How George Wallace Harnessed Hate

Long before Donald Trump trashed the usual rules of US politics, there was George Wallace. In his classic biography, Marshall Frady gave us an indelible portrait of a demagogue.

04.03.16 4:01 AM ET

On a cold, rain-flicked night in 1967 a rickety twin-engine Convair 240 began a blind and uncertain descent through low clouds, abruptly breaking out over the scattered watery lights of Concord, New Hampshire. It came in headlong, less by instruments and calculation than with a precipitous lurching optimism.

A damp huddle of greeters was waiting in the dark, and they waggled dime-store Confederate flags when he emerged from the plane-a stumpy little man with heavy black eyebrows and bright black darting eyes and a puglike bulb of a nose who looked as if he might have stepped out of an eighteenth-century London street scene by Hogarth. Wrapped in a black raincoat, he bobbed spryly down the steps as flashbulbs stammered in the rain. Someone held an umbrella over his head while he ‘said a few words to the newsmen. Asked if he were offended because no local officials were there to welcome him, he,answered jauntily, “Naw"-his voice rising just a bit-“Naw, ‘cause it’s the workin’ folks all over this country who’re gettin’ fed up and are gonna turn this country around, and a whole heap of politicians are gonna get run over when they do.” With that, he was bundled into a car at the head of the waiting cavalcade, and, with a swift surge, everyone—he, his entourage, the reporters, his local supporters—vanished into the night. One had the peculiar fleeting impression that a squad of commandos or guerrillas, irregulars at any rate, had just landed in the dark and was now loose in the New England countryside.

At a press conference that evening in a crammed smokehazed motel room on the outskirts of Concord, he seemed—peering over a thicket of microphones that came up almost to his chin, perspiring and a little haggard in the harsh glare of television lights—an improbable apparition. His baggy dark suit was buttoned tightly over his paunch, with a tab-collar shirt hugging the bulky knot of an inexpensive tie. His breast pocket was bulging with plastic-tip White Owl cigars and scraps of paper on which were scribbled random notes, addresses, telephone numbers. He looked somewhat like a traveling novelty salesman. But what this chunky little man was occupied with, what had brought him out of the night from distant Alabama all the way to this New Hampshire motel room, was the election of the next president of the United States—man event now only a year away. He carefully affected, out of deference to this unfamiliar assembly, a subdued and amiable manner, with much congenial winking, and his grammar and enunciation were studiously precise, faintly stilted. (On the flight up, he had mused, “Them New Hampshire folks, you know, they a little more restrained and genteel than Alabama folks. They gotten kind of overbred up there.”) At one point, he announced, “Well, I’m mighty happy to be among all you very intelligent-Iookin’ folks.” But later, when he interrupted a woman reporter, “What’s that, honey? Could you say that again? I don’t hear too good,” turning his head with his hand cupped behind his ear so that he had to look at her out of the corner of his eye, he seemed solemnly impervious to the ripple of titters in the room.

Morning revealed a landscape that had the tidy miniature quality of a model train set, with a trivial city skyline under washed drab skies. It was alien country. Though the month was April, the weather was wintry—not his kind of weather—as if the South and North described not so much regions as perpetual weathers, summerland and winterland. Syracuse, into which he had ventured the week before, had had a profoundly remote look about it, cold and wan under bare bleak trees, with junkyards, power lines, and oil tanks set out in wide weedy fields and cement trucks moving through a rubble of construction. All the towns in the North where he was appearing seemed generations older than those in Alabama, and over Concord’s streets there was a kind of static quiescence, a worn and antique quality. When he spoke that afternoon in the square downtown, he was regarded from the capitol lawn by an incredulously scowling statue of Daniel Webster, and his grits-and-gravy voice blared down a main street that was a turn-of-the-century tintype of stark brick buildings crested with Yankee brass eagles. But it could have been a rally on a musky spring afternoon in Suggsville, Alabama. His finger stabbing downward, his eyes crackling, the microphone ringing under the impetuous barrage of his voice, he barked, “If one of these two national parties don’t wake up and get straight, well, I can promise that you and me, we gonna stir something up all over this country … “ Afterward he greeted people along the sidewalks with an instant, easy intimacy: “Honey, I ‘preciate yawl comin’ on out here today in this cold, heunh? Tell yo folks hello for me, heunh?” When a small girl suddenly kissed him square on the mouth, he looked around him for a moment—at all the pleasant faces, at the moil of reporters, at the candy-green capitol lawn, the thin exquisite sunshine, the vast benign blue sky—and grinned almost blissfully.

