"George Wallace" is a useful shorthand today for a certain era and mindset -- a two-word metonym second only to Jim Crow for evoking the segregationist south of the post-World War II era.
Less well remembered, especially by a younger generation who didn't live through it, is Wallace's late-career transformation. After becoming a born-again Christian, Wallace apologized to civil-rights leaders and voiced serious regrets about his policies as Alabama governor in the 1960s: "I was wrong. Those days are over and they ought to be over." In 1982, he ran for and won yet another term as governor, during which he showed his repentance wasn't just talk: Wallace championed equal voting rights and had two black cabinet members, a record that has been equalled but not passed. If there are no second acts in American lives, there are at least codas, and Wallace had one of the more remarkable ones.
I thought about Wallace today when reading Andrew Sullivan's sharp slap at another ambitious former southern governor for his statement on the Supreme Court's DOMA ruling, which Sullivan said belongs to "the annals of chutzpah":
"By overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, the Court recognized that discrimination towards any group holds us all back in our efforts to form a more perfect union. We are also encouraged that marriage equality may soon return to California. We applaud the hard work of the advocates who have fought so relentlessly for this day, and congratulate Edie Windsor on her historic victory," -- former president Bill Clinton, who signed DOMA, insisted it was constitutional at the time, double-crossed the gay activists who originally funded him, ran ads in the South bragging of passing DOMA, doubled the rate of gay discharges from the military and signed the HIV travel ban into law.
A comparison between Clinton and Wallace is, at first blush, ridiculous. After all, even Clinton's staunchest critics simply accuse him of selling out principle for politics and opting not to do the right thing. Wallace, on the other hand, was the proactive figurehead for a certain kind of hateful racism, going out of his way to racebait. But bear with the parallel a bit. Just as Wallace's 1960s heyday came during the slow and steady march toward civil rights, Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 during what we can now see clearly as the early stages of a slow and steady march toward gay rights. It's those broad currents that may be best remembered by historians.