Stephan Lesher
Stephan Lesher
George Wallace: American Populist
ISBN: 0201622106
George Wallace: American Populist
Stephan Lesher discussed his book, "George Wallace: American Populist," published by Addison-Wesley. He discussed populism and why Mr. Wallace fits this description. The focus of his book is the political activity and accomplishments of Mr. Wallace.
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George Wallace: American Populist
Program Air Date: February 27, 1994

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Stephan Lesher, you call this "George Wallace, An American Populist." What is a populist?
STEPHAN LESHER, AUTHOR, "GEORGE WALLACE: AMERICAN POPULIST" A populist, at least in the traditional sense, is someone who supports the issues that were important to farmers, important to the little man, if you will, small business people, and cared about educational programs, health programs. The Populist Party didn't have a very long life in this country, but those issues were the ones that they were pushing for in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The party faded away but the issues did not.
LAMB: George Wallace, where is he today?
LESHER: He's in Montgomery. He is very ill, but, believe it or not, he got himself to a mall in Montgomery, Ala., just the day before yesterday to actually come down to a book signing of my book, a book which says some pretty rough things about him. It suggests that he was just almost sinfully neglectful of his family in pursuit of his own goals. The notion that he was never a racist, of course, was totally preposterous, but yet he comes down to the mall and signs what turned out to be around 600 [copies] of this book, and I believe it was because of the political legacy that I posit as my essential thesis for the book and that he so desperately wants to be remembered for something other than race that he got himself out and sat there from 11:15 in the morning to 2:00 in the afternoon without a break, until finally the pain and discomfort got too much and he was taken on home.
LAMB: What is he like today?
LESHER: He is stone deaf. It's very difficult for him to talk, but again, he's been doing interviews recently with the New York Times and other newspapers. He's in pain. He has Parkinson's Disease. I think the deafness has been almost as debilitating as the incessant pain that he has from his 1972 wounds, because he was a telephone person. He was constantly grabbing the phone and talking to aides and talking to newsmen and politicians. His hearing has totally deteriorated. He is now stone deaf and can't do that anymore. I think psychologically that's been almost as difficult for him as the pain.
LAMB: To the person who's never heard of him, give us a thumbnail sketch. Who is he?
LESHER: I think the first image and the lasting image that you have of George Wallace is a feisty little bantam rooster, jutting his chin out, curling his lip and saying to the federal government, "Thou shall not pass. You shall not put black people into the University of Alabama or into our schools." He is a man who, nonetheless, had this Populist agenda that went beyond race and identified very, very strongly with the issues which today are getting a lot of attention from the president of the United States. Listening to the State of the Union message recently, hearing the president talking tough on crime, tough on welfare, defending taxing the super-rich, he didn't use the expression; that was George's favorite expression and talking about the need for young people who are not bound for college to get educational support, there is a still, small voice that kept whispering in my ear, and if I may do my little imitation, "They're all saying now what I was saying back then." Wallace said those words to me in one of our interviews, actually, before George Bush was president, so he wasn't talking about Bush or Clinton. But in my view, every successful presidency, every successful presidential campaign, starting with Nixon's in 1968, was based on, as a defining issue, an issue that first was identified and articulated and popularized by George Wallace and issues that are now quite mainstream.
LAMB: Where was he born?
LESHER: He was born in the little town of Clio, Ala., in Barbour County which is in southeast Alabama. It was one of the most violent counties during the period of reconstruction in Alabama, and he grew up with that tradition of incipient dislike, if not downright hatred, for the North; the sense that the North had imposed poverty and ignorance on the South during and following the Civil War. He grew up and he read books that I read textbooks in school which talked about the sins of carpetbaggers and scalawags. A great deal of hyperbole, but that's what he learned in school as a kid, and so he had that built-in resentment that most Southerners, deep Southerners, anyway, had for the North during that time.
LAMB: Where are you from?
LESHER: I'm a New Yorker, but I got my first newspaper job in Montgomery, Ala., and coincidentally and, I guess, fortuitously, I became a reporter in Montgomery just a few months before Mrs. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery to a white man. I was the police reporter, was the way we said it, and because I was the police reporter, I got to cover the whole Montgomery bus boycott from its inception until the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed inter-city segregation on inter-city transportation.
LAMB: What year did you go to Montgomery?
LESHER: That was April of 1955 that I went there. December of 1955 is when the bus boycott began.
LAMB: What is the first thing that you can remember after arriving in Montgomery?
LESHER: I remember it very well. I checked into the YMCA with my one little bag of worldly possessions, went and introduced myself to the people at the newspaper across the street and started walking around town and spotted a movie theater. The marquee said a movie was playing, and I remember it, "The Silver Chalice," starring Paul Newman. I had just finished the book. It was a historical novel by Thomas Costain. I said, "Oh, boy, I didn't know they made a movie out of that." I went to buy a ticket. The lady in the booth was a black lady, and she looked startled and excused herself. She brought out the manager, who was black. It was a black theater. They wouldn't admit me. That was my introduction to Montgomery. I learned about segregation in kind of a backwards way.
LAMB: How long did you stay there?
