WASHINGTON — It was like a finish to a Billy Graham revival. Hundreds rose at George Wallace's last, stirring words and rushed forward. While the band played "On Wisconsin" rousingly, admirers filed past the Alabama governor, moving through the pit below the stage.
The governor, crouching low and reaching down to shake the upstretched hands, heard these words, or variations thereof, spoken again and again by the old and the young and those in between: "God bless you, George. I'm with you all the way."
When watching Public Broadcasting's recent Wallace documentary, I was reminded of this scene that I, as a newsman, had witnessed at Eau Claire, Wis., in April 1972, as Governor Wallace was stumping for president in the state.
How he could turn his supporters on with his demagogic claims and promises that - always - carried an undercurrent of racial prejudice.
The film, "George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire," is rendering a big public service as it reminds older Americans and informs our youth about an unprincipled man whose thirst for power took him dangerously close to the presidency.
He frightened the daylights out of the Democrats in the presidential primaries of 1964, and then stirred tremors across the nation in 1968 when his third-party candidacy nearly threw the presidential election into the House.
And then it was 1972, and he was on the hustings again. But this was April, and it was only a month from then that a would-be assassin shot Wallace at a rally in Maryland and left him paralyzed from the waist down.
As a speaker Wallace was a spellbinder.
To his many supporters the diminutive governor was the "little man's" St. George who was taking out after all those big, bad dragons - the Washington bureaucracy, the Eastern-establishment press, the filthy rich with their big tax loopholes, the foundations which received tax exemptions, the boobs in the federal government who gave all their money to other countries and who let Peking into the United Nations, those leaders who got us in that "no win" war in Vietnam, and on and on.
Wallace had won the governorship in 1962 as an out-and-out segregationist, after losing his 1958 bid for that position when he espoused progressivism.
As a presidential candidate, he ran as a populist. But his emotional antibusing position and his hard-line approach to welfare and law and order told the voters that the old Wallace was still very much around.
Early in 1972, I interviewed Wallace at an airport at Daytona Beach, Fla. On arrival, the governor, hungry from his recent vigorous exercise on the speaking platform, picked up a sticky, nutty bar and a soda from a machine dispenser.
Then we sat at an outdoor table near the runway and talked some more. He was exuberant. "I'm shakin' 'em up," he said, again and again.
Soon, a Wallace security man broke in with the announcement: "Governor, our plane is ready." Wallace, while his wife looked on disapprovingly, poured the rest of his Coke over his sticky fingers and wiped his hands with his handkerchief.
"Where we goin'?" he asked.
"Chicago," his wife said.
"Oh, I'd forgotten about that," he said and laughed. And then he was gone.
After Wallace's April rally in Eau Claire, I talked to him in his hotel room. He said he was making the other candidates "change their tune. They're all sounding like me. I ain't never seen as many tax-reduction folks before. But they weren't talking about cutting taxes before I beat 'em in Florida."
Here there was a big, satisfied Wallace smile as he said, "And I did it."
And then this remark - again, only a month before he was shot: "If I broke a leg right now and had to get out, I could feel that I had done a lot. Who would have thought that a little country boy like me could go so far."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society