A From Borderland Nancy Schiesari be deafening \(one can imagine the redfaced indignation of William Safire and firms, among American politicians only the profoundly amoral, bottom-crawling Nixon was a match for the street-fighting, gutter-politics firebrand from Alabama. For many viewers it may come as a revelation that Wallace began his career as moderately populist judge, known for his respectful courtroom treatment of African Americans \(Negroes, in the polite term of that an establishment “liberal” in fifties Alabama was someone who didn’t consider lynching a first resort. The film returns several times to the aftermath of Wallace’s pivotal 1958 campaign for governor, when, defeated by an aggressively racist opponent, Wallace swore to a long-time aide that he would “never be outniggered again.” Given a choice between his own political ambition and even a modicum of social justice, the film confirms, Wallace didn’t hesitate. And he never looked back until old, broken, and ill, he called his longtime enemies \(even a still somewhat puzzled John Lewis, the freedom rider ness for his sins. Many, of course like the four black children murdered in a Birmingham church, in an atmosphere of vilely racist hysteria intentionally whipped up by Governor George Wallace were long dead. For them \(and their names are myrthem, no absolution. It’s abundantly clear the filmmakers despise George Wallace’s politics \(and they’ve said as much often in comments sense in which Wallace, in its historical sweep and attention to the man’s every private crisis and every canny public gesture, inevitably exalts him, as films tend to do. J.L. Chestnut, a black Alabama civil rights lawyer and an obviously generous man, speaks of the “tragedy” of George Wallace, the tragedy of a man of “great talent, great skill, great charm,” but “all focused in the wrong directions, in the pursuit of power for the wrong reasons.” But George Wallace was too small for tragedy, even as metaphor. It’s arguable, by contrast, that Lyndon Johnson was a truly tragic figure, since his downfall grew directly out of his doing, at terrible human cost, what he clearly believed was right. As this film makes clear, Wallace’s political career was founded upon the conscious choice to do what he clearly knew was evil to achieve power at the direct and brutal expense of his country’s weakest and most defenseless citizens. We need to try to un derstand that choice \(as this film honestly and thereby dishonor its victims. In his presidential campaigns, Wallace became the consummate confidence man, ringing the changes on the respectable code words for racial hatred states’ rights, law and order, private property, forced busing, welfare and was always answered by a waving sea of Confederate battle flags. It’s no accident that the flags are still waving, in this presidential year. We have yet to exorcise our most persistent \(and most tainly not first conjured or put to rest by George Wallace. I strongly recommend this film, and with it an extraordinary essay, “The Least of These,” by Paul Stekler’ s U.T.Austin colleague, Horace Newcomb, published in the March 10 Austin Chronicle. Newcomb’s wise memoir of those terrible years fully comprehends they are not over: George Wallace was and there is clear irony here the black hole of American racism, sucking to himself the contamination, the dread of difference on which the nation has structured itself This defilement was the source of his power and energy. He plastered over a fundamental fault in our cultural foundation with a malevolent and vicious claim of patriotism. And for a short time he was the emblem, the spectacle making clear that the corruption in which he trafficked was not “Southern” at all, but was an American vein so wide and deep it still debases those who would mine it. That we have traveled so short a distance from where he stood is, for me, evidence of his true legacy. At the other end of the sixties’ cultural spectrum was Abbie Hoffman, the manic bundle of rebellious energy who is the subject of Steal This Movie!, a fictional version of Abbie’s irrepressible and too short life. Undeniably a noble effort, directed by Robert Greenwald from a script by Bruce Graham \(Hoffman’ s longtime pro bono defense lawyer, Gerry Lefcourt, gets a proFramed by the hoary device of a journalist MARCH 31, 2000 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 31
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