Driving on to Dartmouth later for an evening speech, through Devil-and-Daniel-Webster country—weathervanes atop white wooden farmhouses, stone fences and apple orchards, birches and dark cedars sheltering small secret ponds the color of graphite—he removed his wetly chewed cigar to remark, “This sho does look like North Alabama, don’t it?” He found the thought cheering. “Yes, sir,” he murmured happily, “you go up there around Gurley, New Hope, Grays Chapel—country up there looks just like this,” and he leaned back in his seat and returned his cigar to his mouth, satisfied.

Two hours later, after nightfall, over the still, shadowed campus at Dartmouth, there pulsed a dull, steady roar from the auditorium where he was speaking. Scattered groups of students were hurrying toward the sound under the dark trees, but people were already milling under the windows and around the front steps. Inside, students were standing along the walls and sitting on windowsills and in the aisles, and the noise they were making was like a single continuous howl existing independent and disembodied above their open mouths. On the stage, while a student tried to read questions submitted by the audience, he paced restlessly, exhilarated by the violence heavy in the air. Occasionally he spat into his handkerchief and then plunged it back into his hip pocket. When he pounced to the microphone to answer a question, it was as if he were deliberately lobbing incendiary pronouncements into the crowd. He would crouch, looking up, his left arm gripping the lectern and his right swinging and whipping with pointed finger, as if he were furiously cranking himself up: “I’m not against dissent now, but I believe anybody that stands up like this professor in New Jersey and says they long for a victory by the Vietcong over the American imperialist· troops, and anybody that goes out raising bluhd and money for the Vietcong against American servicemen, they oughtta be drug by the hair of their heads before a grand jury and indicted for treason, 'cause that’s what they guilty of, and I promise you if I—” And then he would step back and spit into his handkerchief again, shooting it back into his hip pocket as the roar rose around him.

At one point there was a charge by students down the center aisle, led by a young professor with fine-spun hair and a freshly scrubbed cherubic complexion—but his mild face was now flushed, his tie askew, his eyes manic and glaring as he tried to flail his way through campus police and plainclothesmen, bellowing with a crack in his voice, “Get out of here! Get out of here! You are an outrage!” That berserk charge—anarchic and hopeless, an abandonment of fairness, proprieties, all civilized approaches, a retreat to simple brute action—testified not only to despair and fury over the fact that this man could be speaking there at all, but to a sinking of the heart over the absurdly serious import of that figure’s audacious aspirations, a dread that something sinister and implacable was afoot in the land. As he was hustled offstage during the short melee, he glanced quickly back over his shoulder at the furor with a curious, bemused, almost awed expression.

Outside, after his speech, his car was engulfed. White and Negro students kicked the fenders and hammered on the hood, and one policeman was hauled back into the maw of the crowd and disappeared into it, his crumpled cap reappearing a moment later in the hand of a student, who waved it high in the air in triumph. And it seemed as if he, too, this stubby little man, might be on the point of vanishing, consumed whole by the kind of popular violence he so savors. As the crowd seethed around his car, there were glimpses of him sitting in the back seat, his face not worried, but just empty whenever the reeling TV lights washed over it, huddling behind the rolled-up windows with his cigar, all of him as small and still and inert as a rabbit in a burrow while hounds swirl and bay in the grass around it. The car began to ease forward, slowly nosing through the mob—he still not moving, looking to neither the right nor the left—and then, rapidly, it was gone.


At the least, he is a simple primitive natural phenomenon, like weeds or heat lightning. He is a mixture of innocence and malevolence, humor and horror. “He’s simply more alive than all the others,” declared a woman reporter after the Dartmouth fray. “These professors like Galbraith, Schlesinger, the politicians and bureaucrats in Washington—God knows, I’ve been around all of them, and they don’t really know what’s going on. You saw those people in that auditorium while he was speaking—you saw their eyes. He made those people feel something real for once in their lives. You can’t help but respond to him. Me—my heart was pounding, I couldn’t take my eyes off him, there were all those people screaming. You almost love him, though you know what a little gremlin he actually is.”