LESHER: I was in Montgomery about a year and a half. I then went to the newspaper in Columbus, Ga., which is right on the Alabama border, so I continued covering some Alabama politics, including Wallace's first run for governor in 1958 which he lost to John Patterson. He lost it because by those standards at that time he was considered too moderate on the issue of segregation. He ran again four years later and he became a little more strident at that time.
LAMB: How many different offices did he win during his political career?
LESHER: He was a state legislator and was considered one of the most farsighted state legislators in the state, and voted so by the press at the time, for introducing and getting through education advancement bills, building trade schools for both white and blacks separate, of course, but three for white and two for black. He then became a judge in his home county of Barber County, Ala., where he got a reputation as being extremely solicitous of blacks who were seeking redress in his court. There is a very well-known civil rights leader from Selma, Ala., an attorney named J. L. Chestnut, who wrote a book not too many years ago in which he recalled being in Judge Wallace's court. They were seeking some redress from a large white-owned, white-run, Southern company. The attorney kept referring to Chestnut and his clients as "those people" rather pejoratively, "those people" want this, "those people" say that. According to Chestnut, Wallace stopped him and directed him. "From now on," he said, "when you refer to Mr. Chestnut and you refer to his clients, you will call them by name or not refer to them at all." Chestnut went on to say that that was the first time a white man in Alabama had called him "mister."
LAMB: Let me ask you first, when did you decide that you wanted to write a book about George Wallace?
LESHER: Toward the end of his last term, which would have made in sometime in late 1985 or early 1986.
LAMB: How many times was he governor?
LESHER: He was governor four times. His wife, Lurleen, was elected for what would have been a fifth Wallace term except she died about halfway through her term. So I'd say he ran the state for four and a half terms altogether.
LAMB: How many times did he run for president?
LESHER: He ran for president in 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976. If you're counting, that's four.
LAMB: How many times was he married?
LESHER: Three.
LAMB: How many children did he have?
LAMB: Today, does he live with family, or where does he live?
LESHER: He is alone, very much so. His first wife died, she was governor Lurleen Wallace and died while in office. His second wife, Cornelia, was with him when George was shot in 1972 in Maryland and stayed with him, actually, on through 1978 when they finally split in a rather acrimonious divorce.
LAMB: While you're talking about it, I want to hold up a picture of Cornelia Wallace. The first one was Lurleen.
LESHER: Right. Quite different personalities. Lurleen was really the homemaker type wife, mother type. Cornelia, much more outgoing, much more politically savvy and quite the helpmate, if you will, in his 1972 political campaign.
LAMB: Where is she today?
LESHER: She is living mostly with her mother. She had some serious difficulties with alcohol and some emotional instabilities, was in an institution for some time and treated, and she's been back out and it's been kind of quiet now. But she did have some pretty difficult times emotionally, which I deal with somewhat in the book.
LAMB: How about the third wife?
LESHER: Miss Lisa Taylor is a country-western singer who, in fact, as a 19-year-old, she and her sister entertained at Wallace political rallies. She said she always loved him. After she was divorced and after Wallace's divorce from Cornelia, she began, according to the governor, pursuing him. They married before he decided to run for governor the last time. She couldn't stand public life, and when he did run for governor, finally, in 1982, she first moved out of the mansion after about a year into the little house that he still owned that George Wallace and Lurleen had owned, but didn't get a divorce until after he finally left office. Then they got a divorce in 1987.
LAMB: Now let me go back to that question: When did you first say to yourself that you wanted to write this book?
LESHER: Well, it was just about that time, just before Wallace announced that he would not run again. I began, in fact, making inquiries of his staff and of the governor himself, to see if he would be cooperative in doing a book. I just felt that his career was winding down, and I sensed that so many of the issues that had been so prominently identified with him were now going mainstream that I wanted to tell that story. The second part of what was changed was that he had in 1982 been elected to his final term as governor because of winning an overwhelming, well, I shouldn't say overwhelming, a large majority of the black vote in Alabama. Here was the symbol, the icon, of racism and segregation in our country who won office because he won the support of the black voters of Alabama. How did this come to pass? I wanted to kind of look into that story.
LAMB: As a matter of fact, you open the book up by talking about this meeting in, what was it, 1987?
LAMB: What was this meeting about?
LESHER: It was with Jesse Jackson. Jesse was about to open up his 1988 campaign for president, and he came into Alabama in the company of two local black ministers and George Wallace's son, George Wallace Jr., who was then state treasurer and still is state treasurer. He paid a call on Gov. Wallace, or ex-Governor Wallace at this time, to talk with him about issues. Of course, it was a publicity trip for Jackson, lots of photo opportunities and some discussion, and in that discussion Jackson made several statements suggesting how Wallace had changed, meaning on the race issue principally, and how he had done an awful lot of good for Alabama, particularly in some areas that Jesse Jackson was interested in education and helping the little man and the poor in the areas of health and welfare. So I thought that was a way to open the book, with this incredibly unusual meeting that would have just been unthinkable at the time, and then perhaps still at this time, but certainly in 1987 I think Jesse Jackson could come closest to laying claim as the successor to Martin Luther King as the leading black figure in America at that time.
LAMB: You grew up in New York. You went to school where?
LESHER: For a couple of years in Missouri, but then back to New York.
LAMB: At the University of Missouri?
