Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Review of The Politics of Rage, by Dan T. Carter

The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics by Dan T. Carter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The following is a review I wrote on this book back in November, 2004. I've since come around to agreeing with author Carter that much of the later GOP platforms of the succeding decades was inspired to some degree by Wallace's early racist campaigns and their success, but I've posted the review just as I wrote it in 2004 with no changes:

This is an excellent study on the political career of George Wallace, the former Alabama Governor famed for his stand against integration in the early 1960's and his subsequent runs for the Presidency. Carter portrays Wallace as a complex individual, who seems to have been motivated from the start more by ambition than principle. The book gives an extremely well researched and readable account of Wallace's early life, his family, friendships and formative experiences. Carter attempts to show that Wallace early on became politically ambitious for the Alabama Governor's office and that he originally adopted the stance of a moderate (for the time) southern populist, going so far as to refuse to break away from the Democratic party in 1948 and supporting Truman over Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrat party.

In the 1958 Alabama gubernatorial election Wallace was defeated by a more blatantly racist, segregationist opponent and vowed in a famed statement of racial epithet never to be the racial moderate in any future elections. True to his word he ran a 1962 campaign on the stance of continued defiance to federal government attempts to integrate Alabama schools and extend voting rights to the state's black population. Successfully elected, he made a national name for himself by his confrontations with the federal courts (including initially trying to defy or evade the court orders of man who had once been a good friend - Federal Judge Frank Johnson) and the Kennedy Justice Department. The book doesn't shy away from the resulting violence of some of Wallace's followers and the more extreme racist comments and actions of many of those who supported him in the 1960's. I think Carter makes a good case that by his disregard for federal law enforcement agencies and civil rights protesters that Wallace in some degree bore some of the responsibility for the actions of the more extreme and violent of those opposed to integration and expanded civil rights for black citizens.

Carter also provides great detail into minds of the inner circle of those men who managed Wallace's candidacy in his state and later national campaigns for President, including talented speechwriter but also violent racist Klansman Asa Carter (no relation to the author), who would later become famous as the author of the historical novel that inspired the Clint Eastwood movie "The Outlaw Josey Wales". Biographer Carter's premise is that by Wallace's strong showings in the presidential elections of 1968 and 1972 (before he was derailed by an assassination attempt) that Wallace succeeded in moving the national political debate to the right, especially in the area of social policies and politics. Carter has gone on record in other books and speeches as trying to link the Republican policies of welfare reform, re-examination of affirmative action policies and anti-crime legislation as being directly descended from Wallace's bigoted early campaigns. While I think he stretches the point I do think that some of Wallace's populist appeal did pave the way for successful Presidential campaigns of other southerners, such as Georgia's Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Arkansas' Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. Carter sees Republican Ronald Reagan as more of a direct descendant of Wallace, but this reviewer sees it as a fact that most successful Presidential races since 1968 whether Republican or Democrat have taken Wallace's anti-Washington bureaucrat populist rhetoric and support for a stronger defense and lower taxes as being more important than his racial stances.

Of course Wallace himself moderated his racial stances through the succeeding years, until he was running as a populist with appeal to both blacks and whites in the 1980's and appealing for forgiveness to many of those he had wronged. Carter dutifully reports this later conversion, although he seems to question some of the sincerity behind the public conversion.

The book doesn't represent itself as a conventional biography as much as an examination of Wallace's life and the effects of his political campaigns on national and regional politics, and for that reason I can forgive what I see as a failure of the book to give as much detail and scrutiny to Wallace's life after 1972 as Carter gave the previous years. The book does a powerful job of conveying the reality of Lurleen Wallace's life and trials as George's wife as well as her fights with the cancer that finally killed her. Her stint as a successful stand in candidate for Governor in 1966 and her short term in office before her death is given a good overview. However I would have liked to have seen as much detail and information on Wallace's later family and personal life, including his other marriages and relationships with his children. I also would have been interested in finding out more about the Alabama political scene of the 1980's and 1990's and Wallace's lasting effect on those politics, but I can't argue with the fact that Carter has written a masterful portrait on both the man and his era and the waves he caused by his political campaigns. A definite 5 stars for this award winning (justly so, I might add) political biography.

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