Many still find it hard to regard George Corley Wallace as anything other than merely the most resourceful, durable, and unabashed of the Southern segregationist governors. But the fact is, he passed that point long ago, and has intruded himself now into the history of the nation. He has become, at the least, a dark poltergeist whose capacity for mischief in the land is formidable. The havoc he has intimated in the procedure of electing the next president of the United States has already raised substantial doubts about the system: he has materialized as the grim joker in the deck. More soberingly, the significance of his candidacy invokes certain questions about the basic health of the American society, both at this time and in the future. To many he has portended the ultimate arrival of a racist psychology into American politics. It seems certain that his candidacy can only increase the racial alienation in the country. A moderate Alabama politician declares, “What he’s trying to do in the nation is what he’s managed to do in Alabama. When you draw the line the way he does, the whites go with the white, and the blacks with the black, and when that happens, you’re in for warfare.” A former Alabama senator echoes, “It’s conceivable that he could win a state like Illinois or even California when he puts the hay down where the goats can get at it. He can use all the other issues—law and order, running your own schools, protecting property rights—and never mention race. But people will know he’s telling them, ‘A nigger’s trying to get your job, trying to move into your neighborhood.’ What Wallace is doing is talking to them in a kind of shorthand, a kind of code.”

At the same time, despite his public protestations that he is only an Alabama segregationist, what Wallace has been encountering in the violent demonstrations that have greeted him as he has junketed over the nation has been the same instinct he venerates in cabdrivers and dirt-farmers, “that tells you when you can trust somebody and when you can’t.” If a Birmingham steelworker or a country barber in Marengo County “knew Castro was a Commie just by instinct,” so do Negroes and most liberals know “by instinct, just by looking at him and hearing him talk,” that Wallace is a racist. Segregation is necessarily predicated on racism, and it doesn’t have to be of the malevolent variety—it can be Wallace’s kind of faint amicable contempt. Racism, fundamentally, is the persuasion that there is an innate, genetic, permanent difference between the races in all the traits that describe humanity. Actually, Wallace himself once confided to a reporter in the lobby of a Cleveland hotel, removing his cigar for a moment to whisper behind his hand, “Let ‘em call me a racist. It don’t make any difference. Whole heap of folks in this country feel the same way I do. Race is what’s gonna win this thing for me.”

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The simple prospect that his candidacy could impinge upon the system to the extent of throwing the presidential election into the House of Representatives (with giddy swiftness the outrageous becomes the possible and then the probable) can only make more acute the cornered mentality among America’s disenchanted and estranged. “By God,” muttered a young liberal after one of Wallace’s campus appearances, “this could be the time. Just because all the others have missed before—the KnowNothings, Joe McCarthy, Goldwater—that doesn’t mean they’ll keep on missing. This could be it. He might be the one with the right combination.” The desperate outbursts of violence that attend his wanderings about the country leave one with the uneasy feeling that alienations, not only racial but also intellectual, have reached the point in our society where the potential for revolution is more palpable than ever before.

Actually, Wallace could be only one reflection of a general shattering of the American society, a disintegration into fragments. The American mystics—such as Norman Mailer—are unintelligible to the sturdy American Boy Scouts like Ronald Reagan and Billy Graham. Gerald Ford could never understand Bob Dylan or Allen Ginsberg. Rap Brown could never understand Bob Hope. The efficacy of dialogue seems to be waning, and with it a sense of the American community. It’s like a new Tower of Babel. Nothing seems to mean anything anymore except action. For Wallace, talk is finally not for the purpose of communication, explanation, or persuasion, but just another form of action: rhetoric. Action is all. The unsettling thing about his candidacy now is that it will tend to reduce America’s disaffected, those who view him as an omen of a wider mentality, to a reliance on the same brute processes.

