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From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the Conservative Counterrevolution, 1963-1994.

By Dan T. Carter Louisiana State University Press, $22.29

One of the great drawbacks of writing biography--or so it would seem to me--is the unavoidable necessity of spending huge blocks of time studying your subject, dead or alive. This could get to be tedious. It could be much worse if the person were someone you didn't particularly like, someone whose philosophy and behavior you found reprehensible, and someone who was hostile to your biographical intent. The whole experience could be enough to make you swear off writing forever.

All the more reason to admire a scholar such as Dan T. Carter, the Kenan Professor of History at Emory University. For eight years, he labored on a biography of Alabama governor and presidential aspirant George C. Wallace, who to this day has not deigned to speak to the professor. If anything, Carter's admittedly more liberal proclivities and Wallace's cold shoulder made the author bend every effort to be thorough, fair, and honest in his portrayal of the foremost segregationist of the mid-20th century.

First in a full-length biography and now in the series of lectures which comprise his current book, Carter has taken such a lucid and precise measure of the man and his times that a portrait of much greater depth and breadth emerges: not just Wallace and Alabama and the segregationist South, but the sweep and substance of a halfcentury of American politics.

Carter's The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics received critical acclaim when it was published in 1995 and won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award earlier this year. Now, in his Walter Lynwood Fleming lectures in Southern History, delivered in 1991 at Louisiana State University, he succinctly summarizes the rise and fall of Wallace as a regional and national figure and goes on to document the Alabamian's profound influence not only on Southern Republicrats but also on Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and the conservative counterrevolution of the past 30 years.

While noting the significant differences between economic and social conservatives, particularly in regard to the politics of race and gender, Carter nonetheless asserts that the two streams "ultimately joined in the political coalition that reshaped American politics from the 1970s through the mid-1990s." What's more, though most Republican conservatives try to ignore George Wallace "in fervent hope that he will quietly disappear out the back door of our historical memory," Carter finds his fingerprints all over the party dossier: on Barry Goldwater's vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, on Richard Nixon's subtle manipulation of the busing issue, on Reagan's genial demolition of affirmative action, on Bush's use of the Willie Horton commercials, on Gingrich's demonization of welfare mothers.

"The new rhetoric--carefully tested and marketed by political consultants--may lack Wallace's visceral edge (and wit)," Carter declares, "but it reflects the same callous political exploitation of the raw wounds of racial division in our country."

The first two of Carter's four LSU lectures are the most incisive, if only because they offer a perspective on the 1960s and '70s that can't yet be had on the more recent decades. Particularly fascinating and compelling are the depictions of Wallace as a master political craftsman in his national campaigns for president, and the extent to which Wallace and Nixon viewed each other with fear and hatred--and grudging respect--throughout their years as adversaries.

Carter vividly describes a Wallace rally at Madison Square Garden in October 1968, at which a throng of "20,000 of the faithful, the largest indoor political gathering in New York City since a Franklin Roosevelt speech in 1936," roared in anger with the pugilistic Alabama governor as he delivered "a performance that was palpably sexual, bizarrely blending the sacred--God Mother, Country--and the profane, with calls for violence and retribution" against the U.S. Supreme Court and all "demonstrators" and "anarchists."

Behind the scenes of Nixon's victory in 1968 and his subsequent handling of racial and social issues, Carter says, there was always the specter of Wallace lurking over his right shoulder. In the 1972 campaign, hints of a deal between the two adversaries accompanied a Wallace return to the Democratic Party from his previous candidacy as a third-party renegade. Not only was that move "a major factor in the collapse of the Democrats" in 1972, says Carter; it could have led to Wallace's nomination had he not been crippled by a would-be assassin's bullet. Even so, the Alabamian singlehandedly "gave shape and focus to a whole range of social issues...that would come to dominate the rhetoric of American politics."

With the permanently wounded Wallace out of the political picture at last, Nixon and the Republicans were momentarily free (before Watergate) "to build a `New American Majority' on the solid foundation of the conservative South," Dan Carter asserts. And so they did, and so it is that George Wallace can be declared the real father of contemporary Republicanism in Dixie.

More than that, as Carter shows in his last two essays, many of the conservative ideas, issues, and tactics of the 1980s and '90s that have worked so well for Reagan, Bush, Pat Buchanan, and the new congressional majorities are traceable to the Machiavellian mind of the little man from Alabama.

Wallace wouldn't talk to Carter but he talked to lots of others, and Carter has found them, scoured the record, and painted a full portrait of the man and his legacy that stands as its own indictment.

John Egerton's most recent 600k is Speak Now Against the Day.
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Author:Egerton, John
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1996
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