George C. Wallace

part 1, 2

A campaign ad for George C. Wallace
Video courtesy usa816

On September 22, 1968, Wallace jousted with a panel of reporters on Face the Nation about urban crime.

Wallace: I don't know why Negro citizens attack and assault one another -

Reporter: Are you saying it's only Negro citizens, governor? I mean, is that your point?

Wallace: Am I saying what?

Reporter: That it's only Negro citizens. You keep telling me -

Wallace: I'm saying that the high crime rate [in Alabama] comes about because of the high predominance among Negro citizens against each other. And that is an absolute fact. I was a judge for six years in Alabama and I know…

Reporter: Governor, aren't you really saying that you can make safe … the streets for white people but you don't know why you can't make them safe for Negroes?

Wallace: I'm not saying that.

When commentators criticized Wallace, their words seemed to feed the fun Wallace had painting them as out of touch and phony. Wallace attacked the press with a standard joke - delivered at a rally in New Mexico - designed to show which people really knew the score.

As Wallace told it, some "Washington counterfeiters" went to Alabama to pass off fake bills to the folks down there. The counterfeiters came across an old, grizzled back-woodsman. "Captain," the counterfeiters said, "can you give us change for an 18 dollar bill?" The old Alabaman said, "I sure can. Do you want three sixes, or two nines?"

After a strong showing in September, Wallace's campaign took a dive in early October. One reason was political reaction to his belated choice for a running mate, retired air force General Curtis LeMay. When LeMay was a commander in World War II, he directed the nuclear bombing of Japan. In his first and only press conference for Wallace, LeMay revealed that he was still a fan of atomic weapons. "I don't believe the world will end if we explode a nuclear weapon," he said. When a reporter pressed LeMay on whether he would use atomic bombs to end the war in Vietnam, LeMay replied, "If I found it necessary, I would use anything we could dream up - anything that we could dream up."

Wallace was appalled by LeMay's remarks. And so were most Americans. Voters abandoned a ticket that began to look dangerous.

When the ballots were counted on election day, Wallace won 13.5 percent of the popular vote and took five states in the Deep South. Historian Michael Kazin says Wallace's style made him seem part of the social crisis he raged against. "In his clever, snarling way, he was too authentically populist to attract other voters who simply wanted the nation's troubles to end," Kazin writes.

Wallace gained votes from farmers and laborers in the South, and a range of low-paid, less-educated men outside the South. But if his popularity with voters turned out to be ephemeral, Wallace's impact on American politics was not.

George C. Wallace and his running mate Curtis LeMay concede in the 1968 election.
Video courtesy RealAgentOfSHIELD

Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon took note of Wallace's keen ability to appeal to the values of conservative white voters in 1968. Early on, Nixon began making carefully worded attacks on "forced busing" and positioning himself as the "law and order" candidate. In his GOP nomination speech in Miami, Nixon assured his listeners, "Time is running out for the merchants of crime and corruption in American society. The wave of crime is not going to be the wave of the future in the United States of America."

The politics of resentment, practiced crudely first by George Wallace, was polished and refined by more sophisticated candidates for the rest of the 20th century. Starting with Nixon's re-election campaign in 1972, top strategists set out to "focus on those issues that divide the Democrats, not those that unite Republicans," as Nixon staffer Patrick Buchanan advised in a memo.

Historian Rick Perlstein says the strategy was called 'positive polarization.' "The idea is you intentionally divide the country in half," Perlstein says, "and you intentionally find fault lines that get Americans angry at each other, hating each other." In his memo to Nixon, Buchanan tried to persuade the president that if the election "cut the Democratic Party and country in half," Republicans would end up with "far the bigger half." And they did.

Perlstein says the strategy made dividing instead of uniting American voters the tactical goal of conservative strategists. "Of course," he adds, "conservatives say they were just responding to divisions created by the liberal side of the ledger. So we have two sets of Americans who believe that the other side is courting civilizational chaos."

Perlstein calls this divided state Nixonland, in his book by the same name. But George Wallace first planted the flag. In the words of historian Dan Carter, Wallace was "the most influential loser" in 20th century politics.

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