Neill Albert Wallace (October 1, 1918 - June 23, 2000) was the 37th President of the United States of America, serving from September 1st, 1978, to January 20th, 1981. Prior to that office, he was the Vice President of the United States, holding that office from January 20th, 1977 until the assassination of Adam Eisler on September 1st, 1978. He served as the United States Senator from Louisiana from 1959 to 1977 and was considered one of the "progressive Southerners" who emerged out of the rejection of segregation in the South beginning in the late 1950's.
While his Senate career and earlier stint as Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana had made him an icon within the moderates in the Southern wing of the Democratic Party, he was considered a failure as President and he declined to run for reelection in 1980, feeling that his energy was better focused on alleviating the ongoing depression and managing the war in Brazil while fulfilling the rest of his predecessor's term. Wallace's Presidency was marked for attempted insurance reform, the early 1980s economic crisis, the Three Mile Island incident, the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in Washington state, the escalation of the Brazilian War and the continued drawdown of the Ceylon occupation force.
In later years, historians have taken a much more favorable stance towards Wallace, feeling that he did the best job possible under unenviable circumstances and made the wise decision to retire when he did.
Neill Wallace was born on October 1st, 1918 in Jackson, Mississippi to Albert Wallace, Sr., a legal clerk in the Mississippi state government. Wallace had three elder brothers: Albert Jr., (1911-1982), Robert (1913-1990) and Lawrence (1915-1937). He also had a younger brother, Francis (1921-1955) and two younger sisters, Ellen (1924-1930) and Nancy (1925-).
The Wallace family was wealthy and respected within the Jackson community, and unique in their general distaste for segregation. Wallace grew up during difficult economic times in the South, and his father's dislike of the Al Smith government drew him ire from many diehard Democrats in Mississippi. His father was elected to the Mississippi state Senate in 1928 as a Nationalist, which earned his family the ire of numerous Democrats who considered him a traitor to the party. His father was soundly defeated four years later in 1932 by a Democratic challenger and the family was relocated to Baton Rouge, where his father ran again for public office and became a Louisiana state Senator in 1938 as a Democrat.
The Wallace brothers were groomed as assistants for their father in his various political ventures and all of the brothers were sent to the University of Louisiana to study. Robert Wallace was a standout football player while at UL and pursued a career in coaching, becoming the Pelicans head coach in 1942. Every male member of the family attended the University of Louisiana, even when they had been living in Mississippi, due to its status as the premier public college in the South at the time. Albert Wallace, Sr. benefitted enormously from the Booming Thirties until his untimely death in 1940. Numerous deaths had peppered the Wallace family throughout the years; the mother of the brood, Eleanora, had died in 1934 of syphilis, and daughter Ellen died in the 1930 Japanese fever epidemic. Larry Wallace died at the age of 22 in a drunken altercation in New Orleans were he was stabbed and thrown into the Mississippi River by angered sailors.
Neill Wallace, however, joined his elder brother Albert as a political clerk after graduating from U of L in 1941 and relocated to Baton Rouge. Younger brother Frank soon followed and the three "Wallace boys" used their family wealth and prominence to become young players on the Baton Rouge political scene. Most noteworthy was Neill, who used his alliance with Senator Jack Geremeaux to head to Washington as Geremeaux's attache in 1947 after the Senator's reelection victory.
While in Washington, Wallace earned significant political capital as the powerful Geremeaux's aide, learning the ins-and-outs of the Senate. He wrote a brief editorial in 1947 describing his disappointment in the Democratic Party for their hypocritical views on economics and civil rights, and suggested that they needed to follow a coherent message or forever be dominated by the National Party.
In 1948, he returned to Baton Rouge to run for the state Senate, of which brother Albert was already a member, with younger brother Frank as his chief of staff.
Louisiana Legislature 1948-1956 and Lieutetant Governor 1956-1960
With his father and brother's names already well known in political circles, Wallace ran to represent a voting district in a Baton Rouge suburb as the Democratic favorite. He promised the experience of Washington applied to Louisiana and ran on a "don't touch what's here" platform. With many constituents favoring continued segregation, Wallace promised to not revoke segregation, despite his personal opposition to it. With the National Party candidate favoring such a move, Wallace won handily and joined Albert in the Louisiana State Senate.
The Wallace brothers soon became the young, influential leaders of a liberal Democratic camp in the state senate. Both suggested a program to help the numerous impoverished citizens of the state as the country suffered through a recession in the late 1940's following the previous boom, and helped introduce legislation to make businesses in the state responsible for their employee's health care and pensions. The brothers were so popular that they coasted to reelection in 1950 and both became favorites to become Governor in the near future.