LESHER: Yes, with the idea of going to the journalism school, but I never did. I finished school much later in North Carolina, about eight or nine years later in North Carolina, majoring in history.
LAMB: At the University of North Carolina?
LESHER: No, no. It was a little college named Salem College in Winston-Salem. I was working for the paper in Winston-Salem at that time. It was a morning paper, so I'd go to class in the morning and go to work at night. I spent about eight and a half years in the South with three different southern dailies, and then went on to Washington, DC, on a fellowship the American Political Science Association's congressional fellowship. I spent five years as a press secretary to a senator here in Washington.
LAMB: Which one? B: Birch Bayh of Indiana during his first term. He, as you might know, went on for three total terms and was defeated by Dan Quayle in his quest for his fourth term. Then I went with Newsweek magazine, first in the Atlanta bureau where I picked up Wallace again in 1970 covering his gubernatorial campaign, where I remember his wife had died in 1968 midway through her term. Wallace went on to run for president that year, but he needed to get to be governor again if he was going to have a platform to run for president in 1972. It was a breathlessly close race against the man who had been Lurleen's lieutenant governor, and he did win it in a run-off. He then went on to run, of course, in 1972 for president with both the triumph and tragedy, as I title that chapter, where at the time he was shot in Laurel, Md., in May of that year, he had far more popular votes than any other Democratic candidate, Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern being the next two contenders. He had won the Maryland primary, the Michigan primary and was getting pretty seriously considered as a real contender, amazing all the pundits, of which I was one at the time. Then, of course, I followed him through his rehabilitation. My day-to-day coverage or week-to-week coverage of him sort of trailed off after that.
LAMB: How long did you spend with Newsweek?
LESHER: A total of eight and a half years in Atlanta, Los Angeles, and ending up as chief legal affairs correspondent in Washington, getting here in March of 1973 about two weeks before James McCord informed Judge Sirica that Watergate went higher up. So I basically did that and nothing but that for the next couple of years Watergate, that is.
LAMB: What did you do after you left Newsweek?
LESHER: I tried to get rich. I went into a PR consulting business with Jerry Rafshoon who was one of President Carter's top advertising people. I had known Jerry from my Newsweek days in Atlanta and thought that together, with Carter now being president, that I might make a lot of money. The first of my four sons was just entering college and if I did a little math, I could figure out that the four boys were going to be in school simultaneously for two years, and I could see those bills. And I'd sort of reached the glass ceiling of salaries at Newsweek at that time, and I thought this was a great opportunity. I didn't get rich. We went at it for about five years, and I felt that I'd given it a shot. It didn't work. My wife and I moved on up to New York vicinity_ where I've been writing ever since.
LAMB: Writing what?
LESHER: Writing books, writing speeches for business executives, writing anything that will bring in some income and making a nice living, living about 50 miles north of New York City for the last 12 years.
LAMB: How many books have you published?
LESHER: This is my fifth.
LAMB: What were the others on?
LESHER: The first was on my own heart attack, called A Coronary Event. I had a heart attack when I was 38 years old, and together with my physician Michael Halberstam . . .
LAMB: David Halberstam's late brother.
LESHER: Yes, his older brother. Michael was sadly and tragically murdered by a burglar some years ago. We did a book which was essentially alternate chapters _what I thought about my illness, what the doctor thought about it. The two of us clashed rather regularly, but we both had a common enemy, the disease, and it did rather well. In fact, up to now it has probably done better than any of my other books. I hope this one will break that record. I did a book on lobbying, I did a book on the 16 years of the Warren court in collaboration with a constitutional law professor from NYU, Bernard Schwartz. And I did a book called Media Unbound which was well received but unfortunately not very well purchased a critique of modern journalism.
LAMB: The George Wallace book, you say in the back that you spent 35 sessions and 60 hours?
LAMB: Did you personally spend that time with George Wallace?
LESHER: We did it face to face, I'd say a total of about 12 hours. The rest was done long distance by sending questions with him taping his responses because by then, remember, he was getting very deaf.
LAMB: What years were you doing this?
LESHER: Our first face-to-face meeting was in late 1986. We met again several times in 1987, and then the last one would have been in mid-1990. But there were about six meetings altogether in Montgomery.
LAMB: Those 12 hours you spent face to face with him, how often did you say to yourself, "This is really something. I wish I had this on video tape"?
LESHER: Oh, what a good question. I guess I never did think in those terms. I was thinking in terms of the information I was getting. I did get it on audio tape. I thought frequently about how forthcoming he had decided to be, once I persuaded him that we should work together and he should cooperate, personally urge all of his friends, colleagues, intimates to cooperate with me, and give me access to all of his papers. Once he went along with that, he just opened up. For instance, not even his closest friends knew that Lurleen had asked him for a divorce on two occasions because he was absent so frequently. They didn't know that. But where did I get it from? I didn't knock down any walls or crawl under any houses. He told me about it and we went on and on in that vein in many areas of his personal life as well as his political life.
LAMB: What were some of the other things you remember from those conversations?
