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Sept. 14, 2003 Updated Sept. 24, 2007
Gov. George Wallace
Arthur Bremer tried to fill the void in his miserable life by taking the life of Gov. George Wallace in 1972. He failed on both counts.
by Denise Noe
(Editor's Note: Arthur Bremer is scheduled for release from prison by the end of 2007.)
"Send them a message"
When Alabama Gov. George Wallace ran for the presidency in 1972, he did not expect to win. His goal was summed up in the slogan he used to urge his supporters to vote for him: "Send them a message!" The "them" referred to was the Washington D.C. establishment that Wallace claimed had sold out white working-class people to cater to racial minorities and a privileged liberal elite. The flamboyant, folksy Wallace denounced school busing for integration, courts he called soft on crime, and a tax system that he claimed bled the average American without making the rich pay its fair share. He won many loyal, even fanatical followers by claiming to champion the "taxi driver, little businessman, beautician or barber or farmer" against the "pointy-headed pseudo-intellectual."
The campaign was Wallace's second bid for the presidency. He had run four years previously on the American Independent Party (now called the American Party) ticket but in 1972 he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination. His candidacy was doing remarkably well, a development that disheartened critics who thought his victories and strong showings in state primaries were symptomatic of racism. They believed the "law and order" he habitually called for was code for an anti-black agenda.
George Corley Wallace Jr. was born in 1919 in Clio, Ala., a sleepy, impoverished, rural town in Barbour County where people typically went barefoot in the summer, played dominoes, and enjoyed drinking on the weekends.
The Wallaces were not poor. As Stephan Lesher recounts in his biography, George Wallace, American Populist, George C. Wallace Sr. and his wife Mozelle prospered on a large farm despite George Sr. being plagued by health problems. His first born son, George Jr., grew up closer to his grandfather Oscar Wallace than to him. George Sr. and Mozelle would have three other children but there was always a special bond between George Jr. and Grandfather Wallace. Oscar was a physician and little George often accompanied him on house calls. On these visits, the child saw the want and misery in which so many of his neighbors lived. These sights made a strong impression but did not blight his childhood. George was a playful and popular boy. In the third grade, he got his first taste of politics when he ran for class president and won. His victory was expected since, as the adult George Wallace Jr. wryly recalled, he "ran without opposition – which is the best way to run."
The teenage Wallace was short, lean, feisty, and personable. A natural leader, he organized a baseball league when he was 13 and was elected captain of his football team at 17. He was high school bantamweight boxing champion and boxed professionally to put himself through the University of Alabama Law School.
During World War II, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. On May 22, 1943, the 25-year-old private married 16-year-old Lurleen Burns. She was a slender, auburn-haired, soft-spoken young woman with a passion for fishing.
In the spring of 1945, Wallace was part of the crew of a B-29 named the Little Yutz that flew several dangerous missions against the Japanese. His main job was to monitor fuel consumption on these 18-hour flights.
When he returned to civilian life in December 1945, Wallace was the father of a baby girl named Bobbie Jo. He got a job as assistant attorney general. The salary was meager but the position gave the ambitious young man an opportunity to make the political contacts he would need in the future.
He decided to run for the state legislature. All of his earnings went into his campaign so Lurleen, who was still not old enough to vote, went to work as a clerk in the agriculture department. Wallace drove from house to house, enthusiastically pressing the flesh and bonding with voters. He ran as the candidate of the "little guy" and won by a big margin. Wallace served in the state legislature from 1947 to 1953. Then he was elected state judge in 1953 when he 33.
In 1958, Wallace ran for governor of Alabama. By the standards of the time, he was a racial moderate while his major opponent had the backing of the Ku Klux Klan. Many sources quoted a disappointed Wallace as saying, "You know why Patterson won? Because he out-segged me. And I ain't never going to be out-segged again." In some versions of this story, Wallace used the N-word rather than "seg." Wallace always denied that he made that statement in either version but his actions suggested that the sentiment was his.
In the 1963 governor's race, he ran as a segregationist firebrand. At his 1963 inauguration, he vowed, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!"
George Wallace catapulted into national fame – or infamy – later that same year with a dramatic stand against integration. The U.S. Justice Department ordered the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa to admit two young blacks. The governor made his famous "stand in the schoolhouse door" to oppose their entry.
"The unwelcome, unwanted, unwarranted, and force-induced intrusion upon the campus of the University of Alabama today of the might of the central government offers a frightful example of oppression of the rights, privileges, and sovereignty of this state by officers of the federal government," Wallace said.
The blacks enrolled despite his opposition. Wallace became a hero to segregationists, an arch-villain to integrationists, and a household name to Americans of all political persuasions.
In 1966 he was legally barred by Alabama's gubernatorial term limits from seeking another term as governor. His wife Lurleen ran, promising to "let George do it" if elected. She won but died in office of cancer in 1968.
That same year, Wallace made his first bid for the presidency as the candidate of the American Independent Party. Republican Richard Nixon defeated Democrat Hubert Humphrey. Wallace received almost 10 million votes and carried five states in an extraordinarily strong showing for a third party candidate in the United States. However, he failed to meet his goal of causing a deadlock in the Electoral College so he could decide who the winner would be.
