Governor and Mister Wallace
Behind the images which Lurleen and George Wallace project are two private persons for whom adversity, and now recurrent illness, have been as familiar as political success. Where the governor of Alabama and her predecessor come from, and what their life has been, are the subjects of Marshall Frady’s second ATLANTICarticle. Mr. Frady, twenty-seven, is a former NEWSWEEK correspondent in the South and West.
by Marshall Frady
THROUGH the spring and fall campaigns last year, she tagged after him as he scuttled, with the tense urgency of a squirrel, across the map of Alabama. They put her, with one female companion, in a separate car behind his, and she was reverently borne from town to town like some irreplaceable ceremonial fixture, a token to lend the dubious enterprise a measure of legitimacy and sanction, like the provincial plaster madonnas snatched from the gloom of medieval church naves and carried by profane Crusaders into flames and pillage. She submitted to it with an air composed, patient, somewhat inert and remote — a small, quiet figure, smiling pleasantly and a little uneasily, with an expression sometimes, as she squinted in the sun, faintly perplexed.
Only the uninitiates, those excellently reasonable people behind desks and typewriters regarding the whole affair incredulously from afar, supposed that it was too bizarre to work. The truth is, Alabamians, like most Southerners, have developed a high appreciation of the art of the solemn masquerade, the straight-faced ruse. Through the first and second Reconstructions, they have become accomplished at it. Segregation itself has probably been one of history’s most elaborate and durable disguises, a colossal facade constructed around what is really an irreconcilable blood-belief in the innate inferiority of the Negro, and the maintenance of this improbable edifice of law and logic lias become, in a way, its own perverse tribute to the industry and ingenuity of the Southern mind. Whatever the task may have cost in character, it has left Southern society with certain talents and tolerances. In fact, George Wallace’s nimble stratagem probably had a positive, endearing effect on Alabama voters.
Lurleen Wallace demolished her nine opponents in the Democratic primary with 52 percent of the vote, and went on methodically to execute the Republican candidate in the general election. She went through both campaigns bravely, but in the second one, in the fall, she began to get a little tired. The winter before, she had undergone major surgery for cancer. There were moments now when she seemed to flag. After one particularly strenuous morning of rallies, the party stopped at a high school to eat lunch, and Wallace, not thinking yet of food (eating is rather a dull interruption to him while he is campaigning) but rather of all the children collected there in one place and the families they represented, bolted off down the corridor toward the classrooms, leaving his group behind. Lurleen, who had been beside him coming through the door, watched him for a moment. She slumped forward as if something inside her had caved in a little, and then called wearily, her voice just edged with exasperation, “What are you going to do now, George? Where are you going now?” He turned, as if suddenly reminded of something he had forgotten to fetch and came back and took her aside, and as the rest of the party watched, engaged her in a brief moment of furious whispering, the two of them standing alone together a few feet down the hall. She mostly listened, her face turned slightly away, and then she seemed to sag forward a little more as he took her arm and led her to the first classroom.