LESHER: Well, his description of his meeting with Lyndon Johnson in 1965 during the Selma crisis. It depends who you talk to as to who got the better of that meeting, although Wallace never claimed to get the better of it. He just maintained that the descriptions of the meeting by some of the president's assistants who were in and out of the meeting they included Nick Katzenbach and Richard Goodwin which were highly unfavorable to Wallace were just not true. But in the course of our conversation he started telling me how President Johnson would say, "Now, George, we don't want the press to think we've been talking just about the niggers for these last three and a half hours," then suddenly he stopped and he said, "Turn off the tape," and he didn't want me to use that term. He said, "I don't think he meant it pejoratively. I think he was trying to impress me with being one of the boys. But he used the term over and over again in our meeting." Well, I wanted to use it because I just wanted to depict that conversation as best and as honestly as I could. I knew people who knew President Johnson, and this was not something that sounded unusual. I met President Johnson on a few occasions. I didn't know him very well, but people would say, "This sounds exactly like Lyndon." Well, I had agreed with [Wallace] that in exchange for his full cooperation if something he said to me he wanted to change or take back, he would have that privilege. This was about the only thing I can remember that he asked me to do. As time went by, and by "time" I meant in this case about three or four years, the Goodwin book came out, and I saw how Dick had described the meeting and I knew it would infuriate Wallace. I [photocopied] the pages, I mailed them down to Alabama, and back came letters saying, "It didn't happen that way. Here is the way it happened as I remember it, and by the way, you can go ahead and say that Johnson used that word," and so it's in the book.
LAMB: Now, on page 332 you've got the transcript of it. Is this the way George Wallace remembered this?
LESHER: No. I put it together. As I explain in the book, it's piecing together what Nick Katzenbach said he remembered of the meeting, Richard Goodwin's description of the same meeting and Bill Jones's, who was in and out of that meeting Bill was Wallace's press secretary at the time and had been an old college chum of his and what Wallace remembered. Naturally, the president was no longer with us, but from those four sources I just pieced together as best I could wherever the facts tended to harmonize and put that piece together pretty well. Katzenbach, by the way, confirmed that the president did use words that were not particularly kind to African Americans.
LAMB: Do you think that President Johnson meant those words in the negative connotation?
LESHER: Well, it's hard for me even to think of that without that response. But no, not in the context. In the context I think Wallace had it right, that he was just trying to be a good old boy and just trying to show George that "you and I, George, see things together," and he was trying to push Wallace, as he did rather successfully, toward understanding that "we've got to try to get this Selma thing done as peaceably as possible."
LAMB: What was the Selma thing?
LESHER: The Selma thing was, of course, a huge voting rights demonstration that had been going on for months, centering on Selma, Ala., which had the harshest anti-voting regulations toward blacks of any county in the state. I said "regulations" probably not regulations, but they kept blacks from voting more stringently than anywhere in the state of Alabama and probably in the entire South. They had this tough sheriff, Jim Clark. Brutal would be the only way to fairly describe him in his behavior toward black demonstrators. Selma meant the effort to have blacks voting, and Martin Luther King used it to try to push Johnson into submitting a voting rights bill to Congress. Johnson didn't want to do it for about a year. They had just gone through riots and they had just gone through internal difficulties in Congress over the latest civil rights bill in 1964. Johnson wanted to wait a year. So they mounted the march the famous march _led by John Lewis, now a congressman, and some of King's aides and went to march over a bridge toward Montgomery to take their complaints directly to Gov. Wallace. They were met by state troopers and by local police on horseback, and "Bloody Sunday" ensued where people were pushed, beaten, knocked down, run over by horses. The pictures made international news and spurred the president to much more quickly introduce and send to Congress a voting rights bill with his famous speech in which he said that people have to overcome these problems and they will and, "We shall overcome," taking the words of the anthem that was part of the whole modern civil rights movement.
LAMB: You paint a picture of the Hosea Williams charge at Selma, correct me if I'm wrong about this, where you've got Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy in their own churches. Am I right about this?
LAMB: Reconstruct that.
LESHER: Right. King had left town, as had Abernathy. They were preaching on Sunday, and Hosea called up. They, in fact, pulled Abernathy out of his pulpit with Hosea saying, "We've got thousands of people ready to march. Give us the word. We want to go." And Abernathy said, "Well, let me talk to Martin." So he called Martin at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, and King was called out of the pulpit. They both agreed on the telephone that Hosea was probably exaggerating the numbers of people there were, in fact, that day about 500_but they said to one another, "You know, if we tell Hosea no, he's probably going to hate us forever as to what he might have done, and we know that he really wants the glory of getting the spotlight to do this thing, so," King said, "let him go." So Abernathy called him back and said, "Go ahead, Hosea," and Hosea just slammed down the phone and said, "I'm out of here," and the march was organized and then began across the bridge.
LAMB: 1965.
LESHER: Yes, sir.
LAMB: How old, if you can remember, at that time, were George Wallace and Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King and Hosea Williams and John Lewis and those people?
LESHER: Well, that's hard for me to do. Wallace would have been in his mid-40s. King would have been . . .
LAMB: He died at 39.
LESHER: Yes, and three years later, so that's right, he'd be in his mid-30s. Hosea was a little older, probably around 40. Ralph was a little older, in his mid-40s, I would guess. Not very old men. John was pretty young. John was probably in his late 20s.
LAMB: John Lewis, the congressman.
LESHER: Right. If that. What a hero, one of the true heroes.