In 1970, he was again elected governor of Alabama. By now, segregation had fallen out of fashion and he had moderated his rhetoric accordingly. Law and order, state sovereignty, taking the tax burden off the working and middle classes, and reining in the welfare state were his major issues.
When Wallace ran for president two years later, he was an energetic 52-year-old. Often the target of hecklers, he won accolades from his sympathizers by pointing out the hypocrisy of those trying to boo him down: "These are the so-called free-speech people."
On a sunny May 15, 1972, Wallace was speaking before a friendly crowd of about 1,000 at a shopping center in Laurel, Md. There were few hecklers in this group. The candidate spoke on a podium behind a bulletproof shield on his familiar theme about the need to restore law and order and was greeted with cheers and enthusiastic clapping. He usually wore a bulletproof vest under his shirt but left it off because it was a hot, humid day. After speaking behind the shield, the candidate wanted to press the flesh, an aspect of campaigning the extroverted Wallace relished. He took off his suit jacket and rolled up his sleeves to shake hands with people.
A blonde, smiling young man, wearing dark glasses and neatly attired in red, white, and blue clothes with a Wallace button prominently displayed on his jacket, made his way to the front of the crowd. He got close to the candidate, then pulled a .38-caliber revolver out of his pocket and fired five times. All five bullets hit Wallace. Some went through him to injure three other people, two male security officers and a female spectator, as well.
The wounded governor fell backwards to the ground. His wife Cornelia rushed to his side. She burst into tears and cradled her husband's head as his blood flowed onto her yellow suit jacket.
Bystanders Clyde Merryman and Ross Spiegel jumped on the shooter, knocking the gun out of his hand and wrestling him to the ground. In their fury, the two men slugged and kicked the would-be assassin. Then police forced the bruised and bleeding attacker to a squad car.
Some Wallace supporters wept while others got into fistfights with the few hecklers. Two physicians made their way through the confused crowd to find the badly wounded governor gasping for breath.
An ambulance arrived and rushed Wallace to Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Md. Cornelia rode in the ambulance with her husband, stroking his head and comforting him as he asked in confusion, "Am I shot?" and said, "I'm in pain." Realizing he was headed for surgery, he pled, "Make sure they knock me out."
Doctors operated on Wallace for five hours. He had been shot in both arms and in his stomach and intestines. The bullet that crashed into his spine caused the most severe injury. It severed nerves that carry messages from the lower body to the brain.
Wallace survived the assassination attempt but would be paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life. The other three people shot recovered completely from their wounds.
Initial news reports invariably identified the 21-year-old man who had tried to kill Wallace as "Arthur Bremer, white." The race of a suspect is rarely mentioned in the United States when both victim and attacker are Caucasian. However, Wallace's reputation as a die-hard segregationist meant than many people would have expected his shooter to be black.
Alone in the Crowd
The man who tried to assassinate George Wallace had been born in Milwaukee on August 21, 1950. Arthur Bremer was the fourth of five children of truck driver William Bremer and his homemaker wife Sylvia. He grew up in a family in which chilly silences were broken by screaming rows. Affection was rarely, if ever, expressed. This was not surprising, considering the sad background of Sylvia Bremer.
Sylvia's own mother had abandoned her when she was a child. The girl spent several years in an orphanage. In that gray, regimented institutional environment, Sylvia knew little of appreciation, acceptance or security. She grew into a tense, brittle adult with little ability to express affection. She may have married the uncommunicative William Bremer because he was steady and dependable. But once wed, she was sorely disappointed by the lack of emotional intimacy in her marriage.
The one-paycheck family of seven was financially troubled and William soothed his tensions with drink. Booze exacerbated his tendency toward withdrawal, a tendency that frustrated Sylvia and led her to lash out, causing many noisy arguments in the household. Sometimes an infuriated Sylvia would lock her husband out of the house. At other times, she got back at him by refusing to cook meals.
In raising her own children, the affection-deprived Sylvia carefully went through the routines of feeding, diapering, and clothing them. She wanted to impress acquaintances that she was a "good mother" but was too emotionally stunted to cuddle, coo, and talk with her children. Her maternal methods were rigid. For example, she toilet trained young Arthur by putting him on a toilet every half-hour.
The childhood of Arthur Bremer parallels that of another would-be assassin Bremer would indirectly inspire: John Hinckley Jr. Hinckley was born into very different financial circumstances: his father was a successful oilman. But his father, like Bremer's, was an emotionally unexpressive man who was especially distant from his son. Hinckley Sr. was often away from the family on business trips so the raising of the children was left to his wife, homemaker JoAnn Hinckley.
JoAnn's personality was sadly similar to that of Sylvia Bremer. Writing in On Being Mad or Merely Angry, James W. Clarke describes her as "an anxious, frequently intimidated woman who . . . appeared to cling too closely, too long, to her baby son."
