February 7, 2016

We Owe Everything to George Wallace


For the last few weeks and the next few months, I have been asked to write about politics—specifically the current presidential campaign—for another website. I can’t say I’m much enamored with the idea, simply because I don’t give a hoot in hell about the whole tedious charade, nor the supposed choice of futures we’re being offered by a motley assortment of wealthy, power-mad baboons. Can’t tell most of them apart, anyway.

            Still, even if I don’t give a damn about the comings and goings of assorted administrations and legislators, I do find myself deeply fascinated by the American political process, if in a smirking, nihilistic sort of way. It has nothing to do with any abiding concern with the so-called “direction” the country might be headed. I’m not fool enough to believe the childish machinations of a bunch of self-serving feeble-minded lawyers have the slightest whiff of impact on the course of a country run by the entertainment industry, assorted foreign and domestic corporate interests, and a handful of talk show hosts. No, My fascination is with the American public itself, that bunch of closeted nihilists who bitch about politicians the same way they bitch about their hometown baseball and football teams and the characters on their favorite reality shows, yet lack the tiniest pulse of imagination to do anything except vote for the same pods over and over again.

            Every time a new presidential campaign rolls around, I never cease to get a little tickle out of watching so many people so desperate to pretend they believe in anything at all that they turn all True Believer, lining up in lockstep behind sparkling towers of personality, charisma and intellectual agility like, um, Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton. Their eyes go blank as they slap on buttons and knock on doors, absolutely convinced in their own minds that Bernie Sanders or Ted Cruz is the One True Hope for America, that this one man is actually saying something New and Different and Important. They somehow convince themselves this new savior, unlike every other goddamn mole who’s held office over the last half century, will actually bring about any kind of change. And when their messiah is booted out of the race because, y’know, no one else gives a fuck about him or her, they take three steps to the right or left and line up again behind some other craven asshole. As if any of it matters. Given American politics has been nothing but a branch of the entertainment industry since the Lincoln-Douglas debates, it only makes sense the public should treat the candidates same as they would any other sitcom. Yes, it always makes me chuckle.

            The tepid skullduggery we’re witness to today—from Clinton’s bumbling compulsive corruption to Trump’s ham-fisted race-baiting—becomes even more laughable and pathetic if you remember anything at all about history. I don’t even mean the Teapot Dome scandal here, I just mean going back to the middle of the last century.

            I’ve written maybe too much as it is about my lifelong obsession with Richard Nixon, but in recent days my fascinations have shifted back to another figure I found equally compelling in the early Seventies—a man who was in many ways Nixon’s counterpart, foil, rival and shadow, a man who is mostly forgotten today but was a monumental presence for a while, an honestly Shakespearean figure in the American political landscape. Everything you see today, all that we’ve come to think of when we think of American politics, can be traced directly back to Nixon or George Wallace, and to be honest Nixon lifted quite a bit from the Alabama governor. Wallace, a man who in many ways echoed Richard III, could eat any of those candidates we have today for breakfast and shit them out before lunch.

            I first became aware of George Wallace during the early stages of the 1972 presidential race, mostly because my mom had an autographed eight-by-ten glossy of him (looking, as ever, like Edward G. Robinson) in a drawer next to the TV. I asked her about that picture again recently, but she doesn’t recall it, thinking maybe my Grandma Myrt, who was a big Wallace supporter, may have passed it along. At the same time, my other grandma, Grandma Mary, had a framed picture of Muammar Qadaffi sitting atop her television for years. No one ever asked why, though man I wish I had both those pictures today. (Uncle Gene, if you’re reading this, do you happen to know what became of the Qadaffi picture?)

            Anyway, apart from the Wallace photo in the drawer, I was vaguely aware of who he was and what he stood for because even at seven I was a little fixated on Nixon, so I watched lots of political coverage on the news. Wallace didn’t become an obsession, though, until I saw the footage of Arthur Bremer shooting him (and five others) in that Maryland parking lot.

            Okay, the Bremer track is another track that has consumed me for much of my life, but I won’t get into that here.

            In a nutshell, Wallace was a liberal judge from a small county in Alabama with a reputation for giving equal respect to blacks and whites in his courtroom, something almost unheard of in the early Fifties.

            When he first ran for governor in 1958, he received the backing of the NAACP. His opponent was endorsed by the Klan and ran a fiercely race-baiting campaign at a time the blacks didn’t even have the vote in Alabama. Wallace was trounced, and told an aide afterward he lost because he’d been “out-niggered.” He vowed then he “would never be out-niggered again.”

            In his next run, he transmogrified himself into an angry and outspoken segregationist, hired a speechwriter with Klan connections, and railed against blacks at every opportunity. He won in a landslide.

            Over a political career that lasted until 1976 Wallace would serve five terms as Alabama governor and make three failed bids for the White House. He came to the attention of the rest of the country in 1963 after standing in the doorway at the University of Alabama, ostensibly to block the entry of four black students after desegregation became the law of the land. Over the course of the decade he would become a symbol of Southern racism during the Civil Rights movement. While in office, he also refined and perfected the arts of opportunism, cronyism, graft, kickbacks, dirty tricks and smear campaigns. Although he and Nixon were bitter rivals, they had far too much in common not to learn and borrow quite a bit from one another. The man who once told his family the only two things in life that mattered were money and power (“and I don’t care about money”) was also a masterful political strategist.

            When Alabama’s state charter barred him from serving a second consecutive term as governor, he had his wife run instead, and she won in a landslide. When the mood of the country began shifting around him, he adjusted his language, switching out blacks for hippies and pinkos, replacing segregation with state’s rights, and in so doing became a hero to disenfranchised whites on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. (Helping his cause considerably was the fact he was far more eloquent a speaker than most Northerners would have expected.) And realizing he likely couldn’t outright win the ’68 presidential election, Wallace ran as a third-party candidate figuring he could at least split the electoral vote, forcing both Nixon and Humphrey to become his bitch if they wanted to win. Damn near worked, too.

            Well, then Bremer shot him in ’72 and though things went pretty much downhill from there, he would still run for president again in ’76 and would win another term as Alabama governor.

            Then a funny thing happened. After leaving office for the last time, Wallace reverted to his original self. He began picking up the phone like someone in AA to apologize to all those people he had wronged along the way, and publicly repented for all the evil he had wrought in his quest for power. Then he forgave Arthur Bremer. Then he died.

            I bring this little history lesson up for a few reasons. First, as mentioned, Wallace, the principal architect of contemporary political maneuvering, is sadly forgotten today save for a few indelible images. Hell, Donald Trump’s current campaign is clearly modeled after the playbook Wallace sketched out for his second gubernatorial run, though Trump’s campaign is a pale and clumsy shadow of the original. And second, unlike these shallow, facile contrived pretenders we’ve had to deal with ever since—all these cardboard puppets manufactured by Madison Avenue marketing firms—Wallace, as wicked and corrupt and conniving as he was (as all politicians have always been by nature), was at least a compelling and charismatic human presence.


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