Compared to Donald Trump, George Wallace was understated and politically correct.
The 1968 third-party presidential campaign of Wallace, the former segregationist governor of Alabama, has long represented the worst example of modern-day incendiary politics.
After examining the historical record, Trump's rhetoric and demeanor on the campaign trail exceed even Wallace's when it comes to vitriol and explicit hate-mongering.
“An American Melodrama ” — a masterful account of the tumultuous 1968 campaign by three reporters from the Sunday Times in London — titled an entire section: "George Wallace the Man Who Talked in Code." The authors explained, "What made Wallace acceptable in the North as no Southern politician had ever been was ... because he had learned to adapt to Northern sensibilities one of the oldest devices in the Southern politician's armory. He talked in code."
Gone were the fiery appeals to racists such as his signature line from his 1963 inauguration as governor: "I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." In its place was wink-and-nod rhetoric about states rights and pointy-headed federal bureaucrats. As Wallace claimed on “Meet the Press,” "There isn't any backlash among the mass of American people against anyone because of color. There's a backlash against big government in this country."
The differences with Trump went beyond the use of code words.
No modern presidential candidate has ever attacked his rivals with the viciousness of the bilious billionaire. From likening Ben Carson to a child molester to his latest screed against Ted Cruz as "totally unstable" and "unhinged" — not to mention the daily epithets hurled at Jeb Bush — Trump has reveled in his self-created role as guttersnipe.
In comparison, Wallace was restrained, when he merely claimed Chief Justice Earl Warren "doesn't have enough brains in his head to try a chicken thief" and New York liberal Republican Gov. Nelson Rockefeller was a "socialist." It was all part of a run-on litany of names that ended with Wallace's third-party punch line: "There's not a dime's worth of difference in any of them, national Democrats or national Republicans."
As with Trump today, there was an odor of menace to Wallace's rallies and sometimes flying fists directed at protesters. But unlike Trump, Wallace tried to tamp it down.
Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson and Bruce Page write in “An American Melodrama,” "Wallace took a good deal of care to avoid actual incitement to violence." In September, at an ugly rally in all-white Cicero, Ill., the crowd turned on five college-aged demonstrators. Afterwards on his campaign plane, Wallace appeared to the British reporters as genuinely remorseful, saying, "If I had my way no one would get hit. I acknowledge the right to picket peacefully."
The point is not to romanticize Wallace who capitalized on race-based fears of crime and disorder. In winning nearly 10 million votes and carrying five states in the heart of Dixie, Wallace pointed the way to Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy and the law-and-order political frenzy of the early 1970s.
Reading about the Wallace campaign is a reminder of how, in some ways, little has changed in 48 years.
Lurleen Wallace, the fill-in governor of Alabama who died of cancer in 1968, said of her husband, "He speaks out for the people. He says what they think. When he's on ‘Meet the Press’ they can listen to him and think, 'That's what I would say if I were up there.'"
That is, of course, an explanation for Trump's appeal that you can hear hourly on cable TV. But biographer Stephan Lesher in “George Wallace: American Populist ” pointed to something deeper: "Widespread fear and a sense of dislocation were propelling more and more people to find someone in politics who seemed to understand them. People feared so-called hippie demonstrators as much as civil rights demonstrators, if not more so."
Substitute stagnant wages, immigration and ISIS for Vietnam, crime and campus upheaval -- and you have the dislocation fueling Trump's billionaire populism. In times of social turmoil, there is a long history of Americans rebelling against politics as usual. But only rarely does it take on the ugliness of Wallace and Trump.
Both candidates have inspired critics to reach back to the 1930s in the desperate search for historical parallels. (Personally, I prefer Silvio Berlusconi and Juan Peron.)
After witnessing an alarming Wallace rally in Madison Square Garden late in the 1968 campaign, New Republic columnist Richard Strout wrote, "There is menace in the blood shout of the crowd. You feel you have known this all somewhere; never again will you read about Berlin in the 30s without remembering this wild confrontation."
What undermined Wallace in the end was his quest for respectability with his choice of a vice presidential running mate. Retired Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay was a World War II hero whose approach to all foreign policy problems was to bomb them back to the Stone Age. In fact, mad-bomber General Jack D. Ripper in “Dr. Strangelove” was modeled after LeMay.
All it took to explode Wallace's candidacy was LeMay's seven-minute opening statement when he was unveiled as the next VP: "We seem to have a phobia about nuclear weapons. ... I think there are many times when it would be most efficient to use nuclear weapons. ... I don't think the world would end if we exploded a nuclear weapon."
Despite LeMay's presence on the ticket and fears of a wasted vote, Wallace won double-digit support in the Midwestern industrial states of Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. Until election day, there were widespread fears that Wallace's Southern support would deprive any candidate of a majority in the Electoral College.
With Donald Trump — the George Wallace of 2016 — leading in the polls in South Carolina, I have only one regret: Where is Curtis LeMay when we need him?
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