As a small child, Arthur was not a behavior problem but an obedient boy. Like his parents, he was shy. He seemed to be developmentally delayed since he did not speak until he was 4 years old. However, when he entered school, teachers believed him to be slightly above average in intelligence although his grades were never better than mediocre.
School was an ordeal for Bremer. Tongue-tied and self-conscious, he could not make friends. Other children did not invite him into playground games, choosing instead to either ignore or taunt him. His expression began being distorted by the perpetual smile that would one day become infamous and, according to Thomas Healey in The Two Deaths of George Wallace, his schoolmates "bestowed on him the hated nickname 'Clown.'" In a diary he wrote, "No English or history test was ever as hard, no math final exam ever as difficult as waiting in a school lunch line alone, waiting to eat alone . . . while hundreds huddled & gossiped and roared, & laughed and stared at me . . ." His loveless and tension-racked home offered no relief, but fantasy did as Bremer wrote in a school essay that he often pretended he "was living with a television family and there was no yelling at home and no one hit me."
Fantasies of suicide preoccupied Bremer when he was about 9 years old. He often imagined lying down across the railroad tracks near his home, waiting until a train crushed him and ended his misery. The one bright spot in his life was the neighborhood church that he enjoyed attending. He contemplated entering the priesthood when he grew up. When his family moved from that neighborhood, he stopped going to church. Lacking the solace church had afforded him, Bremer's spirits sank even further. He failed the fifth grade. Later, he made up his mind to commit suicide by 13, but did not attempt it.
Adolescence aggravated the shy boy's problems and sharpened his pain. Despite his obvious problems, he was not the type of youth who attracted adult concern. He was not rebellious and did not talk back to teachers. He did not drink or drive recklessly. He took no drugs, possibly because he had no friends who would offer him any. He was the type of withdrawn teenager who is in deep emotional trouble but whose problems are easily overlooked because they do not involve the active sorts of transgressions authority figures focus on. He was not doing "bad" things. The problem was that he was not doing much of anything.
The withdrawn teenager went out for football early in high school. Healey records, "He made the third-string team, but his mother, afraid he'd be hurt, forced him to quit." Here again is another parallel with Hinckley who played football for a year, then gave it up.
Bremer's hormones were active and he craved female companionship. But to get that companionship he had to cross that classic male hurdle of asking a girl out on a date and risking rejection and embarrassment. Like many socially unskilled and insecure teenage boys, Bremer could not bring himself to take that risk. The blonde-haired, bespectacled youth must have frequently made small talk in high school hallways, desperately trying to read the girl's expression, hoping against hope that she "liked" him in that special way, telling himself to ask her out, then cursing himself for his lack of nerve.
Like Hinckley, Bremer never had a date in high school. Instead, the solitary teenager spent his free time collecting sex comics and fantasizing about the raw, acrobatic sex pictured in the magazines.
Bremer's rigidly repressed parents never explained the facts of life to him. His mother told him that she believed his frequent headaches were brought on by "the oppressive odors of menstruating girls" at his high school.
In a passive-aggressive move against his domineering mother, who was still inspecting his bed sheets and choosing his clothes when he was in high school, Bremer left erotic comic books open in his room where she was certain to find them. The offended Sylvia loudly chastised her son for possessing such magazines, and he yelled back at her. Despite the evidence of her son's sexual interest, Sylvia clung to the belief that he was "clean" which, in her terms, meant he never masturbated. She ignored the long periods he spent in the bathroom. Bremer also criticized his mother's cooking and fought with his father over which television programs to watch.
Bremer found himself at loose ends as a young adult. Having no specific career goals, he floundered through a series of low-paying jobs. He decided he wanted to become a writer and enrolled at Milwaukee Technical College as an English major. According to both Clarke and Healey, he showed up for classes intermittently, made little impression on either teachers or peers and turned in slipshod work. He dropped out.
About a year later, he again enrolled, this time as a photography major. The pattern of indifferent work and poor attendance repeated itself, as did his dropping out.
He suffered a searing humiliation in October 1971. Bremer worked as a busboy at the Milwaukee Athletic Club. (Hinckley would also work busing tables.) As Bremer wheeled his tray around, taking up dirty dishes and cups along with soiled napkins, he often mumbled to himself. Patrons complained of the distraction and he was demoted from that humble job to kitchen help. Bremer filed a discrimination complaint. The investigator called it unjustified and suggested psychiatric help for the complainant. An outraged Bremer refused such assistance.
In November 1971, Bremer was a janitor in an elementary school where he met, and was attracted to, a 15-year-old hall monitor. She was freckled and pretty. Like Bremer, she was also blonde and wore glasses. The two of them flirted until he was finally able to make himself ask her out. Flattered that an older man was paying attention to her, she agreed. Bremer's spirits soared. Now that he was 21 and finally dating, he moved out of his family home and got his own apartment. His desire to leave the family nest may also have been triggered by a fierce argument with William Bremer that had ended with the son hitting his father.
Bremer's mother visited him at his new place regularly, often calling at night to see if he was there. Her son thought she was continually checking up on him. It was as if she feared the possibility that her son might have a sexual relationship and wanted to make sure there was no "other woman" in his life. Bremer desperately wanted there to be an "other woman." He was sick of being a mama's boy.
