I HAD ARRIVED LATE FOR A RALLY in the south Alabama town of Robertsdale on the first day of George Corley Wallace's 1970 campaign for governor. Late on that early-spring evening, some 5,000 Alabamans -- all white, predominantly male, and many wearing bib overalls -- turned out for fried fish and Wallace's oratory. He had just begun speaking when I tried to slip in unobtrusively.

But Wallace spotted me. "There he is!" he said in his patented sarcastic drawl. "The man from the Washington Post! Now why do you think they send these liberal columnists all the way down here to Robertsdale, Alabama? They know our movement is at stake, and they come here to see it die. I want this effort to continue! The eyes of the country are on you! You have the power in your hands!" His audience turned, thousands of malevolent eyes glaring at me.

"Were you scared?" Wallace asked me later that evening as I rode with him to his next stop. Like so many journalists, I had been made a prop in his political campaign.

The polls showed Wallace running behind his erstwhile protege, Gov. Albert Brewer, in his effort to regain the governorship. Wallace explained to me that night he had to convince Alabama voters that they needed Wallace as governor to serve as a watchdog to make sure that unreliable rascal, President Richard M. Nixon, did not drift in the direction of that liberal governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller.

It worked. Wallace in Alabama in 1970 replayed his 1968 independent presidential candidacy by assailing Wall Street, the national news media, international corporations, academia, and the U.S. Senate, all categorized as "pointyheads."

Was it play-acting? Wallace did have a reflexive populistic resentment of the liberal elites. But it is going a little far to describe him, as did some obituaries last week, as a forerunner of both the Nixon and Reagan majorities, and a midwife of political realignment. Wallace discarded populism with ease in his declining years.

Certainly, he was never a conservative. He had been a big-government, bread-and-butter politician who largely ignored the race issue in 1958 when he lost his first run for governor to a segregationist. He then vowed never to be "outsegged" again. He never was. But in frequent off-the-record conversations with him over 20 years, I never heard the crude racism that frequently characterized his entourage. He often described his heartfelt commitment to school segregation, but after blacks started voting in Alabama, he piously declared he had been wrong. I really doubt he cared very much about the issue one way or the other.

What he cared about was politics. Pressed by Lyndon Johnson's Justice Department to integrate schools, Wallace lashed back by challenging LBJ proxy candidates in 1964 primary elections outside the South. He did so well that he concocted a grandiose scheme for 1968 that, typically, left strategic loose ends. He would run as a third-party candidate, balanced between Republicans and Democrats, dead-locking the Electoral College and sending the presidential election to the House of Representatives, where Wallace figured anything might happen.

As the candidate of his own American Independent party, Wallace in 1968 offered more than "segregation forever." He anticipated Ronald Reagan in appealing to the northern working man, sick of racial unrest but also bitter toward anti-war protesters and feeling betrayed by his labor union and the Democratic party. Wallace went north with a dozen Alabama labor leaders in his entourage, praised the recently assassinated Robert F. Kennedy, and called for an end to tax exemptions for giant foundations so "you could lower the working man's tax." But he committed a monumental error. He wanted as his running mate Albert B. (Happy) Chandler of Kentucky, former governor, former senator, and former commissioner of baseball. A good-ol'-boy Democrat, Chandler would have enhanced the ticket's populism. Right-wing ideologues bankrolling Wallace vetoed Chandler as too "liberal," particularly on race. Wallace picked a Republican: Curtis LeMay, the legendary "bomb 'em back to the Stone Age" Air Force general.

At an early-October press conference in Pittsburgh when Wallace finally unveiled LeMay, reporters deftly led the cigar-chomping aviator into a rambling discussion of atomic warfare. I shall never forget the excruciating pain on Wallace's face when LeMay suggested nuclear annihilation was no worse than death from a rusty Bowie knife. That night at a rally in Toledo, Secret Service agents shielded LeMay from reporters eager to resume their philosophical dialogue. The general was seen no more the rest of the campaign.

Early the next morning at his Toledo hotel, I dropped by Wallace's suite to ask him about LeMay. He kept me for close to two hours, raging that the "damn Republicans" had foisted on him "an idiot" who would not appeal to the working man. Even so, Wallace came tantalizingly close to depriving Nixon of enough northern support to block a majority of the Electoral College. Wallace always claimed, incorrectly, that he was responsible for Humphrey's not being elected. In fact, he almost helped Humphrey beat Nixon.

In his seminal 1969 book The Emerging Republican Majority, Kevin Phillips was the first to figure out that Wallace "tapped rather than shaped a protest," that his party's supporters were "in motion between major parties" and not a new political force. As a young Nixon campaign staffer in 1968, Phillips tried hard to get the Republican candidate to match Wallace's hard-edged rhetoric appealing to the alienated lower-income American. Nixon would not do it, but neither would those voters go back to the Democratic party. Wallace's 1968 voters were destined to become part of Ronald Reagan's Republican party, while Wallace would go back to being a conventional post-segregation southern Democrat.

In the week he was shot and forever disabled, Wallace captured the working man's vote to win the Michigan and Maryland Democratic primaries. "If I was on my feet," he told me years later, he would have been on the 1972 Democratic ticket. That was delusional. Crippled or not, he had no place in the National Democratic party. His chance had come and gone in 1968.

It was a long goodbye for George Wallace. In 1978, he decided not to run for the Senate -- unwilling, he told me, to drag "my half-dead body" around the Capitol. Yet, he ran and won for governor again and again, in 1970, 1974, and 1982. He ended up as the candidate of labor unions, school teachers, and trial lawyers -- a typical Democrat who survived in the newly Republican Deep South because he was remembered as the populist of bygone days.

Robert D. Novak is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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