• Wallace: The Classic Portrait of Alabama Governor George Wallace
• by Marshall Frady
• Publisher – Random House
• Copyright – 1996 (The original edition appeared in 1968).
• 304 pages
Rating – 8.5/10
Review – For better and (mostly) for worse, no figure in Alabama politics looms larger than George Wallace. From his first unsuccessful 1958 gubernatorial run, Wallace dominated state politics until ill health forced his retirement in January 1987. During that time, Alabama progressed but remained at or near the bottom in comparisons of the 50 U.S. states. (This helped create the old joke that Alabama’s motto should be, “Thank God for Mississippi”).
But state governance has little to do with the continuing interest in Wallace. Instead, it is his four runs for the U.S. presidency from 1964 to 1976 that make him a political player worth remembering. By becoming a factor in those races, Wallace shocked the pundits and sent a clear signal that conservatism was on the rise.
In Wallace, journalist Marshall Frady uses his extraordinary access to Wallace to craft an intimate portrait of a man whose political ambitions controlled every aspect of his life. Frady openly states that Wallace is Robert Penn Warren’s Willie Stark come to life. More precisely, Frady’s Wallace is pure demagogue, a man who forms his stands on the issues soley for political expediency.
Frady’s timing was perfect. By the mid-60s, it had become apparent that Wallace was a force. At the time of Wallace’s original publication, Wallace had convinced Alabama’s voters to make his wife, Lurleen, the governor in 1966. (At the time, Alabama governors were not allowed to serve consecutive terms, so George was ineligible to run). Also, Wallace was gearing up for his 1968 run for president, which would confirm his mass appeal. In short, Frady catches Wallace at the height of his political powers, just as his wave was starting to crest.
But the strongest aspect of the book is Frady’s prose. The “new journalism” of participant observation was just coming into vogue in the mid-60s. I’ve always thought that this was a feast-or-famine technique – it’s great if the writer has the chops to pull it off, but it’s miserable if the writer is mediocre or worse. Fortunately, Frady meets the challenge. He captures the elusive Wallace out on the stump, interacting with voters, the press, and fellow politicians. Frady, a Southerner, also has a great feel for Alabama and its people.
I once read some advice from the famed writing instructor John Gardner. He said that great, insightful writing makes the reader say to him- or herself, “Yes, that’s the way it is.” I had that feeling reading Frady.
Finally, and this may be Wallace’s most-important quality, it’s a book that you want to read, a page turner. I checked it out from my local library late on a Saturday morning and was done by Sunday night.
While I enjoyed Wallace, the book isn’t perfect. One irritant is that Frady often repeats details. I tired of descriptions of Wallace’s cheap suit, oily hair, smelly cigars, and butchered pronunciations of the same words. (Over 300 pages, Frady’s decision to spell Wallace’s dialogue phonetically is like a toothache that gets worse with time. This device would have been more effective had Frady confined these spellings to an introduction or a conclusion).
I was also let down by Frady’s follow up to the original 1968 edition. At the end of the original book, Wallace is just “feeling his oats” as a potential national figure, considering his possibilities as a candidate for 1968 and beyond. The story of the 1968 election and what came after it have much potential. But Frady swings and misses on this opportunity. His postscript seems tacked on and other authors have offered more insight on this phase of Wallace’s career. Twenty-twenty hindsight says that it was Frady’s access to Wallace that made the original book special; without that intimate perspective, his follow up is flat.
With the exception of four years “abroad” in other U.S. states, I’ve lived in Alabama since 1977. It requires no great insight to say that the damage that Wallace caused to Alabama continues to this day. Prior to reading Frady’s Wallace, I had already enjoyed several books on “The Governor”:
- Stephen Lesher’s George Wallace: American Populist,
- Dan T. Carter’s The Politics of Rage,
- Jeff Frederick’s Stand Up for Alabama,
- Michael Dorman’s The Wallace Myth,
- And several others.
Frady’s book is the best of the bunch. The vivid portrait of the public and private Wallace, Alabama and its people, and a lost point in time make this the place to start.