But she endured. The tight cavalcade of cars plunged from one crossroads rally to another, with the crowd gathered and waiting in the fine soft fall weather — old diminutive women with crackling eyes and crinkled faces, their heads swaddled in scarves, wrapped in the worn bulky-shoulder overcoats of the forties; old men standing around the gas pumps of filling stations in coveralls and faded army field jackets and oddly formal mousegray felt hats; their sons, dark fierce men in filling station uniforms who still seem to have the silence and sullenness and lean, lank look of the frontier; and always the local candidates lined up in rusty black suits, their faces raw and red and bony. At each stop, the October air was filled with the quiet tattering of leaves. There was snow toward the end. After a midafternoon rally in the little north Alabama town of New Hope — held behind a cotton gin, with a wind shivering puddles of melted snow, and wagonloads of cotton parked in the thin sun, and smoke blowing through bare pecan trees—Wallace, bundled in an overcoat, lingered exuberantly among the crowd, grabbing hands two-at-a-time, chattering, wrinkling his nose in friendly recognition: “I sho ‘predate yawl coinin’ out in this weather, heunh? Yes, Yes, I know yo uncle, he works down at H. L. Green’s. Tell him hello, heunh? He sho is our friend. Glad to see you fellas out here today, heunh? Yawl doin’ all right? Yes, how is yo daughter now? Well, you tell her I been thinkin’ about her, I meant to write her a letter. Hi, sweetie pie. Honey, thank you. You know, I still miss Mr. Roy. I understand, I heard she was goin’ to the junior high. Cose, her daddy got killed, you know. . . .” He only paused once or twice to dab his lips swiftly with Chapstick and mutter to an aide behind him, “Where is Lurleen?” Reluctantly, only when there were no more unshaken hands in sight did he return to his car, and then, with the door opened and one foot already inside, he saw her sitting in the car behind him. He gestured impatiently to her, arching his hand as if he were flinging seed over the town at large, and murmured so that she could not possibly have heard him, “C’mon, honey, you got to go into the stores and things, you got to see ‘em, you got to speak to ‘em, now. . . .” Through the windshield of her car, she answered with a helpless, faintly harried look, sitting motionless. But he did not notice even that — he had already dived on into his car and slammed the door.
It was only a few days before the election that the weather suddenly turned stunningly cold, and when one glanced up, one discovered a sky like a woolen hood drawn over the dimming countryside. There was one rally left before nightfall in Maplesville, a small town with weedy lumberyards, and a traffic light at the main intersection, where the rally was to be held, swinging in the wind. The flathed trailer had been parked in front of Maplesville’s city hall — a converted filling station, with a rusting tin sign swaying from a sawed-off water pipe — and the hillbilly band was gathered atop the flathed trailer, shivering a little in their sequins, but gamely whunking out gospel music and country love ballads full of death, loss, violence, insanity, tears, night. When the Wallaces arrived, to a light spatter of applause, the band’s woebegone ballads instantly snapped into a spry, mischievous, hot-diggety-dog Dixie. Lurleen mounted the trailer, acknowledged the applause with a single wave of her slight hand and a brave bright smile, and then, without further flourish, read her speech. It was short, toneless, without humor or any of her husband’s kind of raw passion, her syllables deliberate and enunciated with an unvarying expression of vaguely scowling earnestness; she sounded like a high school valedictorian delivering a laboriously crafted commencement address.
Then, while Wallace himself spoke, his hips working cockily and fancily and his blunt little boxer’s paw steadily stroking the microphone stand, she sat off to one side in a corner of the platform, looking blank and irrelevant and a bit bored, gazing fixedly off over the heads of the crowd, as if she were musing on grocery lists and school clothes for her children. Wallace’s voice blared electronically in the twilight: “My opponents say they don’t want no skirt for governor of Alabama. That’s right — no skirt. Well, I want you to know, I resent that slur on the women of this state. . . .” Her expression did not change. She sat rigidly, a little primly, her hands in her lap, still gazing off into nothing, as if she hadn’t heard. The wind feathered her hair. And suddenly one had the impression that when it was all over, when Wallace’s people had gotten back in their cars and the townfolk had scattered away, she would still be sitting up there alone on that platform, straight, composed, smiling vaguely, gazing blankly off into the distance, to be hauled away finally with the platform to the next town.
