Alabama Ex-Gov. Wallace Dies at 79: Populist Sought Presidency 4 Times

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 14, 1998 | Go to article overview

Alabama Ex-Gov. Wallace Dies at 79: Populist Sought Presidency 4 Times


George Corley Wallace, the Alabama politician whose shadow fell far beyond the segregated precincts of a South that is gone with the wind, died yesterday at the age of 79 in part from the lingering effects of a would-be assassin's bullet 26 years earlier.

Mr. Wallace, who was paralyzed below the waist by the assassination attempt, entered an Alabama hospital Thursday suffering breathing problems and septic shock caused by a severe bacterial infection, the Associated Press reported. He was hospitalized this summer with similar problems.

In recent years, Mr. Wallace had battled Parkinson's disease as well as the lingering effects of his wounds and had been hospitalized repeatedly. He was confined to a wheelchair after the assassination attempt and spent the last third of his life in great pain.

Elected to four terms as governor of Alabama, he became a national figure who was regarded by some historians as "the last major holdout" in the turbulent passage of his region out of the racial politics of the post-Civil War period.

By the time of his death, Mr. Wallace had disavowed the segregation he once championed and had been forgiven by many Alabama blacks, some of whom believed his views had been driven by political expediency rather than conviction.

An artful, charismatic orator, Mr. Wallace articulated the racial and anti-elitist resentments of working-class whites. Michael Barone, editor of "The Almanac of American Politics," described his rhetoric as "the fiesty, bantam-rooster, populist idiom of Alabama politics."

In four presidential campaigns, Mr. Wallace also became a formidable spokesman for disaffected voters in the North. His biographer, Dan T. Carter of Emory University, describes him as the "most influential loser in 20th century American politics."

Mr. Carter said in an interview, "As much as any single individual, Wallace ignited what we call the silent majority . . . and anticipated the social issues of the 1980s.

"He understood that there was a constituency of disillusioned, disaffected and alienated Americans who were driven not only by racial hostility, but by the sense that they were being abandoned by traditional politicians."

Stephan Lesher, author of "George Wallace: American Populist," noted, "The political canon that Mr. Wallace articulated in his presidential campaigns . . . [became] the mainstream of American politics."

Michael Kazin, American University historian and author of "The Populist Persuasion," said, "Wallace taught conservatives how to talk in a populist way. He helped topple the liberal claim to represent ordinary white people."

As the head of a third party in the 1968 presidential campaign, Mr. Wallace may have had his greatest national impact. His "law-and-order" campaign carried five Southern states and came close in three others. He won 13.5 percent of the popular vote and 46 electoral votes. Half his votes came from outside the South.

Richard Nixon narrowly won the election that year and Mr. Wallace believed he had deprived Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey of victory. Some analysts share that belief. In any case, the Wallace candidacy may have cost Mr. Humphrey six northern-tier and Midwestern states.

In 1972, Mr. Wallace demonstrated he could carry a Northern state as a Democrat. Before the May 15 assassination attempt in Laurel, Md., he was running second in the delegate count. The next day, he won Maryland's primary.

On May 16, he also swept the Michigan primary, outpolling the combined vote of opponent Sens. George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey. Some observers claim he would have been nominated had he not been severely wounded.

Nationally, his candidacies were a bridge by which the once traditionally Democratic South moved toward the GOP in the wake of the civil rights movement. This movement was seen earliest in presidential contests. …

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