Knowing little of girls and women in the real world, Bremer tried to arouse his teenage girlfriend with the sort of thing that excited females in the crude sex magazines that constituted his sex miseducation. On his first date, he displayed pornographic pictures to the 15-year-old and made graphic sex talk. On another outing, he took her and a few of her friends to a Blood, Sweat, and Tears concert. Trying to act the suave lothario, he pressed a kiss on a woman who was not in their group. She promptly reported his action to a police officer who let Bremer off with a warning. Bremer foolishly attempted to impress his date by dramatically dancing in his seat and clapping when no one else was clapping. After the concert, Bremer excitedly whispered to her that his genitals were extraordinarily large and told her he was so aroused he could hardly walk.
Repulsed by his crudity, the 15-year-old broke off the relationship after their third date.
The janitor was devastated. He repeatedly phoned her, begging her to see him again but the girl flatly refused. He wracked his brain for a way to communicate the depth of his pain at her rejection. Then he shaved his head "to show her that inside I felt as empty as my shaved head." Catching up with her, he pulled off his knit cap and showed her his bald pate. She walked away from him without speaking.
His shaven head caused him another embarrassment. On Jan. 15, 1972, the school at which he worked had a dance. Bremer was on hand to help clean up. Some of his ex-girlfriend's friends visited the place to have a look at his baldness. They got there when the lights were out. The lights went on, the girls saw Bremer's head and burst out laughing at him.
Nursing dreams of wrecking havoc on a world that seemed set against him, Bremer went to Casanova Guns and purchased two handguns, a .38 caliber pistol and a 9-mm Browning automatic. He suffered yet another defeat while target practicing when he shot holes in the ceiling. Soon afterward, a police officer discovered Bremer asleep in his car with bullets strewn around him. He was arrested for disorderly conduct and charged a small fine.
Bremer's Murderous Role Models
Contemplating suicide and murder, he started reading extensively about U.S. assassins.
During his diligent research, he must have learned that American assassins differ markedly from those in other parts of the world. As Patricia D. Netzley notes in her study, Presidential Assassins, assassins in the United States are unlikely to strike at low level officials but aim for the president, presidential candidates, and others of great stature. U.S. assassins are rarely members of terrorist groups with clearly defined political goals.
The characteristics common to American assassins have led many students of the subject to conclude that they are usually, or always, psychotic. Netzley elaborates that "the most striking feature of those who attempt to assassinate the president is their history of mental instability." She quotes approvingly from scholars Albert Ellis and John M. Gullo who write that U.S. assassins "almost always prove to be exceptionally deranged individuals." Ellis and Gullo comment further that, "They generally have long histories of emotionally aberrated behavior; they often suffer specific life crises just before they kill; and they murder in a senseless manner as far as their political beliefs and aspirations are concerned."
James W. Clarke is closer to the truth when he writes that different assassins attack for profoundly different reasons – including rational political motives. Clarke believes that America's assassins fall into four roughly defined groups.
The groups he calls "Type I" operate out of deeply held political convictions. They are neither neurotic nor psychotic and often enjoy healthy relationships with family and friends. John Wilkes Booth, who killed Abraham Lincoln to avenge the South's defeat, is representative of this group.
Assassins he labels "Type II" have "aggressive, egocentric needs for acceptance, recognition and status." Deprived of success in any major area of their lives, they project their personal frustrations onto political causes and figures. They have unstable relationships. President John F. Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, is the best example of this group.
Clarke fits Arthur Bremer into "Type III." This group could easily be described as "Type II only more so." Clarke describes them as feeling "that the condition of their lives is so intolerably meaningless and without purpose that the destruction of society and themselves is desirable for its own sake." While Type II killers have at least a superficial political commitment, Type III care nothing about social causes. They cannot form relationships with others.
"Type IV" in Clarke's typology are those assassins who suffer from genuine psychosis, the deluded, hallucinating "crazy" like Richard Lawrence who unsuccessfully tried to assassinate President Andrew Jackson. Lawrence believed he was the king of England and Jackson was blocking him from his throne.
Although Clarke is correct in concluding that assassins differ radically from each other, it is striking that the closer they are to what we have come to think of as a typically disturbed assassin, the more they resemble Arthur Bremer. Netzley quotes "assassination expert John Douglas" as "summarizing the assassin profile" by describing "a white male in his 20s – who does not feel good about himself and never has. In some way, he sees the violent act as the solution to his problem." Douglas also maintains that "the violent act is the result of a deep-seated feeling of inadequacy on the part of the assassin." This description fits Bremer.
After Bremer decided to target then-President Richard Nixon, he confided to his diary, "Got to think up something cute to shout after I kill him, like Booth did." Booth famously yelled "Sic semper tyrannis!" (Latin for "Thus always to tyrants!) after shooting Lincoln.
As Bremer wrote, "Ask me why I did it & I'd say 'I don't know,' or 'nothing else to do,' or 'Why not?' or 'I have to kill somebody.'"
