't understand, what he may never have understood, was how he had shamed white folks by having personified their worst.

It is hard now to call up the black-haired, scrappy little George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door, or leaning over to give you his good ear. I can still remember his pointing to us in the press row at the little stadium in Pine Bluff, Ark., when he came through campaigning, and saying: "There are those pointy-headed liberals who are always writin' lies about me --- and about you!'' And he'd almost wink at us when he was saying it and the rascal was so personable, so sincere, so damnably convincing, that we'd almost hate ourselves. Why, them lyin' newspapers!

It is hard now to bring back that young George Wallace after all the pictures of the old, wasted Wallace that used to appear every time he was about to die. But even the old, suffering George Wallace was more real than anybody else in the room.

Charismatic doesn't quite describe him. He was more. He was a kind of summation of the South -- our best and worst, our personal connections and impersonal hatreds, our courage and baseness, our need for forgiveness, and our need to forgive.

Now at last George Wallace's peculiar genius can be seen in retrospect rather than up close, overwhelming, delighting, frightening. And there's no longer any need to fight or forgive him. We can just remember how alive he was, and how alive he made us. And be thankful that at last he isn't hurting any more. Surely he paid his debt. With interest.


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©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate