You know, a long time ago being crazy meant something. Nowadays everybody's crazy.
-- Charlie Manson
I saw George Wallace speak once.
Yes, that George Wallace.
George Corley Wallace, Jr. the infamous governor of Alabama.
Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever! That George Wallace.
It was 1972. I was ten years old. Wallace was once again running for President of the United States, this time as a Democrat.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
This really begins four years previous, in 1968.
You nowadays hear people talking about the current election as the worst they’ve ever seen, the worst in American history.
But 2016 has nothing on 1968.
I was very young then, of course. And while a child, even one as bright and perceptive as yours truly (heh heh), can’t understand the complexities of the world around him in any great detail, that child can and does feel the emotional currents. A child might not understand why men are rioting in the streets, why buildings are burning and people are dying, but that child can see the uncertainty in the faces of his parents at the dinner table every night. He can sense the undercurrent of fear on the evening news even if he doesn’t have the maturity to understand why the screen is filled with burning helicopters and falling bombs and hard-eyed soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam. That child can feel the tension in the world because it’s everywhere like a foul miasma of nameless, shapeless dread.
And I remember it, the simmering fear and the rage of that time.
It was everywhere.
Though America didn’t yet know it, the 1968 Paris Peace Talks were about to collapse and as such we had only reached the middle of the Vietnam conflict and the worst years were still to come. Nguyễn Văn Lém was summarily executed by the South Vietnamese National Police Chief, Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, shot in the head at point blank range and the picture of that moment – the exact moment when the bullet tore through a human head – was plastered across every TV screen and newspaper in the world and won war photographer Eddie Adams the Pulitzer Prize. That was the moment when America was suddenly confronted for the first time with the real horror of what was actually going on over there. 1968 was the battle of Khe Sanh, the Tet Offensive, and the My Lai Massacre. 1968 was also the year Americans learned they’d been fighting a secret war in Laos. By 1968, 30,000 Americans had died in the rice paddies and the jungles of Southeast Asia.
20,000 more would follow by the time I saw Wallace speak in 1972.
In 1968, half of America was on fire. North Korea had seized the US Navy electronic spy ship USS Pueblo and was holding her crew as prisoners of war and there wasn’t a damned thing America could do about it. USS Scorpion went to the bottom taking 99 American Sailors with it and no one knew why. That was also the year the Pentagon announced it was sending more than 24,000 mostly conscripted troops back to Vietnam for an involuntary second tour and a hell of a lot of young Americans decided they’d rather live in Canada. Those who didn’t burned their draft cards and joined student war protestors occupying college campuses across the country. Others detonated bombs and robbed banks and fought it out with The Pigs and The Establishment whenever and wherever they could. Others tuned in, turned on, and dropped acid. The counter-culture was in full frontal assault mode against the stodgy culture of their square parents. Out in California, Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson picked up two female hitchhikers and set in motion a chain of events that would eventually end in Helter Skelter – one of the most infamous murder sprees in US history. That was the year Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Race riots immediately followed. Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, and Washington D.C. burned outright, but no American city was left untouched. In Oakland, Black Panthers shot it out with police in a bloody firefight reminiscent of Vietnam. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover declared the Panthers to be “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” and directed the Bureau to begin “neutralization” of Black Power organizations. But neither COINTELPRO nor bullets and tear gas could stop the Civil Rights movement. Black Americans had finally had enough of second-class citizenship and they would not be silenced. And so 1968 also became the year President Lyndon Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act (AKA The Civil Rights Act of 1968) into law, following up the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) – unleashing yet more riots and mayhem, this time by whites and personified by none other than George Corley Wallace, Jr.
Ironically, 1968 was also the year Star Trek episode Plato’s Stepchildren aired and William Shatner embraced Nichelle Nichols in what is widely considered the first interracial kiss between a white man and a black woman broadcast on public television causing widespread outrage.
1968 is also the year Saddam Hussein began his rise to power following a coup d'état in Iraq and it’s a small world sometimes, isn’t it?
And so, in 1968 it seemed the superpowers were on the brink of nuclear annihilation and the United States itself was coming apart at the seams. The economy was collapsing, energy costs were soaring, people were out of work, war raged, social structures disintegrated and were discarded whole cloth, and it seemed the world was falling into chaos, fear, and darkness.