In this sense, Wallace represents the dark side of the moon of the American democracy—the tradition of direct popular violent action in community crises. He belongs fundamentally to the vigilante ethic, with certain apocalyptic overtones, and the potential in any social crisis for violent confrontation and climax enthralls him. One autumn evening in I966, driving back to a Birmingham hotel after a shopping-center rally, he sat in the back seat of his car, gesturing in the glare of headlights behind him. “Nigguh comes up to a white woman down here like they do up North, tryin’ all that stuff, he’s gonna get shot. Yessuh. Or get his head busted. That’s why we don’t have any of that business down here. They know what’s gonna happen to ‘em. They start a riot down here, first one of ‘em to pick up a brick gets a bullet in the brain, that’s all. And then you walk over to the next one and say, ‘All right, pick up a brick. We just want to see you pick up one of them bricks, now!’ Let ‘em see you shoot down a few of ‘em, and you got it stopped. Bob McNair, guvnuh over there in South Carolina, he’s one of them nice fellas, you know, he don’t go for that kinda talk—like Carl Sanders over there in Georgia. Now, I like Carl, I don’t know whether he likes me particularly or not, but I got nothing against him. But he’s one of those nice fellas wantin’ to moderate everything. But, of course, he found out you can’t do that. Like ole Ivan Allen over there. Knocked him offa that car, you know, those rioters, when he was tryin’ to talk to them. They oughtta done more than that. Hell, we got too much dignity in government now, what we need is some meanness. You elect one of those steelworkers guvnuh, you talk about a revolution—damn, there’d be shootin’ and tearin’ down and burnin’ up and killin’ and bloodlettin’ sho nuff. Steelworker wouldn’t have to think about it—he’d just go ahead and do it. Anyway, I been tellin’ folks for years, you ask if I hadn’t, that there’d be fightin’ in the streets one day between rightists and leftists, between whites and blacks. Hell, all we’d have to do right now is march on the federal courthouse there in Montgomery, take over the post office and lock up a few of those judges, and by sunset there’d be a revolution from one corner of this nation to the other. We could turn this country right around.”

It has become Wallace’s conviction—more than conviction, visceral sensation—that he exists as the very incarnation of the "folks,” the embodiment of the will and sensibilities and discontents of the people in the roadside diners and all-night chili cafes, the cabdrivers and waitresses and plant workers, as well as a certain harried Prufrock population of dingy-collared department-store clerks and insurance salesmen and neighborhood grocers: the great silent American Folk which have never been politically numbered as the Wallace candidacy has now numbered them. His candidacy poses questions about what illusions we may have been under about the American public. There’s no doubt that he sensed a subterranean political consciousness congenial to him. In The Earl of Louisiana, A. J. Liebling suggests that "if Hoover by some disastrous miracle had been reelected in 1932, Huey [Long] might within two years have crystallized around himself all the discontent, rational and irrational, in the country … “ In this time, if there is an ominous conspiracy underway in the United States, it would be the silent massive suspicion of a conspiracy which threatens home, job, status, the accustomed order of life. And Wallace’s variation of Long’s coalition of frustration is a “fusion” of the working man with the large industrialists and tycoons of Mid-America. “We got part of it already,” he declares; “we got the workin’ man, and now we’re gonna get the other part of it—the high hoi-polloi. They gonna come around, you wait.” Indeed, when he has appeared before large groups of industrialists, the receptions have been robust. At a patio party recently in New Orleans' French Quarter, an oil millionaire from Dallas allowed, “I’d vote for him in a minute, and give him all the money I could, if I just felt I could trust him—if he wouldn’t wind up getting tamed by Washington like Lester Maddox over there in Georgia. I’m a Republican, but I’d love to support him, and everyone of my friends—oilmen, fellows in wheat—feel the same way.”

Nevertheless, the man himself seems hopelessly implausible as a national political figure. For one thing, he looks on the entire world as merely an extension of Barbour County, Alabama, where he grew up—full of chillun and folks, some of them liars and cheats and no-counts, most of them decent people minding their own business, whose interests are simple and who are polite to each other, but with a certain measure of orneriness and villainy going on, the best answers to which are Barbour County’s kind of commonsense solutions. In an age of freeways and high-rise apartments, he seems a whimsical anachronism: his are essentially village sensibilities.