LAMB: Why?
LESHER: He put his body in his head time after time, into situations in which he did, in fact, get clobbered rather brutally but always in pursuit of a just cause. He did it quietly. He never raised his fist against anyone. He believed thoroughly in non-violence. But he literally got beat up worse than anyone I can think of in the movement and just kept coming back for more. As a matter of fact, on that "Bloody Sunday" with what turned out to be a rather serious concussion and with blood dripping down on his head, he still went to the Brown Chapel, which was the church which was the principal meeting place for the marchers, still, to make a speech of exhortation, telling people not to quit. "We'll go back and we'll do it again." A real hero.
LAMB: George Wallace, in the 12 hours you spent with him did he ever become emotional?
LESHER: Yes. Talking about the death of his wife Lurleen still moves him to tears. She died a very painful death. Do you remember the pictures of Nixon just weeping uncontrollably at Pat's funeral? I think there was some of that same feeling that I think both felt about their respective wives, that perhaps they had asked much of them, and maybe too much of them, and they felt a special sorrow when they died.
LAMB: How old was she when they married?
LESHER: She was 16 and George was 10 years older. She was only 41 when she died. But she, as I say, died such a painful death.
LAMB: What kind?
LESHER: Cancer recurring malignancies. She had had a hysterectomy to remove some tumors, and 45 days later is when she announced her candidacy for governor of the state_45 days after the surgery. She had a recurrence, I'd say, four or five months into her term.
LAMB: Was she educated?
LESHER: Two years of college.
LAMB: Was he educated?
LESHER: Oh, yes. He has a law degree from the University of Alabama. He never really practiced law per se, he got it because it was a ticket to politics. Everything George Wallace did was politics. He remembers to this day and, of course, I record much of this in the book he name of the girl in third grade who nominated him for class president. He can tell you what every box in Barber County voted in every one of his elections, whether for president of the United States or for the state legislature, to this day, and he knows what his vote totals were in every statewide race. He can't give you state by state in the presidential elections, but he can come pretty close in round figures. It's just always been his life. It's second nature.
LAMB: What is he like to be around a lot?
LESHER: In his heyday it was a mixture of fun, but then finally it could wear you out. He was a non-stop talker, but there was just an electricity. He never sat still. I think I quote Jack Kilpatrick, the columnist, saying, "He's the only man I know who could strut sitting down," and he went on to say that he had spent 17 hours straight with Wallace and, he said, "That was like spending 17 hours in the middle of a jukebox." I could identify with that. And while, as I say, we had the 12 hours face to face in connection with this book, we had many other hours in the past when he was in his heyday, running for office. He was funny, he was magnetic, but the electricity of it could just captivate you. It was very hard to pull yourself away and try to remember what this man stood for in his heyday.
LAMB: Did he have a premonition that he was going to be shot?
LESHER: Yes. According to some journalist to whom he spoke in Michigan during that primary . . .
LAMB: What year?
LESHER: 1972. Before he came to Maryland he talked about his fear of getting shot and the likelihood that he could get shot. King was the same way. King for a long time felt he was going to get shot and talked about it a great deal. I did cover Martin Luther King, as well, in my earlier news days. I guess it's understandable. I guess they both realized that they were at the edge of something extremely controversial. Wallace still has the suspicion that there is some, perhaps, conspiracy out there, but my reporting and thousands of pages of FBI documents that I got through the Freedom of Information Act really don't indicate anything but one kook, as Wallace refers to him.
LAMB: You report in the book that Arthur Bremer had another target that he wanted to get to.
LESHER: He stalked President Nixon but he couldn't get to him, so he switched to Wallace which just, to me, adds to the validity of the concept that he acted alone and there was no conspiracy. The reason Wallace was thinking about a conspiracy is some reporting that Seymour Hersh did with the archivists in Washington, DC People who were going through the Nixon tapes that have not yet been released to the public, apparently I use the word advisedly because Sy Hersh was careful not to divulge his source in a piece he did for the New Yorker magazine apparently one of the archivists shared with him things that Nixon did and said on these tapes right after the shooting of George Wallace. What it was, was that Nixon immediately summoned Chuck Colson, his aide in the White House, and said, "Let's get somebody into that guy," meaning Bremer's apartment, "and plant some McGovern literature so they'll think that a liberal did the shooting," or a pro-McGovern person did the shooting. By the way, then Colson confirmed this with Hersh, so he confirmed that this happened beyond the tape. So, Colson went out and got Howard Hunt., Hunt had his bags packed, his ticket bought, when he learned he, [Hunt], that the FBI had already sealed the apartment off.
LAMB: This was in Milwaukee?
LESHER: Yes, Bremer's apartment in Milwaukee. Nixon's response was, "The FBI is usually so incompetent but now they do something right," and he was angry that they had actually sealed the place off before they could sneak in. My reaction to all of that was that even though I believe that Nixon knew nothing about what was going to happen one month later that Watergate, that's beside the point he was ready and ordered people to go into an apartment of a man who had taken a shot and nearly killed a presidential candidate. To me that's worse than anything Watergate brought out. I believe the story because of not only Hersh's usually assiduous reporting but also that Chuck Colson then later confirmed it.
LAMB: Where is Arthur Bremer today?
