Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr. "The Wallace Crusade"
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Taped on January 24, 1968
Mr. Buckley had sharply criticized Mr. Wallace in print, both for his once-adamant attachment to segregation and for his New Deal statism, and Mr. Wallace came on Firing Line determined not to give an inch. Wallace: "Name one thing in Alabama that I have supported on the governmental level that you are against." Buckley: "You want the state to take care of hospitalization, you want the state to take care of old people, you want the state to take care of the poor." Wallace: "Are you against caring for the poor and the old? . . . I might say that no conservative in this country who comes out against looking after destitute elderly people ought to be elected to anything." Buckley: "You call yourself a populist, right?" Wallace: "If you mean by a populist a man of the people, yes, I'm a populist. Let's get back to the old-age pension. Let's see, you're against Alabama's looking after the elderly destitute citizens of the state?" (The following month, Mr. Wallace would declare his third-party candidacy for President.)
Summary by Firing Line Staff
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The premise of the debate is Buckley's contention that Wallace isn't really a conservative, and that his conservatism is merely a ploy to support segregation. In support of this Buckley cites various social programs in Alabama which Wallace supports, such as pensions for the old and destitute. Wallace points out that these programs were only established after unsuccessful attempts were made to put this burden on children, who could not be found. Buckley then concedes that under those circumstances the pensions are acceptable to conservatives.
Wallace also points out that the South has traditionally suffered economic discrimination far beyond Reconstruction, particularly in the federally mandated transportation tariffs which essentially placed a large tax on goods being shipped out of the South while providing a subsidy for those being shipped into the South. As such, Wallace said he had no qualms over the fact that Alabama was accepting federal money, although he made it clear that the thought the federal government should eventually be removed as a middleman by converting first to block grants to the states, which would be phased out and the tax burden shifted to the individual states who would have the responsibility to provide these services.
I found especially interesting Wallace's repeated challenge to Buckley to "Tell me something that we're doing in Alabama that you don't like." Buckley seemed to be unable to identify any Alabama specific spending program that was absolutely unacceptable under conservative doctrine.
Many people are under the impression that George Wallace was running on a segregationist platform in 1968 and thereafter. This was not the case. Desegregation had already taken place; the issue was whether the federal government would impose forced busing and other extreme measures in an effort to achieve "perfect" integration. Wallace was opposed to these extreme measures. The federal courts went absolutely nuts with plans designed to make the lives of white students miserable, and whites fled en masse; the result is that our schools are far more segregated today, with virtually no way to integrate them. You can't have integration without white people. If Wallace or his views had prevailed in 1968, we might not have full and "perfect" integration in our schools, but in all likelihood we wouldn't have the almost total segregation that now exists.
Given the current political climate, I found this exchange refreshing in the way two people who disagreed strongly could still be civil even when they reached the point of anger or frustration. It's worth a one-hour investment of your time, and for a younger generation who have never heard Buckley or Wallace speak at length, this is your chance.
Wallace is mostly known for being a segregationist Democrat of old. However, it is probably fair to say he was wrongly characterized by elite media in large cities in the Northeast. Wallace denies being a racist and says the much-maligned actions he took in Alabama to enforce segregation were overblown by the media. He also says, interestingly, that more race riots and social problems happen in the North and West than in the South.
Then we move on to Buckley challenging Alabama's receipt of disproportionate amounts of federal aid. Wallace defends by saying the money went to help the poor, specifically poor and elderly black families. He also states that the reason Alabama is poor is in part due to unfair trading & commerce laws against the South, laws from the anti-South Reconstruction period after the Civil War, laws which are still in existence "today," i.e. the late 1960s.
To me it is clear that Wallace is a good lawyer, good populist and defender of the South. He has a clear historical disdain for northerners, especially northern Republicans in the style of Rockefeller and Buckley. He believes they (a) want to deny altruistic federal aid to poor Alabamans, and (b) have bought into the media's absurd characterizations of social conditions in the South. In the final analysis, Wallace was a "New Deal" Democrat who likely tried to do a great deal for the poor, who voted for Roosevelt and Kennedy, but who also profited himself, surely politically and possibly economically.