George Wallace Has A Big Madison Square Garden Party
Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives. October 31, 1968, Vol. XIV, No. 3
The Legions of Fear Huddle Against the Night by Joe Flaherty
About 13,000 of the folks showed up at Madison Square Garden last Thursday evening to stomp, hoot, and holler for the man who holds the key to their hearts. And the Garden was a perfect setting. On other nights below in the dressing rooms young fighters' legs have grown old and aging pugs' stomachs have turned sour with fear when it was their time to walk through the dark chilled tunnel that leads to the main arena. And fear was what this evening was all about. Fear that was so diverse it came in legions. Black fear, hair fear, press card fear, busing fear, guideline fear, and endless other fears that make up the litany of right in America today. And the little man behind his bullet proof podium epitomized their anxieties.
And before they had a chance to hear him they had to run a gauntlet of about 5000 demonstrators that thronged the streets surrounding the Garden. Inside they were afforded police protection (both on and off duty) that is usually reserved for Mafia funerals.
The whole affair was something of a cross between The Grand Ole Opry and an Oral Roberts redemption meeting. We were treated to the Lord's Prayer, the national anthem, "God Bless America," and strains of "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Red, white, and blue boaters (what else?) crowned every head. Wallace's running mate, Curtis Lee May, was allowed a few words and this was a surprise indeed. After his initial speech on nuclear weapons the General is rather exposed selectively -- like French postcards. As the General spoke about accepting a spot on the ticket as "his duty," a strange feeling came over me. The face was familiar but I couldn't place it. The chubby cheeks, the small eyes, the glasses sloping down on the nose. Then it hit me. My God -- put a shawl on him and he was Jonathan Winters' Maude Frickett!
His wife, who looks like his sister, talked about how she was going to make Central Park safe to walk in at night. This had to be the joke of the night. For in this crowd of thousands from Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, and those who chartered buses from the suburbs, it was doubtful whether more than a handful ever ventured into Central Park during the day, never mind at night. But the General and his lady stood their grinning at the cheers like two slightly dotty sisters who just won first canned preserve prize at the county fair for apricot napalm.
Then they brought in Wallace. For about 15 minutes the Garden exploded with clapping, whistling, foot stamping, and shouting. And since they weren't strangers, you walked among them to see what had brought them to this. There were the Italians who had left their sanctuaries in Bay Ridge and Staten Island with the Blessed Mother standing sentry on their lawn. And there were the young Irish kids, their faces a chronicle of their culture. These were the kids who shot baskets at netless hoops on the blacktop schoolyards of Our Lady of Something or Another. These were the same kids who drank the flat pitcher beer in Coney and Rockaway and lived by the credo of a "fair fight" -- one on one. And now a nickel and dime demagogue turned them into an ugly lynch mob. And their wives stood cheering with them, and whether it be at a prizefight or a rally like this, there is nothing more ugly than a broad cheering for blood.
And these were the innocent untouchable girls of our boyhood. their faces now prematurely old with hate and their legs grown heavy with too many children. The same girls you tried to maneuver against bannisters with their mothers a flight away, trying to negotiate the impossible through bulky winter till you reached a detente of a white gloved hand decorated with the ever preset imitation pearl that has served as the Irish sexual surrogate for decades. The others were strangers and they didn't matter. these were the ones bused in from the antiseptic suburbs. Impeccably groomed, smelling of toothpaste, talcs, lotions, and deodorants. And when people stop smelling like people, they don't count anymore.
But there was some beauty to the evening. And this belonged to the young black kids who sat in the balcony. They were not the militants that so often parade before the tv cameras, but kids with souls as black and tough as coal. Even their signs had spunk: "George is LBJ's sister" or "Welcome to New York you racist bastard." And the Wallacites who outnumbered them beyond count were intimidated by them. Oh, they called them niggers and screamed to have them ejected from the arena, but they made it clear that the cops should do the ejecting. It was Saigon against the Vietcong all over again.
Wallace tried to deliver a prepared text, but when the heckling began he happily abandoned it. The speech was going nowhere and the hecklers were a blessing. It affored Wallace the chance to go into his standard repetory. To hecklers: "All you need is a good haircut," or "I'll autogrpah your sandals." To the cops: "I'll stand with the police and firement in the land." To his civil libertarians: "I'll repeal the open housing law" or the Kerner Report is the most assinine document in America." And And his trump card: "Rid the nation of pseudo-intellectuals" (the latgest orgasm of them all).
"They don't have any faith in people," wallace says of liberals and intellectuals. "Lot of them don't really like people, when you get right down to it." This tragic charge is the foundation of the Wallace movement. It is tragic because the left is vulnerable to it. For the Wallace movement is leagues away from the fat cat Goldwater movement. What he has perceptively achieved is to reach out to the dangling man in America-the white worker who earns between $6000 and $9000 a year whose paranoia has more than a touch of reality to it. In a political year worthy of Beckett absurdity, George Wallace has stolen a page from the "black is beautiful" syndrome. He has taken a classless majority without sufficient economic and social power and told them they were the true soul of America.
The shame of it is that he encourages their fears instead of putting them in perspective. The Olympian left has relegated their anxieties to a neanderthal mentality. But the truth of the matter is that life in American cities is a dangerous proposition. And neighborhoods in racial transitions and the specter of busing of their children and the risig cost of welfare are issues of concern for all -- not just the domain of screaming racists. So the situation has arisen where the left has cavalierly dimissed these people as the lumpen peoducts of such hinterlands as Brooklyn and Queens. So the essence of the Wallace campaign is: "mediocrity is beautiful." At the end you pitied them more than you hated them. For surely once upon a time there was a humanity in these faces and as a nation we failed to preserve it. Now they are sick, frightened, lost souls. And as they left the Garden, they performed the most primitive ritual of the evening. They gathered in groups as they made their way toward their homes, like men in a time when fire was not yet discovered, gathered to protect themselves against the eternal black night they live in.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]
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