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Rehabilitating George Wallace


American Populist

By Stephan Lesher

Addison-Wesley, $29.95

Reviewed by Kendal Weaver

George Wallace, who first crossed the American landscape as a racist political tempest out of the South, does not want to be remembered finally for the harm caused by his ill, mischievous winds.

Late in his career, crippled and tormented by pain, he recanted his segregationist stand. He embraced black leaders. He even prayed in the little red-brick Montgomery church where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. launched the modern movement for civil rights.

For his place in history, Wallace now asks for rehabilitation. Can't he be remembered for his last, good deeds?

Perhaps Wallace's best chance for such a view of his historic record comes in the person of Stephan Lesher, the first to write a full-scale biography of Wallace since his political career ended _ and a biographer with Wallace's ample cooperation, including 60 hours of interviews with the four-term Alabama governor.

Lesher shows Wallace just where he was in the 1960s and early '70s _ fueling his early political career and his first bids for the presidency with the fears and boiling hatreds of social change. But Lesher, in his book George Wallace: American Populist also views Wallace as more than just the fist-shaking segregationist who railed against "the black bloc vote" and stood in the schoolhouse door.

Wallace, by Lesher's reckoning, changed the national political landscape profoundly, with every successful presidential campaign from 1968 through 1992 deploying in some way the Wallace weaponry _ stop the encroaching federal bureaucracy, get tough on crime, stop giveaways, cut taxes on the middle class, listen to "the little man" and not to liberals. Wallace, he says, "forged a new, xenophobic political consensus" across America.

Wallace has always claimed he was standing up to federal intervention and big government, not playing racist politics, and much of Lesher's book is a cataloging of what Wallace said, what he did, and what he wanted people to believe. Fully annotated, it carries Wallace through his political conversion in the '80s. Lesher covers the familiar territory in a thorough, fair and readable way.

There are, of course, other elements of the Wallace story that have enlarged the drama of his life _ among them his marriages to three strikingly different women and the assassination attempt that changed his life physically as well as politically _ and Lesher moves only glancingly through these areas.

Lesher's book does include some startling anecdotes. In one, set in the White House, President Johnson gives Wallace a verbal arm-twisting to let black people register to vote _ with Johnson repeatedly using a racial slur in depicting black people and profanity remarkable even by Johnson's standards.

The Wallace story _ replete with Southern Gothic politics, rowdy campaigns for the White House, lovely and tragic women, and a would-be assassin _ might seem to rival Huey Long's for a place in Southern demagogic lore.

Wallace certainly rivals Long as a Southern politician who had a national impact. But Long did not use racist rhetoric to get elected, and in comparison, Wallace, despite his personal rehabilitation on the issue, remains diminished by the meanness of his first years in power.

Lesher says Wallace, in the late 1970s, finally understood: "Alone and crippled, forced to introspection for the first time in his life, he realized that though he had purported to be the champion of the poor and the helpless, he had trampled on the poorest and most helpless of all his constituents _ the blacks."

Kendal Weaver is a writer for Associated Press.