More than anything else, he is a consummate political and cultural articulation of the South, where life is simply more glandular than it is in the rest of the nation. Southerners tend to belong and believe through blood and weather and common earth and common enemy and common travail, rather than belonging, believing, cerebrally. The tribal instinct is what they answer to. That is part of the reason why the most recent incarnations of the Boston Abolitionists—those gaunt, tense, electric youths from the snows of the North and the seasonless hothouse clime of California who, lank hair falling over ethereal faces, ventured into Negro neighborhoods in Alabama and Mississippi—were not only incomprehensible but also faintly repulsive to most Southerners. They were tinged with the perversion of having subjected life to ideas. Any politician like Eugene McCarthy, with his diaphanous abstractions, would be impossible in the South. The region is ruled by humid passion, and a fine old-fashioned sense of sin. There is a lingering romance of violence, a congenital love for quick and final physical showdowns. Not just the filling-station attendants, the cabdrivers and deputy sheriffs and beauticians and tabernacle evangelists, but also Rotarians, bankers, teachers, the urbanites of Atlanta and Charlotte, stockbrokers and reporters who have moved away to the cities of the North—virtually all those born in the South have about them, to a certain degree, that air of an immediate and casual familiarity with violence, a quality of loosely leashed readiness for mayhem. Even those Southerners who come from large cities—although, say, having martinis in some expensive New York restaurant, surrounded by Continental waiters and chandeliers—seem to have emerged from another dimension where the days are fevered and dreaming with honeysuckle and wisteria, from a different and more passionate play of life, a slow, sensuous, easy, lyrical, savage marriage of man and earth. They carry with them the sense of another landscape—primeval mountains, scruffy pine hills populated with mules and moonshiners, cottonland as level and limitless as the sea, fierce skies—a land where winters are only a dull and sullen hiatus with a pale ghost of the sun passing through vague chill rains.

Wallace is a direct product of this society where things—be they theories or institutions or political machines—do not count for so much as passion and people. Accordingly, he operates outside the conventional political wisdom. There has been an almost childlike naivete about the way he has undertaken to run for president. One afternoon shortly after his wife’s election as governor, he sat in his office and calculated, almost as an afterthought, the financial strategy for his whole national campaign, scribbling on the back of a memo pad with his ball-point pen: “Let’s see, we got better'n $380,000 when we went into three states back in '64, three goes into fifty about seventeen times—don’t it?—yes, and seventeen times $380,000 that oughtta be—that’s $6,460,000. That oughtta be enough.” In fact, he seems to regard formal political organization with a vague contempt, as a sign of political effeteness, an absence of vitality—as if he is already naturally blessed with what political organization exists to create. His simple directness is, at once, part of his absurdity and part of his genius.

"Power comes from the people,” he declares, “and if my health holds up, I’m gonna change things in this country. Anyway, I don’t have a single thing to lose, and everything to gain.” Indeed, there is surrounding him an uncanny aura of limitless possibility, of adventure, of incredible prospects—a feeling that anything is possible. The sheer hope, the happy half-reckless presumption of his candidacy for the highest office in the land, gives one the sense that the demonic is still at work in human affairs, even in this age of computers and slide rules and pundits and public-relations task forces: that life and politics, after all, are simply larger than arithmetic. Accordingly, his candidacy is a reminder that anything, including the unthinkable, can happen in a democracy. In the same way that he went into the 1964 Northern presidential primaries in touch with potentials that no one else seemed to be in touch with, he proceeded in 1968 from absolutely nothing—not precedent, rumor, or normal political equations, polls, press, or the patronage of the American establishment—but merely from his own clear sense and vision of the democratic possibilities for himself. For him to have aspired seriously to the presidency right now, in this age—or even to have expected to figure importantly in the election—has required more originality, audacity, optimism, and dauntlessness than has ever been required of any other significant presidential candidate in this nation’s history, including Huey Long.

In the final analysis, whatever becomes of him in the months ahead, it seems probable that George Wallace will be recorded as the greatest of the American demagogues—the classic of his species. That is true not only because of the magnitude of the rapport he has already invoked in the country (television having enlarged the stump to the size of the continent), but because of his own nature as a politician and a human being. He is really more elemental than Huey Long; it is quite beyond him, for instance, to take a case of whiskey up to the top floor of a hotel and come back down six weeks later with Every Man a King. He doesn’t think about it all enough to write a book about it. He is more essential than that. Abstractions do not really exist for him. “He doesn’t ever talk about purposes, causes, destinies, anything like that,” says one Alabama politician. “He differs from every other politician I’ve ever known in that respect.” Wallace himself cheerfully allows, “Naw, we don’t stop and figger, we don’t think about history or theories or none of that. We just go ahead. Hell, history can take care of itself.” In this rude sense, he is the most existential politician in the country today. He seems empty of any private philosophy or persuasions reached in solitude and stillness. He is made up, in mind and sensibilities, of the clatter and chatter and gusting impulses of the marketplace, the town square, the barbershop. His morality is the morality of the majority. “The majority of the folks aren’t gonna want to do anything that ain’t right,” he insists. He is the ultimate product of the democratic system.

