WASHINGTON – Donald Trump is hardly the first national politician to play the “enemy of the people” card against the working press covering him, to rile up crowds of the faithful to a fever pitch.
More than half a century ago, the late Democratic Alabama Gov. George Corley Wallace tirelessly worked that antagonistic lode to a fare-thee-well during his gubernatorial and presidential campaigns. He did so with the same snarling manner as Trump does today, but in ways suggesting his heart was not so venomously in it.
Wallace’s war on the press was more a mocking chiding for the crowd, especially at rallies in his home state but also in his ventures into Northern “enemy” territory. He loved to point out the presence in the multitudes of those ill-clad Yankees “scribbling in their little notebooks” all kinds of mean things about him, especially while evoking his Dixie twang.
One state trooper in his protective entourage would complain on the campaign press bus about reporters “using all them ‘postrophes” in recording Wallace’s rambling chatter. Old George himself would endlessly lament their appearance on what he called their “distortin’ trips” casting him in the worst possible light.
To Wallace, it was all money in the bank in the coin of crowd agitation, as it is today in Trump world, but largely absent without the greatly augmented dose of personal bitterness that regularly marks this president’s demeanor. Wallace seemed to enjoy the repartee, and in private he was almost always cordial and, intentionally or not, amusing to the press gaggle.
Once during one of his campaigns, my late partner in columning, Jack Germond, and I went to the small town of Midfield, Ala., to hear him speak at a local dinner and to interview him thereafter. We retreated to the adjoining bar during the dinner, when the loudspeaker in the hall announced that Wallace wanted to see me at the head table.
I left the bar and walked through the multitude to the head table, where the mischievous governor proclaimed to the diners that I, then a reporter from “the Los Angeleese Times,” had come “all the way to Midfield” to cover him. “Everywhere I go,” he said, “they call the name of Alabama,” then dismissing me as a used prop.
When I returned to the bar. I found Germond doubled over in mirth over how another of our fraternity had been played by this master of press manipulation, amid his feigned hostility toward us “distorters” of his message.
Long after the failed assassination against Wallace that left him crippled but still determined to continue public service, he welcomed out-of-state journalists. He enjoyed reminiscing about his glory days as a presidential contender, in which he surprisingly won Democratic primaries in Maryland and a few other Northern states.
Before his death in 1998 at age 79, he wrote me a letter reflecting nostalgically about those old days and how he missed the mutual bantering with his friendly critics on the campaign trail in and out of Alabama. He had mellowed considerably by then, recanting his previous racism, exemplified most famously in 1963 when he stood in a doorway to bar, unsuccessfully, two black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama.
George Wallace was no angel, but he was a contrite man at the end. He was no Donald Trump, whose animosity toward the press as “the enemy of the people,” and toward all who dare to speak out against his authoritarian and crude ways, shows not a tinge of compassion or regret.
One can only hope that Trump may someday reach a mellowing stage as Wallace did, who once also wielded great political power though on a less significant stage. But it’s a hope based on little expectation, judging from this president’s even greater sense of self-worth and demonstrated lack of concern for others, on a level never registered by the snappish and eventually vulnerable Alabamian.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.