LESHER: He is in prison in Maryland and he will be, I guess, for about another 30 years.
LAMB: Did he ever talk about this?
LESHER: Never, never.
LAMB: Can you get to him?
LESHER: No, and I didn't try. I was so convinced by going through the papers that the FBI had sent to me that he was, and is or I shouldn't say is, because I don't know that but was mentally unstable, and that there was no conspiracy. The shooting to me was much more important as what it meant to George Wallace's career than what it meant in terms of the incident itself.
LAMB: This is jumping all around, but there is so much to ask you about. Do you think Hubert Humphrey would have ever made him his vice presidential candidate?
LESHER: I do. His people don't, Humphrey's people don't. I do because Hubert, like most people seeking high office in our country, was a real thorough-going politician. He did what he needed to do to win of course, within limits, but those limits did not include eschewing George Wallace because of a racial past. Humphrey had a bit of a racial past. If you read some of the words that are in the book, during the Florida primary of 1972 when he wanted to make his mark against school busing, he on "Meet the Press" used words like, "Children shouldn't be bused hither and yon to go from a good neighborhood into a poor one." Well, I mean, you just add a little Southern accent to that and you've got George Wallace, "bus these children hither and yon." [Humphrey] put radio commercials on in Florida talking about the welfare loafers on the beaches. He, as vice president, went down to Georgia and draped his arm around Lester Maddox who as a private citizen had threatened to shoot or club with a baseball bat any black who dared come into his restaurant which he owned at that time. If Hubert Humphrey did those things, and there is ample other evidence that I think I present in the book, offer George Wallace the vice presidency, and if the two could join forces to stop George McGovern's nomination, I believe he would have gone ahead with that plan.
LAMB: Back to your book signing ceremony with George Wallace a couple of days ago, did he tell you at that point if he'd read the book and what he thought of it?
LESHER: No. He was too busy signing. He would just turn to me every so often and tell me how he was feeling. But a local Montgomery reporter, a long-time reporter, Bob Ingram, who is someone who was a political reporter when I first joined the paper in April of 1955 and he is still there, did a piece which included an interview with me, his assessment of the book and interviews with Wallace. He raised the question in this article, Why would Wallace cooperate with this book when Lesher said all these bad things about him? Bob went on to say in his article, "The reason was clear when I went to visit him and I asked him that question and he said, 'Turn to a page toward the end of the book and read that passage out loud.'" That's the passage where I say, among other things, that no person was elected president of the United States between 1968 and 1992 without embracing some or many of issues that Wallace first had identified, articulated and popularized. That tells me he likes the book even though there is a lot there he prefer would not be there.
LAMB: "To the memory of my best pal and biggest fan, Jack McDonald, who stands before kings." That's your dedication. Who is Jack McDonald?
LESHER: Jack McDonald was a reporter in San Francisco. He was press secretary to Governor Pat Brown for a number of years. He lived in Washington, worked in the House for a number of years, then moved up to New York. We had known one another slightly while we lived in Washington, but really met one another living in the same area of Westchester County, NY, and became very, very good friends. Early on in this project when I was not quite sure if I could bring off something of this breadth, Jack did me the favor of reading the early chapters, and he is a great fan of biography and history. He just loved them, and the encouragement kept me going on. Unfortunately, Jack then developed a cancer and died not too long ago. I couldn't think of anyone who was more important to this project, as far as my personal feelings and sense and drive were concerned, than my old pal Jack.
LAMB: The cover you say is a picture by Joe Holloway. Who is he?
LESHER: Joe was an AP photographer, now retired, but was an award-winning, Associated Press photographer. He lived in Alabama, in Montgomery, for a long time and moved up to Atlanta. He's a born and lifelong Southerner, and much of his career was spent following George Wallace around during many of these campaigns. He just graciously made these photos available to us. I think you can see the man's talent right there.
LAMB: Why did you pick this particular one?
LESHER: Well, it wasn't my choice. I wish I could take credit, but I think it does clearly capture the combination of pugnacity and electricity that Wallace had _that sense of being in control and yet that sort of half sneer, half determined look on his face. I think it's just great. Plus, of course, the ever-present cigar.
LAMB: Does he still smoke?
LESHER: You know, he does. He's tended full time by a nurse and two black men whom he calls his friends, very simply, one of whom, Eddie Halsey, has been with him ever since the shooting in 1972 to dress him, to help him, to wash him, to move him around. I saw Eddie again at this book signing in Montgomery the other day, and the first thing he did was, I was signing books_he leans way over and he says two things: He says, "You're going to have to send me a book," and I say, "Okay, Eddie," and he said, "And he's still smoking them primo cigars," and so he's still doing it.
LAMB: Does he call him Heddie?
LESHER: He does. You're absolutely right. How did you know that?
LAMB: Well, I want to ask you something I've always wanted to ask somebody ever since I remember hearing Gov. Wallace. He used to call Hubert Humphrey "Mr. Humphrey."
LESHER: That's right.
LAMB: What is this? Did you ever ask him about this?
LESHER: No, I never did. I really can't say that it's a widespread Southernism_ I'm not sure. But he does drop his H's and then he'll add an H on top. I guess it's a little bit of reverse Cockney or something. I think Cockney does the same thing, doesn't it? But I don't know. That's not in the book, I'll have to admit, but everything else is.