When, not long after her inauguration, she appeared in a national poll as one of the ten most admired women in the world, in the company of such personalities as Jacqueline Kennedy, Indira Gandhi, Helen Keller, Princess Grace, even the people of Alabama, including Wallace, were a little surprised. (Though Wallace, on second thought, was also elated: “That’s right significant politically, ain’t it?” he inquired eagerly of visitors.) She had remained, throughout her husband’s four garish years in the governor’s office, an obscure and rather lonely figure, amiable enough on public occasions, but essentially a private person, unassuming and unprepossessing. A small tidy woman with a fondness for blazers and turtleneck blouses, which make her look like the leader of a girls’ college glee club, she is attractive in that hard, plain, small-faced, somewhat masculine way that Deep Southern women tend to be attractive — in fact, over the years, she has even acquired a certain resemblance to her husband. With the last of her four children (Janie Lee) born six years ago, it was as if she went into a kind of private resigned semi-retreat, like so many other women approaching middle age — like women, perhaps, for whom Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote Gift From the Sea. With her eldest daughter (Bobbie Jo) married and in college, and her son (George, Jr.) and another daughter (Peggy Sue) absorbed in teen-age worlds of their own, she spent a lot of time by herself outdoors, hunting, swimming, water-skiing. She was happiest when floating in a tiny boat in shorts and a baggy shirt out in the middle of a wide lake on a droning drowsy afternoon, all by herself, fishing with a cane pole. “I’d just sit out there on the water, and if they bit, that was fine, and if they didn’t bite, that was even better, that was the finest thing in the world. Because you could think then.” What time she has to herself now she devotes to Janie Lee, spending long lunches at the mansion with her and a few hours before bed in the evening.
WALLACE has always seemed only marginally aware, not only of food and play, but of such personal matters as home and family — the sweet comforts that bless the lives of ordinary men. He is consumingly a public person, with only a vague and distracted private existence. As soon as they were married in 1942, when Wallace took Lurleen down to his home community of Clayton for a quick and humble honeymoon, he seemed already to have moved his attention, energy, concentration to larger things. “It wasn’t much of a honeymoon, I guess,” remembers a friend. “George’d go into town every morning with a buddy of his, and when he’d come back to the house for lunch, she’d be at the door waiting. Then, after lunch, he’d go back uptown. He spent most of his honeymoon just hanging around town talking to people. I wouldn’t say he was cold exactly; he just wasn’t overly affectionate. He wasn’t really happy unless he was talking to the boys and shaking somebody’s hand, that’s all.”
If one spends any amount of time in Alabama, one soon hears reports that more than once during the early years of their marriage Lurleen had been on the point of leaving George. In 1952, after Wallace had left the Alabama legislature and won a circuit judgeship in Clayton, Lurleen wanted him to stop there, to settle for that. “I would have been content,” she delicately allows, “for him to stay circuit judge from then on.” But almost immediately, he began pursuing the governorship with a compulsive, ravenous, tireless ferocity. “He was making speeches everywhere over the state,” says Lurleen, “and he did his own driving. We bought two Chevvies, and he wore them both out. It was a matter, for me, of sitting home and waiting for George to get back.” A couple close to the Wallaces during that period recalls, “This was the reason Lurleen wanted to quit George. She wasn’t well — looked awfully anemic — and she had a baby to care for, and she was alone most of the time. She really had thought that he’d settle down after he was elected judge; his salary could have kept them comfortable. She thought this was good enough. But he looked on it as just another stepping-stone on the way to becoming governor. That was the reason. She was bent on the divorce. We tried to talk her out of it — one time we were at this fellow’s house down there, one of Wallace’s helpers — and we all tried to talk her out of it, but she just wouldn’t hear anything we had to say.”
Finally, Wallace and “his helpers” managed to dissuade her. As Lurleen puts it, “I started traveling with George. I had this feeling, that if I campaigned with him, it would draw us closer together. But I was frightened every time I got near a crowd. Most of the time, I’d just sit in the car and wait for him.”
Eventually, of course, there evolved in Wallace the notion — more than notion, an actual visceral sensation — that he existed, and was acting, as the very incarnation of the people, the embodiment of their will and sensibilities. His personal, feverish, almost sensuous identification with “the majority of the folks” is one of the central facts in understanding Wallace’s political vitality. It’s as if he dimly suspects he has no reality without “the folks,” and the terror to him of being deserted by the folks — or, by some ghastly accident, alienated from them — is like the terror of not being able to breathe, of disappearing. Probably the most traumatic period in his life was the long interval in 1965 between the state legislature’s startling refusal to submit for popular vote a constitutional amendment allowing governors to succeed themselves (this was in the late fall) and the primaryelection the next spring that nominated his wife. The legislature’s defiance was the first serious political repudiation that Wallace had suffered since he had entered the governor’s office, and through the long winter of doubt that followed, there was a vast silence from the people, a silence in which there occurred repeated little ominous intimations, minor but persistent frustrations at the hands of other political bodies in the state, that he might be falling, might indeed have already fallen. For him, the worst part of it was, he couldn’t really know — there was no final way to find out until the spring primary.
