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Finding George Wallace Among the Political Myths

GEORGE WALLACE: AMERICAN POPULIST By Stephan Lesher Addison-Wesley 587 pp., $29.95.

GEORGE CORLEY WALLACE played a prominent part in American politics and in the country's racial conflict from his election as Alabama's governor in 1962 on through 1976, when the effects of the wounds he received in a 1972 assassination attempt effectively ended his national role. Praised in some circles, denounced in more, Wallace's life and political career have been surrounded by the mists of myths.

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It's to Stephan Lesher's credit that he dispels at least some of these myths in his new biography, ``George Wallace: American Populist.'' Lesher knows his subject well, having covered the governor for Newsweek magazine and for a number of Southern newspapers. He had extraordinarily open access to Wallace and many of the former governor's friends and associates. Lesher's approach is on the whole admirable: He seeks primarily to help us understand Wallace better. Wallace emerges as neither a tragic populist quasi-hero nor as a race-baiting demon. Above all, Lesher's Wallace is an ambitious, pragmatic politician - who well illustrates the truth that pragmatism is not enough.

One of the myths Lesher puts down most effectively is that of Wallace as an impoverished son of the hard-scrabble South. Actually, he was born to considerable prominence. His grandfather, Oscar Wallace, was a physician who, late in life, was elected probate judge. His father, George C. Wallace, Sr., attended college - rare for Alabama youth of his time - and went on to become a prominent and reasonably successful local (Barbour County, Ala.) politician.

George C. Wallace, Jr. graduated from the University of Alabama in May of 1942, and upon completion of a tour of duty in the Army Air Corps, immediately plunged himself into the state's political life. Indication of just how fortunate his status was, relative to most of his fellow citizens, comes in the story Lesher tells of how Wallace got his first job.

Upon his release from the armed forces, Wallace immediately went to Tuscaloosa and in 24 hours gained two appointments with then-governor Chauncey Sparks, who saw to it that the young man was appointed to the post of assistant attorney general.

Despite the poverty of his native state at the time he was growing up, Wallace himself was really quite privileged. If it's fair to call him a populist, as Lesher does, it's because Wallace had a keen ear for what was troubling many white Alabamans and later a substantial bloc of white voters around the country.

Wallace was a man of uncommon energy and ambition, born to relative political prominence, who was very good at speaking in the vernacular of his region and in raising the protests of white voters of modest means who thought their needs and values were getting short shrift.

Wallace achieved considerable electoral success. He was elected to four terms as Alabama's governor (1962, 1970, 1974, and 1982), and saw his first wife Lurleen elected as, in effect, his surrogate in 1966 - when Alabama law precluded his running for a second consecutive term. (That law was subsequently repealed.) In his 1968 run for the presidency as an Independent (on the line of the American Independent Party), he gained 13.5 percent of the vote nationally, and took 46 electoral votes, all but one from the Deep South.

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In 1972, he made a strong run for the Democratic nomination before falling victim to an assassination attempt while campaigning in the Maryland Democratic primary. He again sought the Democratic nomination in 1976 and gained considerable support in the primaries, until the extent of his incapacitation from the injuries he had received four years earlier became evident. Lesher takes us through all of Wallace's electoral contests, and through the other big events of his political life - such as his highly publicized resistance to the integration of the University of Alabama in 1963.

While careful in detail and balanced in judgment, however, this biography is unsuccessful. It's unlikely to interest many readers -

because its subject is not very interesting. Wallace played what was on the whole a harmful role in the turbulence of America's civil-rights revolution, but he did so largely as a calculating and ambitious politician of limited vision.

Unfortunately, there are a great many such politicians, although not many who ply their trade in such troubled waters. There are few lessons to learn in studying their careers, and little in them to interest us when they have been passed by in the rush of history.

Born into a politics bounded by the Great Depression and the old liberalism of the New Deal, George C. Wallace became for a time a spokesman for the emerging resistance to a new liberalism becoming ascendant in the Democratic Party. That resistance reached far beyond the politics of race. It encompassed various popular protests against new social norms and values advanced as the economic politics of the New Deal were replaced by the cultural politics of the 1960s and 1970s.

In this latter development, Wallace's role was ultimately only negative. He failed to lead these protests and concerns in constructive new directions. He sounded a call to change, but did little to help us see what was really needed.

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