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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Recollections of My Father and George Wallace

September 16, 1998|MIKE DOWNEY

It was 1968 and I was hanging around at home with my old man and we were watching Hubert H. Humphrey campaigning on television, saying he was "proud as punch" about something, when I made the mistake of asking if he planned to vote for Hubert in the November presidential election.

"No," he said.

I knew full well that my father had voted straight Republican most of his adult life, but since he wasn't particularly enamored of Richard Nixon, I wasn't altogether sure that he intended to give Nixon his vote.

"I'm not," he said.

I recall this conversation so well.

"You're abstaining?" I asked.

"Nope," he said.

I put on my best puzzled look.

Whereupon he spoke two words that sent chills down my spine.

"George Wallace," he said.

*

Let me flash-forward now to the most uncharitable act of my entire life. I recall this one so well too, because I am so ashamed of it.

It was 1972 and I was again watching television, when a bulletin interrupted to say that Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace had been shot by a lone gunman named Arthur Bremer in a Maryland parking lot.

"Good," I said.

As soon as it popped out of my mouth, I felt like the lowest insect that ever crawled the Earth.

I hated myself for it then, and regret it now. But I doubt there was a human being alive in that era who brought out the hostility in me the way George Wallace did. He stood for everything I loathed.

When he died Sunday, all these memories came rushing back to me, memories of a man I had long since forgotten was still alive.

I was a volatile, voluble white boy on the subject of racism, from the beginning of my upbringing. I don't know why. Childhood friends tease me about it to this day. If any of them tells what would euphemistically be called an ethnic joke, he or she might first gesture toward me and say, "Here's one he won't like."

My father never told off-color jokes or used unduly harsh words. He would, however, Archie Bunker style, talk about working "with the colored guys" down at the plant.

"Don't call them that," I'd say.

"What?"

"Colored guys."

"I wasn't insulting anybody," he'd say.

He would tease me and talk about being in foxholes beside brave colored guys in World War II and eating lunch with colored guys at the factory, and he'd say I should listen to what somebody's saying and not how somebody says it.

To which I'd say that I was going to bring home a couple of the guys I went to school with, and we'd just see what a young black man thought of an old white man who still called people "colored guys."

It was all a joke . . . and it wasn't.

But the gag was over with this "vote for Wallace" proclamation, which to me was like voting for someone who wouldn't mind owning my school friends for slaves.

I waited for my dad to say he was kidding. When he didn't, I stammered and stomped around the room and said something disrespectful along the lines of, "Why would anybody in his right mind vote for that monster?"

He just shrugged.

Although I wanted to discuss it at greater length, we didn't. He said something about anybody being better than Humphrey or Nixon, and I said something about moving to Canada being better than Wallace.

The old man knew I had been in Chicago during the riots outside the 1968 Democratic convention, when students were protesting the war, cops were swinging clubs and conventioneers were dropping bags from hotel windows filled with liquid that wasn't water. He knew I was still upset about losing Bobby Kennedy. He knew I was just plain upset.

"Still want me to vote for Hubie?" he asked.

"Vote for whoever you want," I snapped.

*

I have nightmarish images of George Wallace, wanting to keep black kids out of college, wanting segregation "today, tomorrow and forever," wanting to be president of the United States.

He ran in 1968 as a third party candidate from something called the American Independent Party, which, in my youthful anger, I pictured holding fund-raising rallies that involved torches and white hoods.

November came, and Nixon won.

I wasn't happy about that, but c'est la vie. Next day, I told my dad, "I still can't believe you voted for Wallace."

"Oh, brother," he said, in one of the happiest moments of my life, "you'll believe anything."

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or phone (213) 237-7366.

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