THE idea of running Lurleen seems to have been a sudden small soundless concussion in Wallace’s own head; all the people he began mentioning it to thought he was joking, including Lurleen. But he began to insist more seriously and frequently, “Why not, now?” Finally, he had a small delegation of his aides — his “helpers” again — in to meet with Lurleen in an office at the capitol; formally, gingerly, he had them propose it to her, negotiations made all the more delicate by the fact that she was soon to undergo extensive uterine surgery. She balked, but only halfheartedly; she had no real choice, of course. So, as spring finally approached, it seemed as though he might be rescued after all.
Lurleen Wallace has been closely surrounded by her husband’s men ever since. “I guess,” she says with a small smile, “that I’m just like one of the boys now.” Though it is known that she regards some of Wallace’s aides with a cold distaste, Wallace’s old staff has been kept intact, and Lurleen exists as little more than a legalizing accessory to the extralegal extension of the George Wallace administration. Though, as Wallace heatedly points out, all the constitutional proprieties are being observed, he still acts as governor from his office directly across the hall from the executive suite (sometimes, late in the afternoons after Lurleen has returned to the mansion, he abandons even that appearance, quickly crosses the hall and serenely continues his work, his telephone calls and conferences, from behind her desk). He still personally draws up the programs and strives with the legislature to get them passed, and the lobbyists and legislators still approach him directly, convivially pulling a chair over to his table in the Capitol’s dank basement cafeteria, where he hastily consumes 88-cent lunches of mealy peas and fried steak and cornbread and then holds court with a toothpick, just as in the old days, just as if nothing had changed. The only difference may be that now Lurleen serves as head of state while he acts as prime minister; she attends to all the ceremonial functions, which is perhaps a more pleasant arrangement on the whole, since it somewhat expedites Wallace’s national maneuverings. At the most, she has moved into a vacancy that had to be occupied, if not by him then by a surrogate, while he sets about enlarging the scale of his incarnation of “the majority of the folks.”
He met and married her in the space of about nine months. She was seventeen years old, had just graduated from high school and finished a business school course, and was working as a clerk behind the cosmetics counter at the Kresge’s dime store in Tuscaloosa — a thin, slight, vaguely pretty girl, daughter of a shipyard worker and the only child in the family still living at home. Her upbringing, in the quiet dreamy little town of Northport near Tuscaloosa, had been correct, churchly, and comfortable, leaving her with modest and specific domestic expectations. She was the kind of girl most generously described, perhaps, as “a good student,” earnest, moderately industrious, sufficiently bright. “Politics,” she recalls, “was something Daddy discussed at our house with other people, not with me.”
Wallace himself was twenty-three, recently graduated from law school at Tuscaloosa but still lingering there and driving a dump truck for the state while he awaited induction into the army (it was the year after Pearl Harbor). He had already become something of a rooster among the young ladies of Tuscaloosa (an old friend of his remembers, “Yeah, George was always around the women. He was really something with the women. I mean, you couldn’t beat him off with a stick”). He strode up to Lurleen’s counter on a warm August afternoon, fans droning sleepily in the thick popcorn-scented air, and asked for a bottle of hair oil. “He could always just go right up to people,” says Lurleen. “He had the prettiest brown eyes, and the way he’d cut up. I remember liking him from the start.”
Their courtship was quiet and perfunctory — rides in the drab, sallow light of buses, into town to the Bama Theater for a picture show, chill autumn nights out on her front porch, Sunday afternoon dinners with her family. He was living in a Tuscaloosa boardinghouse then, a small, tense, wiry youth, as thin and quick as a ferret, voraciously ambitious, with only one pair of baggy pants and a borrowed coat and perhaps two white shirts, and Lurleen remembers, “He ate quite a lot when he came over to our house.” She says, “Even then, he was talking politics all the time. That’s what seemed to be really occupying his mind. He was already talking about running for governor. While we were dating, people wanted to know why he wasn’t in the service, and this bothered him. He was nervous about that. It worried him a lot.”