Not only are abstract ethics alien to him, but he entertains a particular antipathy to people who live and act from them. It’s something like the Dionysian principle applied to politics. “Hell, intellectuals, when they’ve gotten into power, have made some of the bloodiest tyrants man has ever seen,” he maintains. “These here liberals and intellectual morons, they don’t believe in nothing but themselves and their theories. They don’t have any faith in people. Lot of ‘em don’t really like people, when you get right down to it.” (His own vision of man is the old vision—man is perpetually embattled on this earth, his state fixed and imperfectible, composed of natural wickedness and natural virtue in a balance that can never really be altered, poverty and grief and injustice and conflict irrevocable parts of his lot. “Life’s basically a fight,” declares Wallace. “People have to go out and make a livin’, have to fight snow and cold and heat and natural disasters. People enjoy fightin’. That’s the way folks are … “ Accordingly, he operates on the most elemental assumptions about the nature of the human species, such as: “Nigguhs hate whites, and whites hate nigguhs. Everybody knows that deep down.”)

His political mystique of “the common folks” reduces everyone to a simple and almost biological common denominator. While standing at the edge of a crowd waiting to speak at a I966 rally, he declared to reporters, “When the liberals and intellectuals say the people don’t have any sense, they talkin’ about us people—they talkin’ about the people here. But hell, you can get good solid information from a man drivin’ a truck, you don’t need to go to no college professor. The fella on the street has got a better mind and instincts than these here sissybritches intellectual morons, like the editor of The Birmingham News, for instance. He’s just one man, that’s all he is. You take this fella here—” Without taking his eyes from the reporters, he reached out at random and pulled over an elderly man, dressed in coveralls and an old army field jacket, with a light frosting of beard on his cheeks. “—this fella here, he’s one man too, just like the editor of The Birmingham News. He weighs just as much as the editor of The Birmingham News—” The man listened with a mute, bashful pleasure and an awkward little grin while Wallace held on to his elbow. “—he’s got eyes and ears and a mouth just like the editor of The Birmingham News. He’s got a mind, too—fact, he’s got a better mind. And the editor of The Birmingham News has got just one vote, like this fella here. So who is the editor of The Birmingham News? Folks like this fella here know just by instinct, just by havin’ lived with folks, more’n all the newspaper editors and professors up yonder at Harvard will ever know. Any truck driver’d know right off what to do at the scene of an accident, but you take a college professor, he’d just stand around lookin’, with his hands in his pockets and gettin’ sick.”

As a private person, Wallace himself is curiously vague and weightless. He has long seemed only marginally and incidentally aware of home and family, food and friends, the gentle comforts that bless the lives of ordinary men. One of his oldest associates declared in 1967, “Whenever he comes over here to eat, he’s just not conscious of anything except the people around him. He knows where the ketchup and the milk are, but that’s all. Because he’s only here to keep on talking to somebody. He never knows what he’s eating because he’s too busy talking—it could be filet mignon he’s eating, it could be hamburger, it could be the end of his tie, he don’t know. Just that whatever it is, he wants to put ketchup on it.”

Neither does money interest him. His one luxurious indulgence, reports a Montgomery businessman, “is having his fingers manicured downtown at the Exchange Hotel Barber Shop by Edna Taylor.” What money arrangements have been necessary in past campaigns have been quietly attended to by aides, out of his sight, out of his knowledge. Finance, high or low, leaves him wretchedly bored anyway; as one observer has noted, it would seem he never got beyond decimals.

He seems to exist in a constant state of energy and ebullience that never vanishes altogether but simply flares and pales. It’s as if, at the instant in his childhood when he comprehended what he was going to do, time simply ceased for him, and he began to exist in the same tense charged moment—the absolute fact of his destiny, a condition of will that was quite outside time.