People were frightened.
Naturally the politicians and pundits took full advantage of that fear.
And no one did it better than George Wallace.
Wallace wasn’t just popular in the Old South. Or with just the John Birch Society and the KKK. In my home state of Michigan tens of thousands turned out to hear him thunder his message of small government, law and order, and walling off brown skinned people from white America – because a lot of Michiganders were terrified of the dark faces looking out from Detroit and Flint. Wallace hated the liberal hippies almost as much as he hated people of color, saying the only four letter words they didn’t know were “soap” and “work.” He swore to run over liberals with his car (that’s right, liberals. Because in those days Democrats from the South were anything but liberal). He was brash and outspoken and his supporters loved that he said what he meant without regard for his opponent’s feelings. Wallace always put on a hell of a show and his message resonated with those who felt their country, their America, was being stolen out from under them.
When asked what he considered to be the biggest domestic issue of 1968, Wallace often responded:
What are the Real issues that exist today in these United States? It is the trend of the pseudo-intellectual government, where a select, elite group have written guidelines in bureaus and court decisions, have spoken from some pulpits, some college campuses, some newspaper offices, looking down their noses at the average man on the street.
And who would bat an eye to hear that in a speech from Mike Pence today?
Oh how the world has turned.
What does any of this have to do with that fact that I saw Wallace speak in 1972?
You see, Wallace won five states in 1968 as an independent. Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas. He won 13.53% of all the votes cast in that election and took 45 Electoral College votes – nearly enough to throw the election into the House of Representatives, where he stood a reasonable chance of becoming President by legislation.
Instead, Richard Nixon won and Wallace went back to Alabama in defeat.
And somewhere in there the world, America, began to change. See that comment about Mike Pence, up above. This, right here, this time is where that began.
Which brings us to 1972.
This time Wallace was running as a Democrat.
Wallace was one of a dozen Democrats fighting his way through the primaries.
But in the four years between 1968 and 1972 the world had turned. Not much, but enough.
Wallace was still popular in the South and in Michigan and during the first months of the election season he did extremely well and the pundits and prognosticators predicted he would clinch the Democratic nomination easily. But the Vietnam war was winding down and America was coming to grips with the idea that people of color should be viewed as equal citizens – the country wasn’t there yet (still isn’t there yet) but four years had changed things irrevocably. The Democratic Party itself was changing and Wallace was forced by circumstance and changing attitudes to distance himself from segregation and adopt a moderate view of racial relations in America. In fact, so far had the pendulum swung Wallace declared that he’d always been a “moderate” regarding race – despite the irrefutable evidence of history and the more things change, right?
On May 15, 1972, during a rally at a shopping center in Laurel, Maryland, Arthur Bremer shot Wallace five times.
Bremer wasn’t looking to make a political statement on race or anything else.
He just wanted to be famous.
And so he was, briefly, the most famous man in America. He was the man who took George Wallace’s legs.
One of Bremer’s bullets had lodged in Wallace’s spine and left him permanently paralyzed.
Wallace spent a month in the hospital and several more weeks recovering and then returned to the campaign trail. But it was over for him. People showed up out of idle curiosity or sympathy or pity. But Wallace’s campaign was as moribund as his legs. In 1968 and the opening months of 1972, Wallace commanded huge crowds when he came to Michigan. Now his supporters had to bus in old folks and school kids and the party faithful just to fill out a reasonably sized parking lot.
And that’s how I saw George Wallace.
I asked my mother last week if I was remembering it right. She laughed. Her memories and mine matched up. She told me how the local authorities packed all the school kids they could find onto buses and drove us out to the airport. We were kids, what did we know of the burning world? We cheered when they told us to and clapped in glee. It was a grand adventure. A fieldtrip to see American Democracy in action, that’s how they sold it to our folks and I suppose it was even true. And it certainly beat the heck out of sitting in a classroom learning long division or how to diagram a sentence. I’d never been to an airport before and I had nothing to compare the dinky little backwater Kent Country Airport to. It was, to me, a spaceport filled with shining rocket ships and I couldn’t have cared less about the angry red-faced man up on the stage, or long division for that matter.