Finally, Wallace’s orders arrived. On a cold night on her front porch, shortly before he was to report for induction, he proposed. He returned a few months later in uniform, and they were married on a bright noon in May, by a justice of the peace in a dim, musty office in a downtown Tuscaloosa office building, with the windows open to the warm Hush of the spring day. Afterward, with Lurleen’s mother, they went downstairs to the H. & W. Drug Store on the street level, had Cokes and chicken salad sandwiches, and then walked to the train depot and caught a train for Montgomery. There, they visited with Wallace’s mother for a few hours. They spent their wedding night in a Montgomery boardinghouse, in a bleak room with a linoleum floor, a large iron frame bed, and a naked light bulb dangling from a cord in the center of the ceiling.
BEFORE Wallace went overseas, they passed through a succession of brief and shabby tenancies in large, alien cities; their first night in one town, after the first child had been born to them, they had to sleep on a stranger’s front porch in the numbing cold, keeping the baby warm between them, in Alamogordo, New Mexico, they dwelt for a while in a plank chicken house with a concrete floor and a small heater and a hot plate. And when Wallace returned from the war and was elected to the legislature, they lived in the boardinghouse where they had spent their wedding night — in the same room. The other rooms were filled with railroad workers, and Lurleen remembers, “I had to do all my washing in the bathroom down the hall that everyone used.”
During those days, says Lurleen, “George used to slow up and wait for me when we were walking. He used to, but he doesn’t now. It was a long time ago. He just seemed to get out of the habit . . .”
She drinks coffee obsessively and manfully. Since becoming governor, she has also begun to smoke raggedly, incessantly, carrying her pack of Benson & Hedges in a demure cigarette case in her hand wherever she goes. “We been worrying about it a little bit,” says one of Wallace’s aides. “She really ought to cut down some on those cigarettes. Why, when she goes to make a speech, she’s stubbing out a cigarette when she gets up to talk, and as soon as she’s done, as soon as she’s finished shaking hands, she’s grabbed another one out of her pack, and she’s lighting it up.” She seems to be constantly, rigidly afraid that she is going to do something wrong, make a wrong move, blurt out the wrong thing. She is brittle and tautly on guard before newsmen, and Wallace’s people have, so far, carefully shielded her from political interviews and dialogues. It’s as if, having been a private and nonpolitical person for most of her life, she is simply accustomed to delivering the direct and flat-footed truth and has not yet mastered the calm, intricate minuet of evasion and equivocation and sanctitude at which natural politicians are more or less adept. She reads all her speeches. Visibly uncomfortable as she is with conversations that have to do with anything other than her family and the business of running a household, she did nt>t want to attend the conference of governors that President Johnson called last spring in Washington, and Wallace had to reassure her, “Now, honey, they not going to ask you to stand up and give your ideas about Vietnam or the balance of payments; all you got to do is just sit there and listen, that’s all.” Left, then, with little more than a figurine to analyze, some of the press, most notably the women’s magazines, have indulged in wry little smiles about her dress and drawl, and Wallace has affected a politically effective indignation about such stories: “They say she didn’t dress right out there in California. Well, I’ll tell you, if she dressed like some of them . . .” But for her part, she has maintained a brave, if slightly baffled, cheerfulness about the articles. “It’s all just part of politics,” she proposes.
Her political notions are a dutiful one-dimensional duplication of her husband’s—in sum, rather on the order of an essay on states’ rights that might be entered in a local high school contest sponsored by the D.A.R. In fact, she seems puzzled that anyone would inquire about her political beliefs. Asked once what figures in history had made the greatest impact on her, she answered, after a long pause, “Well, I suppose the women of the South who fought such hardships and tried to hold things together back during the War Between the States, and that period afterward.” A little later, asked what books had been most important in her life, she replied, “Well, I suppose those stories on women of the South and the hard role they played back during the War Between the States and Reconstruction.”