Russell Long, however, had far more familial influence and ran in the Democratic primaries for the 1952 Louisiana gubernatorial election, beating Albert Wallace by multiple digits. The elder Wallace refused to concede unless Long added his younger brother to the ticket, feeling that Neill had considerable upside as a successor. The Long-Wallace ticket won handily and Albert Wallace was granted the role as the Speaker of the State Senate, and Frank Wallace was made Long's chief aide.
Neill Wallace spent most of his time as lieutenant governor acquiring powerful friends in the Louisiana business community, but also aligned himself with powerful African-American community leaders in New Orleans and Shreveport. When Long ran for Governor again in 1956, Wallace announced he would not return, partially due to the tragic death of his brother, Frank, who was killed in a plane crash while flying home from a vacation in Puerto Rico.
Albert Wallace announced he would seek the US Senate seat being vacated by Geremeaux in 1958 when the 81-year old Louisiana icon announced his retirement after forty-two years in office. The six-term Senator preferred his former chief of staff, but Albert had the seniority. However, Albert Wallace suffered a severe stroke in January of 1958 and Neill took his place on the Democratic ticket, preaching economic prosperity, a continuation of Geremeaux's moderate policies and a "solution to segregation." He narrowly defeated Nationalist challenger Dick DeBeau, largely due to Geremeaux and Long's glowing endorsements.
United States Senate: 1961-1976
1976 Presidential Campaign
While his stance on desegregation was a popular one in the more open, liberal 1970's, Wallace was disinterested in running for the Presidency. Wallace reiterated twice on the Ronald Reagan Show that he was going to focus exclusively on his 1976 Senate reelection campaign in 1975.
However, once Adam Eisler had all but secured the nomination for President in the summer of 1976, Wallace's name began swirling as a potential running mate. Wallace appeared on Reagan again in June to admit that if Eisler asked him, he would be honored to be the Vice Presidential nominee, but that he would not proselytize himself for the office.
"If Governor Eisler were to approach me at the convention and say, 'Neill, I want you to be my guy,' well, I don't think I would turn him down. I would be honored. But I'm not going to suggest myself or tell anybody that I should be the decision, because I don't feel it's appropriate for a sitting Senator to stick his hand out and ask for something of that kind." - Neill Wallace on the Ronald Reagan Show, 6/24/76
When the Democrats arrived in Miami for their convention, the air and enthusiasm was unlike anything since the 1964 nominating affair. The convention was planned to be broadcast on three major channels simultaneously as the party leaders plotted to give Eisler as much exposure as possible. As party leaders and delegates discussed potential running mates for their nominee, Eisler personally suggested that a Southerner be chosen, due to his own Jewish faith and liberal ties to the north. A Northern liberal and Southern moderate was, by Eisler's description, an "unbeatable ticket."
The two Southern candidates considered best fitting for Eisler were Wallace and Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter. Carter immediately declined the nomination, due to a budget crisis in Georgia that he was fighting to resolve. Wallace accepted Eisler's invitation to be his running mate.
Wallace kept a largely low national profile during the campaign, staying mostly in the South to rouse support for Eisler. His greatest asset to the party was to reignite Southern interest in the party after three straight elections in which the party had suffered due to its impression of being reliant on the North and pushing interest antithetical to the region. His most prominent attribute in this regard was his numerous good relationships with Southern county and local officials who helped ignite a Southern turnout machine unseen since Richard Russell topped the ticket in 1952.
Vice Presidency and Assassination of Adam Eisler: 1977-78
Post-Presidency and Death
Wallace was known, prior to the assassination of Eisler in 1978, the toll of the Brazilian War and the financial meltdown of 1979, as a loose, easy-going man both in public and in private. Wallace frequently entertained journalists with jokes, anecdotes and funny gestures, and was known for having a somewhat salty sense of humor.
In the late 1960's he was called the "Rose of Louisiana" due to his liberal values in a very conservative state, and when he was publicly mocked by then-Vice President Thomas Heaps for the nickname in 1970, Wallace responded by saying, "I am kind of like a rose - I'm a damn fine-looking fellow, I always smell real good and I'm a thorny bastard who'll draw your blood if you try anything stupid." From then on, Wallace wore a rose in his jacket in public and invited constituents to smell it during campaign events in 1970 and 1976. Even in retirement, Wallace wore the rose as his lasting personal symbol.
During his Presidency, Wallace cracked jokes during press conferences and spoke of his desire to "lighten the national mood." Following his January 1980 decision to not seek reelection, Wallace was described by commentator Ronald Reagan as being noticeably happier, "with the specter of a hard, punishing campaign for an unpopular incumbent gone." Wallace's approval ratings never exceeded the low 40's all the way through the end of his term after the initial groundswell of support emerged after Eisler's assassination, yet the public responded well to his lighter persona afterwards.