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Published on Monday, May, 8, 2000 in the Toronto Globe & Mail
History's Mythmakers Are Letting George Wallace Off Too Easy
by Andrew Cohen
 
More than other peoples, Americans cherish their past. They find their identity in their national story, real or fanciful. They live by their heroes, their struggles and their triumphs. It makes them who they are.

Ultimately, history is a reflection of those who write it. Two recent portrayals of two influential Americans -- one a deity, the other a demagogue -- offer a lesson in the myth-making. Each shows how the historian's prejudices shape the image, often for the ages.

The first is Abraham Lincoln. His stature in the American pantheon remains undiminished. He is the defender of the Union and the Emancipator of the slaves. He is still the country's greatest president with an iconography of his own -- "Honest Abe" and the man in marble -- which time has failed to erode.

But what if Americans knew of Lincoln's secret life of "debauchery" and "profligacy"? What if they were to learn that William Herndon, his law partner and friend whose three-volume biography shaped the popular view of his character, had kept a secret archive of papers which portray a flawed, licentious Lincoln?

The discovery of new diaries, which are discussed in the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly, allude to testimony gathered by Mr. Herndon suggesting that Lincoln was uncertain of his father, that he was a philanderer who contracted syphilis, and that he sired children with the wives of friends. Mr. Herndon gathered the allegations, which isn't to say that he believed them.

What matters here, though, isn't that Lincoln may have been imperfect but that it's irrelevant. Mr. Herndon was careful in choosing what to write to ensure that a scurrilous image of Lincoln -- though his enemies called him an alcoholic, an idiot and a gorilla -- would not be how posterity would see him.

His discretion would be rare today, in the era of tell-all biography. And although Mr. Herndon is said to have believed that Lincoln's greatness could withstand these unseemly revelations, he nonetheless refused to test his assumption. If you believe a people needs heroes, then you believe Mr. Herndon was right.

As Abraham Lincoln enjoyed the protection of his early biographer, so does George Wallace, the peppery segregationist who was four times governor of Alabama and four times ran for president.

In George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire,a documentary broadcast recently on public television, Mr. Wallace is viewed with a soft, genteel evenhandedness that maintains that the real Mr. Wallace was not an unreconstructed racist but a ruthless opportunist who ultimately repented and sought forgiveness.

Given the power of film, this may well become the official version of the life of Mr. Wallace, endowing his story with an authenticity that gives authenticity a bad name. It's not that the documentary is wrong; it's simply a case in which the facts don't add up to the truth.

The film shows Mr. Wallace as an extraordinarily liberal judge in the 1950s, sympathetic to blacks and the working class whites. But when he loses his first campaign for the governship to a racist, he vows never to be "outniggered" again. So he adopts the language of race, which carries him into national politics, and he rides that nasty tiger until it drops. Then, recognizing the new political reality of the 1970s, he appeals to newly enfranchised blacks.

The filmmakers cover their bases. The apologists for Mr. Wallace are there, a sad-eyed crowd on the wrong side of history. So are the lions of the civil rights movement, such as the formidable John Lewis, now in Congress.

But there's something wrong here. The filmmakers are too eager to pardon this race-baiting, cocksure bantamweight who stood in the schoolhouse door to prevent blacks from entering, who set his club-wielding troopers on the marchers at Selma, who was an accomplice in the plague of bombings, beatings and lynchings that ravaged the South a generation ago. Then he says he's sorry, and we say it's all right.

It's not all right. It's sad that Mr. Wallace lost his wife to cancer and that he was paralyzed by an assassin's bullet and condemned to a wheelchair. Many will claim divine retribution, poetic justice and consider the moral account settled. Maybe it is.

But in the shaping of history -- and it's history, laden with image and myth that is at issue here -- this isn't settled. As author Anthony Walton argues, Mr. Wallace is getting off easy. He has become just another great American life, a story of a man's passage to redemption, taking his place in the national gallery of tormented souls beside the strike-breaking Andrew Carnegie, the anti-semitic Henry Ford and the misguided Robert McNamara.

As the mythmakers favoured Lincoln, they now favour Mr. Wallace. No one said the muses of history are consistent.

Copyright 2000 Globe Interactive

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