The Most Powerful Politician in America

“Ten years ago, many Americans saw George Wallace as the caricature of a segregationist Southerner. Today, it’s fashionable, almost liberal chic, to say George was misunderstood, that he’s really a populist, a man of the ordinary people, white and black.”

Alabama governor George Wallace made his name as a segregationist remembered for standing “in the schoolhouse door” of the University of Alabama in 1963 in an attempt to stop the enrolment of black students. John Pilger subsequently interviewed Wallace on the campaign trail during two general elections. During the second, in 1972, Wallace was shot in an assassination attempt, leaving him paralysed and in a wheelchair.

In The Most Powerful Politician in America, made in 1974, Pilger looks at the likelihood that a reinvented Wallace will run for the White House two years later, manipulating contemporary American passions and exploiting his influence in the powerful “Dixie” states controlled by the Democratic Party. All parties now court him and there is even talk of an Edward Kennedy-George Wallace Democratic “ticket”, with Wallace as Vice-President. However, an Alabama newspaper publisher tells Pilger that he is dubious about whether Wallace has changed, a feeling echoed by blacks.

Wallace’s wife, Cornelia – who had helped to remould her husband’s image – tells Pilger she believes that his would-be assassin had not acted alone. Wallace describes to Pilger the assassination attempt and says he does not rule out becoming President, but he is less direct about his segregationist views. “I think you are obviously a very intelligent person,” says Wallace, “and whether you asked me that question to bait me or not, or whether you asked that question because you’re not familiar with the abilities of most successful politicians to blow and suck at the same time, and talk out of both sides of their mouth – maybe that’ll answer your question.”

The Most Powerful Politician in America (Pilger, ATV), ITV, 9 June 1974

Producer-director: Charles Denton (28 mins)

With thanks to Anthony Hayward, whose biography of John Pilger is available to buy here.

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The John Pilger archive is held at the British Library