“He don’t have no hobbies,” declares an old crony from Wallace’s hometown. “He don’t do any honest work. He don’t drink. He ain’t got but one serious appetite, and that’s votes.” It is the recollection of one official in Wallace’s home county that since 1947 there has been only one election in which Wallace’s name was not on the ballot for something. When he was a small child, remembers his grandmother, “He couldn’t bear to see anything thrown away. His grandfather would drop a piece of paper in the wastebasket, and he would fetch it right back out and say, ‘Well, Grandpa, this is some good … ’” And it’s as if he is still collecting scraps from his grandfather’s wastebasket, as if he were born with a compulsive, indiscriminate acquisitiveness. Shaking hands in a Birmingham shopping center during the 1966 governor’s race, he paused in the midst of the crowd before one man, holding onto his hand, and inquired earnestly, “Yes, now, and how is Faye? Now, she was in St. Vincent’s, wasn’t she? I meant to write her a letter—” He released the man for a moment and plunged both hands into his coat pockets, bringing up two thick fistfuls of business cards and folded envelopes, dog-eared, a bit soiled, covered with scribbles; he shuffled furiously through them, intent and absorbed, oblivious now of the crowd and everything else around him, until he found a vacant space on the back of one relatively fresh envelope on which he promptly scribbled yet another name and address, swiftly returning both handfuls to his coat pockets and seizing the man’s hand again. “Now, you tell her we gonna write her, heunh?” A lady from his hometown recalls, “I kept after him to see a friend of mine who was in the hospital, and he’d whine and grumble, ‘You know, I just hate to go anywhere nowadays, so many people want to shake my hand.’ But he finally agreed, and when we walked into the hospital room, a nurse made the mistake of telling him, ‘Some people down the hall would like to say hello to you, Governor.’ He looked at her real bright and quick and said, ‘Oh, yeah? Say there are?’ Before I knew it, he was right back out the door, running up and down that hall shaking hands with patients, some of them people flat on their backs who could hardly talk and probably wouldn’t even live until election time.” He has a way of showing up, unannounced and solemn and reverential, at funerals in remote places all over the state, slipping discreetly into a back pew of the church, and later at the graveside, after the burial, shaking hands, a commiserating singsong in his voice, with the family and friends of the deceased and the minister and the mortuary officials.

His voraciousness lends to everyone, indiscriminately, a certain dearness—invokes in him an automatic compassion and solicitude. “He don’t even like for us to talk about his enemies,” says one of his aides. “He’ll hear you cussin’ out some no-good sonuvabitch that everybody agrees is no good, and he’ll say, Now, you wrong about that fella, he’s a good ole boy, you ought not to talk about him that way.”’ It’s something like a miser’s fanatic abhorrence of waste, and it extends even to Negro voters. During one of his campaigns he told a group of Negro educators in a secret meeting on a Negro campus, “Now, when I get out here speakin’ to folks, don’t pay any attention to what I say, ‘cause I’m gonna have to fuss at yawl a little. But I don’t mean any of it.” And during the 1966 campaign, as he was riding to an afternoon rally, a newsman in the car with him mentioned that one Alabama Negro leader had suggested privately that if Wallace would only give some small sign of amicability, make some token gesture, it was still possible that the Negroes in the state could gather behind him. Even though it was already obvious that Wallace would obliterate his Republican opponent, this piece of news caused him to snatch his cigar out of his mouth and peer sharply at the newsman: “Said they could, eh? ‘Cose, they realize I couldn’t be meetin’ with them in public or anything like that. But, uh—what kinda sign you reckon they’d want?”

In turn, it seems impossible for him to believe that anyone could just simply and naturally not like him. “It bothers him no end to think anybody living is against him,” declares one of his old associates. “He’ll hear about somebody didn’t vote for him, he’ll worry over that fella, think about him, more’n he will his friends. He finds out you aren’t with him on something, he takes that to mean you’re against him altogether. He’ll sometimes call you around eleven at night and wheedle, wheedle, argue, argue.”

When finally reduced to accept the mysterious finality of someone’s hostility, he and his people attribute it to some psychological defect in the person, to some peculiar and esoteric long smoldering grudge, or to simple mental affliction—it’s a sad sign that the individual concerned has deserted the company of normal and decent folks, has forsaken the human race.

From the book WALLACE by Marshall Frady,

Copyright © 1968, 1975, 1976, 1996 by Marshall Frady. Published by arrangement with Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Marshall Frady (1940-2004) was an American journalist noted for his coverage of the U.S. Civil Rights movement and for several books about the prominent figures in that struggle, including biographies of Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King Jr. His first book, Wallace, is considered a classic work of American history.