Chapter 14: The "Forgotten Americans"
Governor George Wallace – George Wallace Calls for Freedom from Civil Rights Legislation, Atlanta, GA
Richard Nixon – Acceptance Speech at the 1968 Republican Convention
If the first half of American presidential politics was focused largely on economic issues, the second half would feature an ongoing and often divisive debate about the issue of race and the fundamental question of what role government should play in furthering the civil rights of all Americans. Few politicians more pungently captured the nation’s turbulent and often conflicted mood about race than Alabama Governor and four time presidential candidate, George Wallace.
The speeches he delivered in 1964 and 1968 were masterful examples of political demagoguery, but they were more than racial appeals. They played on the greatest fears of the American people about the coarsening of social values, the seeming breakdown in social order and the growing racial divisions in the country. Indeed, they would become the rhetorical template for a generation of conservative attacks on government.
No politician did a better job of softening Wallace’s hard-edged message than Richard Nixon. With the country recoiling from anti-war violence, assassination and rising crime rates, Nixon’s defense of “the forgotten Americans, the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators” resonated with millions of Americans desperate for a “return to normalcy.” The seed of a new conservative-driven and divisive form of populist politics, birthed by George Wallace, midwifed by Richard Nixon, and given full growth by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, was planted in the words and ideas contained in these two speeches.