A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
If you've ever wanted to run away and join a circus, you would've loved seeing the George C. Wallace presidential campaign -- featuring pretty girls, country music, hippies, rednecks, fist fights and much more.
It sure was entertaining for those of us in the press corps with front row seats in 1968 as the blunt, outspoken Alabama governor made a third-party bid to capture the White House -- hoping to beat Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat Hubert Humphrey.
It was both exhausting and exhilarating to be traveling with Wallace, crisscrossing the nation as the candidate of the American Independent Party. His Electra prop-jet plane usually made at least three stops every day, ranging from small cities like Enid in Oklahoma or Cape Girardeau in Missouri to New York City and Chicago.
Many signs and sounds of the Wallace experience are still fresh in my memory, especially encounters with the crowds of protesters who came to his campaign events.
"You need a haircut!" he'd tell them, and then often add a bogus threat, such as "when I get to be president, if an anarchist lies down in front of my car..."
The campaign also had its share of unusual characters.
There was the faded blonde from Indianapolis who fancied she looked like the cowgirl in Dodge TV ads which were airing at the time, Wearing a tight-fitting, silver-spangled suit, she was dubbed "The Tin Man." The campaign dumped her quickly when she gushed to one reporter that, yes, she and Wallace planned to marry.
Then there were Mona and Lisa, the Taylor sisters. Honest, those were their real names. The two quiet, unpretentious girls sang with a band and appeared to have no particular political allegiance, so they seemed curiously out of place on the campaign trail.
Another cast member, Dick Smith, was the principle fund raiser. His lugubrious baritone warmed up crowds before Wallace spoke at campaign events and he coaxed folks to part with cash while "Wallace Girls" traipsed down aisles with buckets.
Reporters covering Wallace were some of his favorite targets. He denounced us daily, calling us pointy-headed ivory tower intellectuals. One day, as he went to board his plane at a Midwestern airport, two lines of reporters were there to greet him -- all of us standing at attention and some holding "Wallace for President" signs.
"I finally won the press over," he said sarcastically as he looked at the mock tribute. "Y'all were always notorious bandwagon riders."
Wallace never did win over the press corps, but he did develop a certain camaraderie with reporters and most of them had no desire to leave so that they could cover one of the other candidates..
But any reluctance to leave the Wallace campaign was not because of the food served on his plane. If lucky, you might get "Kentucky Fried Chicken" with crackerjacks, which the candidate's little daughter ate as she wandered up the aisle, asking occasionally, "Y'all want some?"
Sometimes Wallace had trouble communicating with reporters from big cities of the North. They didn't quite understand when he'd use his old southern expressions.
He might say, for example, that he wanted to put a demonstrator "under the jail" instead of saying "lock the jail and throw the key away." But when it was all over, he gave all reporters an autographed picture and received a sandal signed by them -- a reference to his frequent invitations to hippie protesters to "come up after I'm through speaking and I'll autograph your sandal."
Some of the best incidents were spontaneous -- like the time some reporters got boisterous on a late-night flight from Kansas City to Montgomery after an arduous week of campaigning. When Wallace went to see what was happening, the news people urged him to join in a chorus of the civil rights anthem, "We Shall Overcome."
"Here I am trying to save the country and everybody's drunk, " he lamented.
Wallace was commonly depicted as a far-right racist due to his staunch opposition to desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement. In 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. called him "the most dangerous racist in America today."
But many people who followed his career for years in Montgomery noted that similar attitudes were held by a lot of other whites who grew up in Alabama's rural Black Belt during the Depression.
And, they pointed out, it was widely believed that he was defeated in his first try for governor because too many voters felt his stand on integration wasn't tough enough. Wallace was said to have vowed never to let that happen again.
So maybe his commitment to segregationist policies was more an expression of his background and populist approach to politics than to a deep philosophical feeling.
Still, there were disturbing aspects of his campaign. For instance, while never overtly calling for violence, he did seem to relish it and at times to incite it.
"They asked for it, and they're getting it," he declared one night at Cobo Hall in Detroit when some supporters bashed anti-Wallace demonstrators with folding chairs.
Whatever else Wallace might've been, he was a born storyteller and he used his talent to enliven his speeches, which seldom contained any news. One of his favorite "set pieces" was about his early lead in the 1964 Democratic presidential primary election in Maryland. It was a funny story because of his timing and delivery.
"Wallace is leading, this is awful and we have got to recapitulate the vote," Wallace would say, pretending to be a worried state party election official on a TV newscast.
"Being from Alabama," he would add, "I didn't know what recapitulate meant." (Pause for laughter.) "But I found out." (Pause for laughter)
Then, he'd explain that he learned he was losing after the recapitulation. "So if anybody ever tells you he's going to recapitulate on you, you better watch out, cause he's fixing' to DO something to you."
One night, as he was flying to New York for a rally in Madison Square Garden, the famous sports arena, there was a general sense of foreboding among those aboard. his plane. Violence had been on the rise at his rallies and there was a fear that it would be worse in New York.
Asked if he was worried, Wallace peered out a window at swiftly passing gray clouds, mused a moment and then recalled that he was once an amateur boxer. "I always wanted to be the main event in Madison Square Garden, and tonight I am," he said,
Wallace got one of his most enthusiastic receptions that night as 3,000 of "New York's Finest" turned out to keep order in the sports arena. One wag remarked that the rest of the city's police officers were in the audience.
As summer gave way to autumn, Wallace thrived and announced that he had chosen a legendary U.S. Air Force general, Curtis LeMay, to be his vice presidential running mate. At the time, polls put Wallace at 21 percent -- only a couple of points behind Humphrey.
To many, the naming of Le May, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added substance to the Wallace campaign. In some circles, this was seen as a move that would lead establishment conservatives to join with blue collar workers who were the base of Wallace support. It didn't turn out that way.
At his first news conference, LeMay was cruising along until a reporter brought up the topic of nuclear weapons. As Wallace tried frantically to shut down the session with reporters, LeMay said that some people seemed to have a "phobia" about nuclear weapons, but that he considered them just another military asset and thought their total destructive effects had been exaggerated.
Warming to his subject, LeMay noted that life returned on Bikin Atoll in the Pacific Ocean despite radiation from the nuclear explosions at test sites there. The rats were bigger and stronger than ever, he observed, and the crabs came back, too, although still "a little hot."
The Wallace campaign went downhill from there, and on election night he conceded defeat in front of a small, subdued crowd in Montgomery. Results showed he failed to make significant inroads in the industrial states where he hoped for strong blue-collar support. He managed to carry only five states and to amass nine million votes -- about 13 percent of the total cast.
A few weeks later, when I was asleep at home one night, my telephone began ringing. It took a minute to clear my head and ask who was calling..
He didn't seem to have much to say, and after we both exchanged a few pleasantries, he apologized for waking me and hung up. Upon reflection, I decided he probably was a lonely man.
Randolph Pendleton was a journalist for United Press International and the Florida Times-Union.
During a third campaign for president in 1972, George Wallace was shot by a would-be assassin in Maryland. The attack left him semi-paralyze. He later renounced his views on racial segregation and he won a final term as governor of Alabama in a 1982 election. He was 79 when he died in 1998 in Montgomery.