But then the crowd parted and … I remember that wheelchair.
I remember it now four decades later clear as a bell.
I remember a cold cloudy gray fall day in 1972 and a withered man in a wheelchair shouting about desegregation and bussing and commies at a parking lot mostly full of bemused school children.
And now, many, many year later I realize I was witness to history: the very moment when the Democratic Party hit bottom.
As Conservatives are so fond of pointing out, once upon a time Democrats were the party of John Birch and the Ku Klux Klan, of racists and bigots and Confederates.
And conservatives are of course right – no pun intended.
But all of that changed on that day in 1972.
The party had been changing slowly for decades, but it began in earnest when Democrat Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 – ushering in desegregation and Affirmative Action and effectively ending Southern apartheid with the stroke of a pen. Many Southern conservatives saw Johnson’s action, himself a Southern Democrat, as treason. They began to leave the Democratic Party. Many became Independents, and thus supported Wallace’s run in 1968. By 1972 that trend was in full charge and even Wallace’s run as a Democrat couldn’t pull them back into the fold. And the party’s nomination that year ended up being the liberal “hippy candidate,” George McGovern – which turned the trickle of defection into a flood.
Nixon’s campaign strategy in 1972 was in part to woo these disaffected conservatives and he was largely successful at it. Exactly how this happened is subject to some debate, but while Nixon didn’t invent the political term “Southern Strategy” it was his campaign that began the polarization of American politics into Democrat/Liberal – Republican/Conservative. By the time Ronald Reagan came along all he had to do was play up the perception of conservative white victimization with terms like “welfare queens” and “states rights” and everybody knew what he meant and former Southern Democrats flocked to his banner. This was done by deliberate design. The guy behind it was Lee Atwater, the Reagan campaign’s deputy director. Atwater gave an interview after Reagan was elected (anonymously, but his name was later revealed as the quote’s source) in which he said:
Atwater: As to the whole Southern strategy that Harry Dent and others put together in 1968, opposition to the Voting Rights Act would have been a central part of keeping the South. Now he [Reagan] doesn't have to do that. All you have to do to keep the South is for Reagan to run in place on the issues he's campaigned on since 1964. And that's fiscal conservatism, balancing the budget, cut taxes, you know, the whole cluster.
Questioner: But the fact is, isn't it, that Reagan does get to the Wallace voter and to the racist side of the Wallace voter by doing away with legal services, by cutting down on food stamps?
Atwater: You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger.” That hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like “forced busing,” “states' rights” and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me? Because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."
And so here we are 30 years later in 2016.
I could write another hundred thousand words on how we got from “nigger nigger nigger” to here.
I could spend hours explaining how the Democrats went from the party of John Birchers and old white Southern racists to what it is today. Or how the Republicans woke up one morning to find themselves staring in horror at the Klan and the Neo-Nazis and the dimwitted droolers shouting for segregation and walls and war from the front ranks of last night’s Trump rally. We could talk about how the GOP went from serious men in white shirts, scientists and engineers and doctors who once built and flew the ships that took us to the moon and brought us home again, to the party of creationists and science deniers. Millions of words have been devoted to this subject by people far smarter on the subject than I am and so I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to flesh out the bare bones outlined above.
What matters is that moment in 1972.
What matters is that ruined man in his wheel chair.
What matters is that moment when Democrats hit bottom.
Sometimes that’s what it takes, you know. Hitting bottom.
My dad was a recovered alcoholic. He knew all there was to know about it. He used to tell me this: Nobody can make you quit drinking. Nobody. You can see it. You can see what the booze is doing to you, to your family, to those around you. None of that will make you stop, that’s what addiction is. You have to want to quit drinking. You have to want to. Not others. You. You have to want to and that want has to be stronger than the addiction. And sometimes, too many times, you have to hit rock bottom. You have to lose it all, you have to destroy your life and stand right on the very edge, the very edge, before not drinking becomes more important to you than the next sip. For my dad, it was a little kid. He hit a kid with his car while blackout drunk. That was his rock bottom. That’s what finally got through to him, that’s what was finally stronger than the addiction. It took a long time and the help of many friends, but he beat the disease – because at long last he himself wanted to change. And when he died, more than 40 years later, after 40 years of sobriety, hundreds came to his funeral. You see, my dad wasn’t a great man in the sense of some single great achievement. They didn’t build monuments to him or raise up buildings with his name on the front in great gold letters. No, rather my dad was great in a thousand small ways. He was admired and respected and loved by hundreds, thousands, of people whose lives he’d touched for the better. Because he chose to be that person, because he’d seen rock bottom and was determined not to again.