After reading Aziz Shihab's Sirhan, Bremer phoned the author and asked if Shihab believed a murderer was justified "if his love fails, or his girlfriend jilts him." Shihab said he did not and an angry Bremer hung up on him.
Plotting suicide and mass murder
A depressed and increasingly agitated Bremer decided to kill himself. He wanted to commit suicide in a way that would maximize the shock to bystanders. He took a blue felt marker and wrote "KILLER" in capital letters across his forehead. He wrapped a noose around his neck. As James Clarke tells it in American Assassins, "His plan was to tie the rope to the railing of a busy midtown bridge, then shoot himself while perched on the rail so that he would drop to hang as a grisly spectacle for passing commuters." He pulled a knit cap over his forehead, buttoned his coat up so it concealed the noose, then went to a Milwaukee diner.
Thomas Healey's account of this incident varies from Clarke's. In Healey's book, Bremer intended to make the title on his forehead a reality. He planned to "take out his guns and shoot people indiscriminately. The last bullet would be fired into his own head. Even if he somehow survived this shot, he would still fall off the bridge and hang himself."
In both accounts, Bremer wanted to enjoy a last meal and visited a diner where he got a friendly waitress. Bremer experienced the server's kindly eyes and friendly smile as surprise gifts.
Later, he was at the bridge about to put his plan into action and the waitress, who had just finished her shift, happened by. She smiled at the customer who had left her a generous tip. Bremer's spirits got a boost and he no longer wanted to die, at least not that night.
Like Hinckley, who would become obsessed with Taxi Driver, a film Bremer inspired, Bremer was powerfully influenced by a movie. The film he fixated on was A Clockwork Orange. He fantasized himself as the sociopathic and sadistic Alek. According to James W. Clarke in On Being Mad or Merely Angry, "After first considering a mass murder in his hometown, Bremer decided that assassinating a prominent representative of that 'silent majority' would be a more spectacular, more outrageously perverse act."
Bremer's motivation of generalized rage, like that of John Hinckley Jr. and perhaps Lee Harvey Oswald, had more in common with those attributed to a subgroup of mass murderers than politically committed assassins like Booth and Sirhan Sirhan.
It is important here to distinguish between serial killers and mass murderers. Serial killers hunt human prey and are usually specific as to characteristics such as gender, race, age, and other qualities of their victims. Serial killers try to avoid being caught so they can kill again after a cooling off period. Mass murderers kill a group of victims all at once and usually kill themselves or are killed by police. While most mass murderers slaughter those they know, either their families or people in their (often former) workplaces, there are some who choose random targets.
Both Bremer and Hinckley considered mass murder. As well as the planned slaughter-suicide derailed by a waitress's smile, Bremer (according to Clarke), thought of "hijacking an armored truck, parking it in a busy Milwaukee intersection, and then shooting as many people as possible from its slit windows." Hinckley mulled over the possibility of a mass murder at Yale, where Jodie Foster was a student, or going into the U.S. Senate chamber and shooting as many people as he could.
There are at least two mass murderers who probably toyed with the possibility of assassination. James Huberty killed 21 people at a California McDonald's in 1984. His widow said Huberty blamed President Jimmy Carter for his unemployment and business reversals and she believed he wanted to kill Carter. Mark Jimmy Essex, who shot six people to death from a roof in New Orleans had plastered his room with anti-Nixon slogans.
Arthur Bremer settled on assassination. He started a diary in March 1972. Riddled with spelling errors, the document opens a window into a tragically disturbed and dangerous mind. The first entry reads, "Now I start my diary of my personal plot to kill by pistol either Richard Nixon or George Wallace." His purpose was apolitical: "to do SOMETHING BOLD AND DRAMATIC, FORCEFULL & DYNAMIC, A STATEMENT of my manhood for the world to see." He latched onto these two men because they seemed to represent the "middle America" that had rejected him. In these writings he debates whether he should murder Nixon or Wallace. He observed that the former target was a bigger one but the latter would be easier to get.
He decided to kill Nixon.
Nixon was scheduled to make an appearance in Ottawa, Canada and Bremer planned to shoot him there. Before he left for his trip to Ottawa, Bremer buried his diary in a landfill.
It would remain there until 1980 when a construction worker named Sherman Griffin happened upon a cheap briefcase as he was running a grader through the landfill. As Healey writes, "He didn't think too much about it at first. Lost or discarded objects, the detritus of people's lives, were frequently uncovered during excavations." However, "something about the briefcase held his attention. Throughout the day, he kept looking back at it." He finally had to open it up. Inside it he found a school composition book that had been "tightly wrapped with protective aluminum foil and bound with masking tape."
Griffin opened the book and was stunned to read, "Now I start my diary of my personal plot to kill by pistol either Richard Nixon or George Wallace."
Soon after Bremer chucked the first part of his diary, he started the new one that would be published in 1973 as An Assassin's Diary.