LAMB: You give credit to Bill Nichols, congressman from Alabama. Why?
LESHER: He made a call which got me an office to work at the Library of Congress. As I say in the book in my acknowledgments, I was in researcher's heaven, or I guess I say pig heaven for a researcher. You work in a room, books are brought to you, you write out the little slips and they bring you the books. You leave them in the room. You don't have to send them back, and so you can come in every morning and there are your books for you. There are copying machines nearby, phones nearby, and it just was extraordinarily helpful in doing the amount of research that I undertook for this effort.
LAMB: Who can have those rooms? What's the law?
LESHER: Well, that's a good question. In fact, I don't even know if it's still available because they had some renovations shortly after I stopped using the room. It was also fun because I was sharing my room with Neil Sheehan, who was in the process of cutting some pages a lot of them, as a matter of fact from the book that was to win the Pulitzer Prize, A Bright and Shining Lie, and it was just kind of fun. Neil would generally come in and I would overlap, and then he'd leave. But there were two desks, so sometimes we'd work cheek by jowl. So you had company, so to speak, from time to time so you could take the occasional break from reading and writing and taking notes.
LAMB: How did you write it? What were the circumstances? Where did you write it, and what was the system that you used?
LESHER: I'm afraid even though the computer age is with us, I do write on a computer with a word processing program, but I went through, "Well, this time there is so much stuff, shall I put things down on cards?" and so on. Basically, what it would be is, I would decide what I was going to cover during this particular chunk of the book, then I would just spread the papers out all over the floor and go on my knees from chunk to chunk and piece to piece and find what I had to find. It's not a good way. I wouldn't recommend it to any up-and-coming writers in the audience. There are much better ways, I'm sure. It's just the only way I know how.
LAMB: Where did you do it?
LESHER: At home.
LAMB: In New York.
LESHER: Yes, in my home. We have a nice little office that my wife and I share, so that's where I did it all.
LAMB: And when did you finish the book?
LESHER: You know, we went so quickly from the end of the manuscript right into the editing that it's hard to really remember. But I guess it would have been probably the middle of last year, I would say.
LAMB: You talk in the acknowledgments about the papers, the memorabilia of George and Lurleen Wallace that, you had to, you used the word, "plow" through.
LESHER: Well, at least I felt at home, now that I've described my writing method to you. There was a lot of stuff. There were papers, all manner of correspondence, campaign paraphernalia, old wheelchairs, crutches, anything you can think of, and they were literally just piled up in the upper levels of the library at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. It was just that they hadn't the money to have anybody go through this and start cataloging it, so you had no idea where anything was, none at all. You just pulled drawers open, then you'd have to climb over chairs that were in the way. Then there were some steel girders or something that were lying about, strewn about, and you'd climb over stuff. But then you'd find some little scrapbook that one of the little Wallace children had kept as a little girl and some little notes that she wrote. You'd find letters that Lurleen had written to friends and relatives, and letters that were written to her. One of the problems with Wallace is that he is not a person of the written word. He had no correspondence that I could dip into, nothing personal and it was essentially a find when you could find something that was written down. And some letters that Cornelia had written about her romance with George, which was just terrific. So it did have some treasure, but it wasn't easy to plow through that stuff.
LAMB: This is a picture of Cornelia Wallace. Earlier you were talking about Lisa Taylor, thirty years younger. Where is she today?
LESHER: She is living in Montgomery. She, fortunately, is rather well off. Her father was in the engineering business, and I know left her fairly well-to-do. She has a little boy, but she's a very religious person, a born-again Christian. She and her young son still live together in Montgomery, and she is a very, very private person.
LAMB: What is George Wallace's relationship with his family, with his kids?
LESHER: Getting better.
LAMB: Was it bad at some point?
LESHER: Oh, absolutely, mostly with his son, George Jr., but the girls felt it, too. He was never around, and when Lurleen became governor neither of them was ever around. So it was very difficult on the kids, and they remember that. George [Jr.] has had some difficulties in his life. He's been married and divorced three times, and they've been three stormy marriages. But he seems to have settled down. As I say, he is the state treasurer of the state. He is running for lieutenant governor, and he and his father now are getting much closer. I think George's entry into politics has had a lot to do with that. They really have something to relate to one another, because George went through his long-hair period and his guitar period, and George Wallace Sr., well, George C. Wallace; Senior was his father and couldn't quite relate to that. You might recall. It's kind of interesting, people remember him as a racist and using code words when he would champion law and order or getting crime out of our streets. People used to think of that as code words for racism. Actually, at the time that he was using it he was pointing his finger as vigorously against the long-hair hippies, as he would call them predominantly white kids on college campuses as he was urban riots and inner city riots where predominantly black people were involved. Long-hairs were not his favorite thing, and George Jr. went through his period of that. I think they're much closer now.
LAMB: How many different people did you talk to for the book?
LESHER: Oh, I would think 150 or maybe 200.
LAMB: Who were a couple of the most memorable?