And that brings me at long last to the point.
The Grand Old Party has reached its George Wallace moment.
The Republican party has reached bottom and in their few moments of sobriety, conservatives know it.
Republicans began as the anti-slavery party in direct and vocal opposition to Southern Racism and the Know Nothings. They fought a civil war in order to change the world for the better.
Today it is the Klan and the John Birch Society cheering the Republican candidate on.
The first Republican president was Abraham Lincoln who gave his life to hold the Union together with the power of the Federal government.
Today Republicans talk openly of secession and burning Washington to the ground.
The Republican Party began with one of the greatest orators in American history, a man whose words continue to ring down through history sharp and pure as ruby laser light, Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…. I don’t even have to look it up. Like many Americans I know the words by heart and more than a century after they were first spoken on the field at Gettysburg they still resonate with raw power and the promise of a better world.
Today republicans nod and cheer when their candidate says, We have to come up, and we can come up with many different plans, in fact, plans you don't even know about will be devised because we're going to come up with plans, health care plans, that will be so good.
Trump is no Lincoln. He’s no Ronald Reagan. Hell he’s not even George W. Bush.
This is the nadir of the Republican Party.
And this may be where it ends. This may be where the Republican Party finally drinks itself to death, a withered ruin in a wheelchair.
Perhaps this is the point, the bitter and terrible rock bottom, that finally turns things around.
This is the crucible in which greatness might be reborn.
America is not well served by the destruction of the Grand Old Party.
Growth, innovation, ingenuity, vigor, are all the products of stimulating competition and intellectual challenge. America needs both conservatives and liberals of reason and intellect and a willingness to work together.
And it’s ironic indeed that those spitting blood right now over recent national outrages such as the flag and the pledge of allegiance forget that they themselves put the words “one nation” into those vows. If they don’t mean it, what the hell are they so mad about?
Here’s the bottom line: Republicans don’t need to take back America, for they never lost it.
Instead they need to take back their party.
The descendants of Abraham Lincoln do not need to make America great again, for America has never lost the greatness described by Lincoln’s words.
Instead America needs to make the Republican Party great again.
Not great in some grand gesture, some fantastic achievement, but instead great in a thousand small ways. Great in the ways which make America great for all of its citizens – indeed all the citizens of the world.
Now is the time for Republicans of good intention, of reason and moderation and compromise, to wrest back their party from the bigots and the fanatics and the lunatic fringe and send them back into the margins, isolated and powerless, where they belong.
In the end, even George Corley Wallace, Jr, himself came around.
Wallace made peace with his God and apologized sincerely to America and directly to people of color for his hate and bigotry. He said of the stand that made him infamous, Segregation Now! Segregation Tomorrow! Segregation Forever! “I was wrong. Those days are over, and they ought to be over.” He said that while he had once sought power and glory, he came finally to the realization that he had to ask for love and forgiveness of those he’d wronged. He openly and publicly recanted his racist beliefs, moreover his actions proved he was sincere. In his final years as governor of Alabama, Wallace set about making things right, he appointed a record number of black people to state positions including his own cabinet and did everything in his power to make permanent the gains of the movement born in Selma, Alabama in 1965.
George Wallace didn’t change things in any great way, but his final actions were great in a hundred small ways and they changed America and the Democratic Party forever.
Wallace spent his final years holding court in a rundown diner not far from the State Capitol in Montgomery. In constant pain, he sat in his wheelchair and held forth on politics and The South and America. He died on September 13th, 1998 and thousands, black and white, came to his funeral.
For a man who couldn’t walk, he had come far since the day I saw him speak in 1972.
That’s the man I wish I’d met.
I have learned over the years that when one's mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.
-- Rosa Parks