Then he flew to New York and engaged in a series of sordid misadventures. He was unable to rent a car. Wanting to divest himself of his virginity, he made a trip to a massage parlor but did not have enough money to get the masseuse to do more than fondle him. Back in his New York hotel room, his Browning .38 automatic went off accidentally. The next day, he slipped the gun under a mat in the trunk of his car, then put the automatic so deeply down the right wheel well that he could not fish it back out again.
Bremer had a sense of humor. He wrote in his diary that when the Canadian customs inspector asked if he had anything to declare, he planned to say, "I declare it's a nice day." When actually asked the question at customs, he lost the nerve to be "cute" and simply replied, "What should I declare?"
Finally, he got to Ottawa and the Nixon rallies. He could never get close to his target. He was upset that anti-Nixon demonstrators got all of the media attention while he was ignored. Writing in his second diary of a photographer at the rally who focused on the protestors, Bremer remarked, "What a dope! Those noisemakers were all on news film! He should of photographed the quiet ones." This observation may be significant beyond what it said about a photographer. Bremer had always been one of "the quiet ones" – and always ignored. As a shy, introverted child, he had been left to fend for himself between rejecting schoolmates and a chilly home. When he was a quiet teenager, adult attention had focused on the noisy, doping party crowd. As a man, he was trapped in silence by his lack of social skills. Gunfire would break that silence
Frustrated by his failure to assassinate Nixon, Bremer again turned to his diary. In it, he indicated that he did not expect to survive his victim's death. "I was supposed to be Dead a week & a day ago," he wrote, "Or at least infamous." He added that he believed his diary would be examined as closely as the Dead Sea Scrolls once he took his victim down.
He considered assassinating George McGovern but decided the liberal candidate who represented hippies, minorities, and anti-war protestors was too marginal of a figure.
Bremer wrote that Wallace would "have the honor" of being his victim and began stalking the governor. He also decided on a "cute" declaration to shout when he gunned down the candidate. It was, "A penny for your thoughts."
He fretted that his second-choice victim would not bestow on him the infamy he craved. The assassination would lack the greatest impact if Wallace's most liberal rival for the Democratic presidential nomination gained popularity. "The whole country's going liberal," a distressed Bremer wrote in his diary. "I can see it in McGovern. You know my biggest failure may be when I kill Wallace."
Bremer concluded that killing the right-wing Wallace would still be his statement against the society that rejected him. Again, the theme of breaking the silence showed up in his diary. Just before the shooting, he wrote: "Hey world! Come here! I wanna talk to ya! If I don't kill – if I don't kill myself I want you to pay through the nose, ears, & belly button. . . when I kill Wallace, I hope everyone screams & hollers and everything!! I hope the rally goes mad!!! The silent majority will be my benefactor in the biggest hijack ever!"
On May 15, Wallace spoke at a rally in Wheaton, Md. There were many hecklers in the audience shouting "remember Selma!" and "Hitler for vice-president!" along with various obscenities. Wallace coolly commented that he thought well-educated young people would have a better vocabulary. The hecklers did not stop at taunts but tried to pelt the governor with a variety of missiles including rocks and tomatoes. None of them hit the target and Wallace told a tomato thrower that a baseball team might want to get him to pitch for an opposing team.
One of the people in that crowd who threw neither epithets nor tomatoes was Bremer. Ever smiling, the neat young man with the Wallace button conspicuously on his lapel applauded the candidate strongly and often. He told a Secret Service agent that he wished the candidate would come down to shake hands with him.
Bremer would be at the next rally that afternoon in Laurel. The man who felt smothered by a lifelong silence broke that silence with an explosion of gunfire. After he shot Wallace, he forgot to say his "cute" phrase, "A penny for your thoughts."
Court Trial, Life Trial
At trial, Bremer pled not guilty by reason of insanity. Shortly after his arrest, several psychiatrists and psychologists examined him. They found him to be of slightly above average intelligence and to have no delusions in the classic sense of hearing voices and seeing visions. No doctor could find evidence of organic brain damage. His most bizarre responses were to the Rorschach tests. These famous tests involve 10 inkblots. The person being tested is asked to describe what he or she sees the blots as representing. Bremer's responses were abnormal for the sheer number of them. The average subject gives between 20 and 45 interpretations; he gave over 800 interpretations in his first test and 500 in his second.
Bremer's trial was swift. It started less than three months after he shot Wallace. Judge Ralph Powers presided and moved things along at a fast clip. The trial ended after only five days.
Defense attorney Benjamin Lipsitz argued passionately that his client was sick and could not be held responsible for his actions. He was, Lipsitz asserted, "a schizophrenic . . . a psychotic . . . sick from the day he was born, maybe even before he was born."
State's Attorney Arthur Marshall Jr. countered that the defendant's planning and foresight showed he was sane.
Eight psychiatrists and two psychologists testified. They were evenly divided between witnesses for the prosecution and those for the defense.
During the trial, the defendant usually showed little emotion but often smiled the same eerily fixed smile that had been captured in so many photographs. On at least one occasion the testimony about his sad life broke the giddy façade and, according to Healey, the defendant "was reduced to convulsive sobbing."