LESHER: Memorable of the people, well Bill Jones, his press secretary, was great for both he was also at college with George. That was excellent resource material and, of course, [Bill] was with him through the run through 1968, so Bill was a terrific resource. Nick Katzenbach, remembering the confrontation with George Wallace the confrontation in Tuscaloosa and then the Selma meeting between Lyndon Johnson and George was fun to talk to. Glenn Curley, another one of George Wallace's old chums, interestingly had a recollection of some things that transpired between Wallace and his nemesis, Frank Johnson, that Wallace disputed. Wallace had his version of events and Curley had his version of events. What we were talking about was when Wallace was a county judge. He tried to first get attention in the state and nationally by refusing access to voting records in Barber County, Ala., by any federal agent. He threatened to put them in jail if they tried to see his voting records. Well, Frank Johnson, who was a college pal, nonetheless became a federal judge and ordered Wallace to turn those papers over.
LAMB: Let me just interrupt because the time goes by so fast. Is Frank Johnson still alive?
LESHER: Oh, yes. He's sitting now on the court of appeals for, I think it's the fifth circuit, but they may have changed that.
LAMB: And there has been a book written about him.
LESHER: Oh, yes, at least one and maybe three.
LAMB: But those two went to college together.
LAMB: Pals?
LESHER: Yes, absolutely. The three couples, Curley, Wallace and Johnson with their girlfriends, went to dances together, went to out-of-town football games together. They were very close, and then they became enemies.
LAMB: Have they ever talked since then?
LESHER: No. Glenn Curley says the final straw was when Wallace, in one of his denunciatory statements about some ruling that Frank had made, talked about "that man needs a barbed wire enema." He later apologized for this crudity, but Frank never forgave him and Glenn Curley says that was the final straw. He tried to get the two back together, but it never worked.
LAMB: Did this turn out the way you wanted it?
LESHER: Yes, better. I got some terrific editing guidance from Bill Patrick. I think the book is good looking, things that would be beyond my control to influence. As I say in the acknowledgments, authors don't usually say nice things about their publishers. Of five books, this has been by far my best experience.
LAMB: What does George Wallace call you in person?
LESHER: He calls me Steve, which Mother never called me, but I've always said, "Whatever makes you happy, call me." He just calls me Steve. He once did tell a story about me when I had a black beard during the 1972 campaign. We were walking along in a hotel corridor, and just the day before he had said about Ray Jenkins, an editorial writer in the South who Wallace didn't like, he had made the disclosure that when he, Wallace, was president he was going to make Ray Jenkins ambassador to Chad. So that next day I said, "Well, Governor, what are you going to do for me?" He looked at my thick black beard, looked me up and down, and he said, "You? I'll tell you what we're going to do with you. I'm going to dress you in fatigues, then I'm going to put you in one of them Barnum & Bailey cages, and as you come down Constitution Avenue past the reviewing stand I'm going to point you out and say, 'Looky here. The Wallace administration done brung back Castro.'" But he never called me Castro. He stayed with Steve.
LAMB: When you were there with him, signing autographs at the book store in Montgomery, what were people saying to him?
LESHER: It was a love feast.
LAMB: Black and white?
LESHER: Black and white, but that was not unusual. I was getting used to that by now, in recent years. The ages, we had little school kids. In fact, several teachers brought their classes to meet the governor, and then they'd buy two or three books for use in the class. One elderly black lady just hugged him and said, "We love you," and bought this book and had us autograph it. It was all with deep affection. It's not that amazing. Just in mid-November Wallace was asked to come to Tuskegee, Ala., to the National Black Mayors Conference. Of course, he's no longer governor, but they asked him to come there to say hello to the group. He went up on stage, he welcomed them to Alabama, said a few words about what great things they were doing for their cities, and he got a standing ovation. The mayor of Tuskegee told a reporter who was there . . .
LAMB: Johnny Ford?
LESHER: Yes. He said, "You know, in the South we have the ability to forgive each other, and when we see that a man has made the kind of changes that George Wallace has, we can love him. People in the North," he said, "don't understand that."
LAMB: What's your favorite chapter in this book?
LESHER: Oh, that's a good one, too. I like the part on the stand in the schoolhouse door because it reads to me like a movie going on. People are doing things in four or five different cities. It's all coming together into a final clash in which no one knows if we're going to have an explosion or if it's going to turn out peacefully, as it did. I must say I like my epilogue because I get a chance there to really sort of pull it all together in terms of what I think about Wallace's impact and influence, plus the final, very dramatic scene with Jesse Jackson in prayer with George Wallace, and clasping hands.
LAMB: And we only have a short time, tell the story, if you don't mind, quickly, about the last straw, the wheelchair and the accident that ended it all.
LESHER: In 1976 he was trying again for president. He went to Florida, which had been the scene of one of his great triumphs in 1972. He was making some headway. He had a lead, it was narrow over Brother Carter, Jimmy Carter. He was being lifted into a plane, one of the people tripped, fell on top of him and splintered his leg and the whole country saw that he was a crippled man, not powerful and strong enough to run for president much less carry the office.
LAMB: Did he talk to you about that?
LESHER: He did, and that's why he decided later in 1978 not to seek the Senate seat that he probably, according to the polls, could have won at that time.
LAMB: Stephan Lesher is the author. This is what the book looks like, "George Wallace, An American Populist." We thank you very much.
LESHER: Thank you for having me.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1994. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.