While her performance as governor has been mostly confined to such duties as appearing at plant dedications, riding in a jeep during military academy reviews, presenting honorary plaques, and receiving curious visitors from out of state in her office, she has nevertheless taken it all with a certain degree of seriousness. She has reported to the governor’s office early in the morning and usually departed only late in the day. “If there is any change in my administration,” she declared in her inaugural address, “it will not be a change of policy or priorities, but rather one of attitude. . . . It will be an attitude reflecting an inner feeling of a wife and a mother.” It has, in a sense, worked out that way: when she visited a state mental institution recently, walking from room to abject room with her official entourage following respectfully after her, her face went white, there came over her a mute and stricken and withdrawn astonishment, and her eyes blurred with tears. What she would do with such random discoveries, and the impulses they create in her, has been the only real and interesting question posed by her ascension.
The speculation that she might prove more assertive than her husband or his advisers ever reckoned on, while irresistible, was really fanciful. She is not so naive a girl as to forget it was her husband who put her where she is, that the people elected her as a stand-in for him, and that without him she would be absolutely lost and helpless in the office. What’s more, if she had tried to take over the show, she would have seemed to the people of Alabama, not to mention herself, surpassingly unladylike. Finally, such a stunt simply isn’t part of the nature of such a woman. She has submitted to everything, surrendered even herself to her husband’s furious public compulsion, much as an evangelist’s or missionary’s wife might, after so many years, surrender herself to attend her husband’s obsessive communion with God, thereby accepting her own diminishment. This summer she suffered a recurrence of cancer, leaving serious doubt about whether she will be able to return to the governor’s office.
In the process of her surrender, she also arrived at a kind of solitary contented affection for her husband: she seems genuinely to dote on him as she defers to him. On the morning of the general election last fall — what should have been one of the most important hours in her life — the two of them rode down from Montgomery to Clayton to vote, and Wallace chattered ceaselessly and jubilantly in the back seat the whole length of the drive, seeming only incidentally aware of Lurleen beside him.
“You got to bed mighty late last night,” he teased her once; “you should have been in bed earlier than you were.” She protested that she had spent the time tucking in the younger children.
“Yeah,” he continued, “and at that rally last night, you didn’t introduce me right. You shoulda introduced me as governor. I was shocked when you said George. You said, ‘And now I give you your governor and my husband, George.’ I was shocked.” She only leaned back in the seat and turned her face away, gazed out of the window with a steady, patient little smile on her face. But he did not notice; he was perched on the edge of his seat, still talking, with his smail stubby hands braced on the back of the seat in front of him, where a reporter was riding.
On one occasion he paused to study some workmen at the side of the road, and observed, “Why, four of those fellows could handle 250 Harvard professors, you know it? Kind of folks been showing up at my rallies, they the people that fought the Civil War. The common folks — they didn’t have any slaves, most didn’t have any atall. They just fought. Look athere — see over yonder? You take just a plain ole dirt farmer like that plowing behind his mule in some field in Chilton County, he knows just by instinct, just by having lived with folks, more than all those professors know. He knows when you can trust somebody and when you can’t. He knows what it takes to get people to act right; it takes a whapping them up the side of the head, that’s what.”
He was asked if he would have liked to live during the Civil War years, and he mused, “Well, of course, there was something romantic and intriguing about the war down here in the South, and you think sometimes you would have liked to been around to see what was going on”; and all the while he was toying with an answer, still not quite sure about the import of the question, Lurleen, leaning back in the seat and looking directly at the reporter, was nodding silently, affirmatively, and proudly, compressing a smile, without his seeing her. The rest of the way down to Clayton, he continued to orate, as Lurleen, who that day was to be elected governor of Alabama, wordlessly and tenderly and steadily picked invisible pieces of lint from his sleeves and brushed dandruff from his shoulders.