Lipsitz read Bremer's diary into the record in an effort to support his client's plea. Most observers believed the diary did not show he was insane although its writer was obviously disturbed, full of hate and feelings of intense humiliation, self-rejection, and a generalized misanthropy. On at least one occasion, Bremer was able to act morally. He had a chance to shoot Wallace but did not take it because it would have meant seriously injuring two teenagers.
The jury convicted Bremer, convinced that he understood the illegality of his actions and their possible consequences in his own death or imprisonment.
Before sentencing, the judge asked the defendant if he had anything to say. Bremer replied, "Well, Mr. Marshall [the prosecutor] mentioned that he would like society to be protected from someone like me. Looking back on my life I would have liked it if society had protected me from myself. That's all I have to say at this time."
The judge sentenced Bremer to 53 years in the Maryland State Penitentiary. He had intended to die in a hail of bullets as he killed a representative of the "Silent Majority." He thought such evil glory would redeem his life of petty failures. He did not kill Wallace nor did he get killed. Instead, he added more failure to his lengthy record of bumbles.
The shooting ended neither Wallace's life nor his political career. But the bullets that tore into him sentenced him to a life in pain and paralysis.
For the next six presidential primaries of 1972, Wallace was hospitalized and unable to campaign, an absence that undoubtedly cut into the strength of his showing. He finished third behind the Democrat nominee McGovern and former Vice President Humphrey.
Although Wallace was still in terrible pain, he wanted to attend the Democratic convention and did. The candidate addressed the convention from a wheelchair. Many delegates stood to applaud the courageous candidate. He spoke for nine minutes, telling the convention that the Democratic Party must "become what it used to be – the party of the average working man" and urged tax relief for the middle and working classes.
The Democrats nominated the anti-war, liberal McGovern who was Wallace's political polar opposite. In the general election, Republican President Nixon trounced McGovern in a record-breaking landslide.
Wallace sought reelection as governor in 1974. A change in the law permitted incumbents to succeed themselves so he did not need a stand-in as he had when Lurleen ran for the office in his place. The governor was determined to attract black support. Critics wondered if that would be possible given how long his name had been linked to racism.
Exactly a decade after his famous "stand in the schoolhouse door," the students of the University of Alabama elected a black coed as their homecoming queen. Wallace went to the college to crown her. He appointed several blacks to state positions and energetically reached out to black groups, speaking to many.
It surprised some observers that blacks were receptive to his overtures. A conference of black mayors gave him a standing ovation. Several black officials and groups endorsed him.
Wallace easily won reelection with 64 percent of the total votes cast and 25 percent of the black vote.
In 1976, Wallace ran again for the presidency on the Democratic ticket. He did not do well. Part of his appeal had been his physical vigor and the shooting had stolen that. Perhaps more importantly, Georgia's Jimmy Carter was running and the South saw a chance to send a president to Washington instead of just a message. Carter won the nomination and went on to win the presidency, ousting President Gerald Ford who had served out the remaining portion of Nixon's term.
For Wallace, woes on the home front followed this political failure. Tensions grew between him and his wife Cornelia. Both suspected the other of infidelity. Cornelia moved out of the governor's mansion in June 1977. They were divorced in January 1978.
Wallace's term ended in 1979; he did not seek reelection. He lectured at the University of Alabama and elsewhere. He also apologized to blacks for his segregationist past. He made that apology at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery from which Martin Luther King Jr. had preached when leading the civil rights movement. Wallace spoke to the congregation from his wheelchair and claimed his disability had led to a change of heart. "I have learned what suffering means," he told them, "in a way that was impossible before. I think I can understand something of the pain that black people have come to endure. I know I contributed to that pain, and I can only ask for your forgiveness."
The disabled man also publicly forgave Arthur Bremer. He also said he was not obsessed by his attacker but "I rarely think about Arthur Bremer except when people ask me about him."
Wallace remarried in 1981. His bride was 32-year-old Lisa Taylor, a pretty woman who had been a singer at some of his rallies.
Pining for the political life, Wallace ran for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1982 against incumbent Lt. Gov. George McMillan. Wallace spoke to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and on Alabama television to repeat his apology for having acted against black interests. He won the Democratic nomination with the help of about a third of the party's black voters.
His Republican opponent in the general election was Montgomery Mayor Emory Folmer, a candidate widely perceived as pro-wealth and anti-working class. Wallace beat him easily with 60 percent of the total vote and virtually all the black vote.
Soon after his election, Lisa left him. She had never enjoyed the political life with its never ending round of public functions.
It was the final term he would serve. His health deteriorated while he was in office and he retired from politics in 1987. Wallace died of respiratory failure and cardiac arrest on Sept. 13, 1998.
By the end of his life, the segregationist firebrand had become a symbol of racial reconciliation. John Lewis, a black congressional representative from Georgia who grew up in Alabama, wrote in The New York Times shortly after Wallace's death, "With all his failings, Mr. Wallace deserves recognition for seeking redemption for his mistakes, for his willingness to change and to set things right with those he harmed and with his God."
