Wallace Altered U.S. Politics: Historians Credit Oratory, 3rd-Party Run for President

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George Corley Wallace will be remembered as a man who transformed American politics, historians say.

The former Alabama governor, who died Sunday at age 79, first gained fame by opposing federal efforts to end racial segregation in Southern schools. But it was his populist presidential campaigns - especially his 1968 third-party run that split Democrats and thereby helped elect Republican Richard M. Nixon - which historians say forever changed the national political scene.

"I think Wallace was a wake-up call to the people about the threat of centralization of government," Emory University historian Donald Livingston said yesterday. "Wallace could see [Lyndon Johnson's] Great Society taking off, and he blew the whistle on it and it resonated with people all over the country."

Mr. Wallace's opposition to the federal government, which he said was run by "pointy-headed pseudo-intellectuals," was adapted as the "revenue sharing" program of Mr. Nixon's administration, and lives on in Republican rhetoric as "block grants" for welfare, Mr. Livingston said.

"Wallace really was articulating the older American notion of federalism," he said.

Although Mr. Wallace later mended fences with blacks in Alabama, his initial opposition to the civil rights movement will always "demonize" him for liberals, Mr. Livingston said.

"Race relations were and still are very complicated matters in the United States, but people try to approach them with very simplistic ideologies and slogans," he said. "I think Wallace is a symbol of just how complicated that situation can be."

"It's kind of hard to be neutral on the governor," Michael Hill, professor of history at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., said yesterday. "Most people either love him or hate him. During his prime, Wallace was either a man you loved or you hated."

It was Mr. Wallace's gift of oratory that did much to make him loved or hated.

"Wallace's power began in rhetorical innovation," Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch wrote in 1995, crediting Mr. Wallace with "coining new expressions such as `forced busing' and `big government,' which were anything but common cliches 30 years ago."

Even the governor's opponent during the civil rights era, Martin Luther King Jr., recognized Mr. Wallace as an able orator. …