George Wallace is the most important failed American presidential candidate of the 20th century. He rose to national prominence during the first of his four official terms as governor of Alabama (there was also the term served by his first wife, Lurleen, when state law prohibited him from a third consecutive run at the office) by fulfilling a promise made to a group of state senators: "I'm going to make race the basis of politics in this state, and I'm going to make it the basis of politics in this country." His commitment to the racial segregation he believed the people of Alabama wanted, when taken to the national level, led to the articulation of a conservative working-class voter demographic that was eventually harnessed by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 elections and without which the candidacies of Ross Perot and Patrick Buchanan would seem much less plausible.
Marshall Frady's Wallace is more than a political biography; it is a portrait in words. It crackles with the liveliness of Wallace on the Alabama campaign trail, capturing the feel of an era in which Southern politicians could still publicly refer to black Americans with a certain word without the slightest trace of self-consciousness. There are some remarkable passages within, including a conversation in which Governor Wallace tries to put Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy on the spot as to the potential deployment of federal troops to enforce the integration of the University of Alabama. Readers will also learn that, for all his racial demagoguery--of which he would repent late in life--Wallace was in many ways a rather liberal statesman, launching massive social programs, and in every way a canny politician despite appearances. --Ron Hogan