Presents a full-scale biography of the complex life and times of George Wallace, from rural poverty under Roosevelt to national prominence in the age of segregation
On a July afternoon in 1987, when Jesse Jackson stopped in Montgomery, Alabama, to pay his respects to former governor and presidential candidate George Wallace, a profound sense of irony surrounded the event - a sense of history having come full circle.That scene - the civil rights leader sitting down with the former segregationist - is the point of departure for Stephan Lesher's masterful George Wallace: American Populist. Wallace first captured the national spotlight at the University of Alabama, personally obstructing a federal segregation order. As the governor used his resultant notoriety to argue for "getting the government off the backs of the people," to berate the Washington establishment and the hypocrisy of the "limousine liberals," and to voice the frustrations of the middle class in the face of academic and governmental elites, his critique was obscured by the racist taint, and what would become his true political legacy was overshadowed. For unbeknownst to his more urbane critics, George Wallace was setting the national political agenda for the remainder of this century. In electing Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and even Clinton, Lesher argues, the American people have voted for Wallace's ideas in gentrified form in every election since 1968. For good or ill, Wallace has not only become mainstream, it was he who diverted the nation's course. As such, in Lesher's view, he emerges as the most important loser in the history of presidential politics.In telling the Wallace story, Lesher brings to life what C. Vann Woodward calls the "burden of Southern history," placing Wallace and the sentiments he exploited in the context of Reconstruction and the long struggle, not just of black Americans, but of the white Southern poor as well. By tracing Wallace's rise from the rural poverty of Depression-era Alabama, Lesher allows us to see the whole, complex picture of a small-town politician who had always stood up for "ordinary folks" regardless of color, but who then made the most of racial division when it became politically expedient to do so. But Lesher is by no means out to excuse Wallace on race. His intent, like that of Wallace's own most potent rhetoric, is simply to not let the rest of us off so easy - as if by having our villains all bad, we ourselves might have some greater claim on goodness.Like Eyes on the Prize or Parting the Waters in mirror image, George Wallace recreates the drama of Montgomery, of Selma, of Birmingham, and of Tuscaloosa... only from the vantage point of those resisting change. It shows us the dark side of ambition, and the darker reality of American politics, where, in Lesher's unblinking view, such revered leaders as Jimmy Carter and Hubert Humphrey did no better than Wallace on the matter of race when forced to choose between principle and political gain.Written by a journalist who covered the governor and maintained a respectfully adversarial relationship with him for over thirty years, George Wallace is a political biography of startling insight based on the author's wide experience and unique access. It is a book that celebrates America's capacity for resilience and growth, and one that is filled with compassion for all who suffered through a turbulent era.