Letters and Politics

The Political Legacy of George Wallace

With Dan Carter, professor emeritus of history at the University of South Carolina and author of The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics.

And Michael Cohen, Boston Globe Columnist and author of the forthcoming book American Maelstrom: The 1968 Election and the Politics of Division.

About The Politics of Rage:

Combining biography with regional and national history, Dan T. Carter chronicles the dramatic rise and fall of George Wallace, a populist who abandoned his ideals to become a national symbol of racism, and later begged for forgiveness. In The Politics of Rage—an integral source for the three-hour documentaryGeorge Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire, to air in April 2000 as part of PBS’s prestigious series The American Experience—Carter argues persuasively that the four-time Alabama governor and four-time presidential candidate helped to establish the conservative political movement that put Ronald Reagan in the White House in 1980 and gave Newt Gingrich and the Republicans control of Congress in 1994. In this second edition, Carter updates Wallace’s story with a look at the politician’s death and the nation’s reaction to it and gives a summary of his own sense of the legacy of “the most important loser in twentieth-century American politics.”

About American Maelstrom: 

In his presidential inaugural address of January 1965, Lyndon Johnson offered an uplifting vision for America, one that would end poverty and racial injustice. Elected in a landslide over the conservative Republican Barry Goldwater and bolstered by the so-called liberal consensus, economic prosperity, and a strong wave of nostalgia for his martyred predecessor, John Kennedy, Johnson announced the most ambitious government agenda in decades. Three years later, everything had changed. Johnson’s approval ratings had plummeted; the liberal consensus was shattered; the war in Vietnam splintered the nation; and the politics of civil rights had created a fierce white backlash. A report from the National Committee for an Effective Congress warned of a “national nervous breakdown.”

The election of 1968 was immediately caught up in a swirl of powerful forces, and the nine men who sought the nation’s highest office that year attempted to ride them to victory-or merely survive them. On the Democratic side, Eugene McCarthy energized the anti-war movement; George Wallace spoke to the working-class white backlash; Robert Kennedy took on the mantle of his slain brother. Entangled in Vietnam, Johnson, stunningly, opted not to run again, scrambling the odds. On the Republican side, 1968 saw the vindication of Richard Nixon, who outhustled Nelson Rockefeller, Ronald Reagan and George Romney, by navigating between the conservative and moderate wings of the Republican Party. The assassinations of first Martin Luther King, Jr., and then Kennedy seemed to push the country to the brink of chaos, a chaos reflected in the Democratic Convention in Chicago, a televised horror show. Vice President Hubert Humphrey emerged as the nominee, and, finally liberating himself from Johnson’s grip, nearly overcame the lead long enjoyed by Nixon who, by exploiting division and channeling the national yearning for order, would be the last man standing.

In American Maelstrom, Michael A. Cohen captures the full drama of this watershed election, establishing 1968 as the hinge between the decline of political liberalism, the ascendancy of conservative populism, and the rise of anti-government attitudes that continue to dominate the nation’s political discourse. In this sweeping and immersive book, equal parts compelling analysis and thrilling narrative, Cohen takes us to the very source of our modern politics of division.

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