Life into Art into Life
Writer Paul Schrader was intrigued by the sad, ugly story of Arthur Bremer. This apolitical assassin inspired his script for the movie Taxi Driver. Directed by Martin Scorcese, this fascinating film contained many parallels to the life of Arthur Bremer. Its anti-hero, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), is a bitter loner. Like the original, the socially inept Bickle tries to impress a woman (Cybill Shepherd) on the first date by showing her pornography. She is not a teenager but an adult named Betsy who works for a politician. She is utterly turned off just as Bremer's date was and ends the relationship. Again like Bremer, Bickle futilely attempts to renew the relationship. He also shaves his head, arms himself, and stalks a political candidate. The film departs from its inspiration in some major respects. Bickle forms a relationship with Iris (Jodie Foster), a 12-year-old prostitute and ends up murdering a group of people instead of shooting a politician. Finally, Bickle gets away with the slayings, being mistaken for a hero because his targets are involved in pimping and pandering.
Taxi Driver was a masterfully made and popular film. One of its most devoted fans was a psychologically unbalanced young man named John Hinckley. He watched it at least 15 times with an increasing identification with its lonely, homicidal protagonist, and a growing fixation on Jodie Foster. Hinckley invented a girlfriend modeled on Betsy and tried to pursue a relationship with Foster. Foster, then attending Yale University, rebuffed him. Finally, Hinckley armed himself, then attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan outside the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. Like Bremer, Hinckley failed to kill his intended target. Reagan fully recovered from the life-threatening gunshot wound he sustained. Hinckley's bullets, like Bremer's, left a victim paralyzed for life, in this case presidential press secretary James Brady.
Hinckley's connection with Bremer went beyond the fiction inspired by him. Hinckley read Bremer's published diary and easily identified with the man behind the character. The two were from very different socioeconomic backgrounds but had much in common. As noted, they were both reared by tense mothers who may have been overly involved in their sons' lives, thus not permitting them to really grow up. They were both outwardly passive personalities, loners who failed to establish romances, had academic records of underachievement, and intermittent work histories at menial jobs. Indeed, both had worked at the identical occupation of busboy. Both were alienated from their families and from people in general. They had no significant others, at least in reality, and no friends.
Both pled not guilty by reason of insanity. And there their stories diverge for Hinckley's defense, unlike Bremer's, was successful. Many public officials and commentators harshly criticized Hinckley's jury for its verdict. It is possible that Hinckley was far more seriously ill than Bremer and both juries came to correct conclusions. It is also possible that Hinckley benefited from the fact that his affluent parents were able to afford better legal representation for their son than Bremer received.
Hinckley remains, as of this writing, confined at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C.
Although all of Bremer's requests for parole were denied over the years and he was sentenced to 53 years, he will be freed in late 2007. Following prison rules has enabled him to cut 18 years off his originally scheduled release date of 2025. Instead of at age 75, Bremer will leave prison as a 57-year-old.
According to an Associated Press article by Ben Nuckols that was published in ABC News, "Bremer has shaved nearly two decades off his 53-year sentence with good behavior and by working jobs in prison." The article continues that he is a clerk at the medium security Maryland Correctional Institute-Hagerstown where he has been confined since 1979. The article discloses that "he's scheduled to be released in mid-December [of 2007] and could get out even sooner."
During a parole hearing, Bremer explained why he has never granted an interview during his 35 years of incarceration. "I shy away from publicity," he stated. "There's nothing I could say, and if I did say something, it could be interpreted in the worst possible way against me."
Nuckols quotes Ruth Ogle, program manager for the Maryland Parole Commission, describing Bremer's conduct behind bars as exemplary. "He was a model inmate," she commented. "He never had an infraction the entire time he was incarcerated."
However, neither has Bremer expressed remorse for the shooting that left his victim permanently paralyzed and in pain. Indeed, according to an Associated Press article by Jay Reeves that was published in U. S. News, this attempted assassin, whose motives are known to have been profoundly apolitical, wrote a letter in 1997 to parole officials in which he seemed to suggest that Wallace's politics mitigated against the seriousness of Bremer's crime. Bremer asked for early release on the grounds that "segregationist dinosaurs" are different from other politicians. Bremer wrote, "They are extinct, not endangered, by an act of God."
Nuckols's article quotes Wallace's son, George Wallace Jr., as stating, "I've forgiven Arthur Bremer and my family has, so I think God's law has been adhered to, and we're comfortable with that." Nonetheless, the younger Wallace cautioned against investing any disproportionate sympathy to this criminal: "I don't believe that given the suffering my father endured all those years from the gunshots and the constant paralysis, I don't think Arthur Bremer's incarceration comes close to that type of suffering."
Reeves reported that the Alabama attorney general's office announced that "it would like to block the early release" of Bremer. Reeves continued, "Maryland parole official Ruth Ogle said there was nothing Alabama officials could do about Bremer because Maryland law allows inmates to reduce their prison terms with good behavior."
Nuckols wrote, "Bremer's plans for life outside prison were unclear. Maj. Priscilla Doggett, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Division of Correction, said inmates are required to indicate where they plan to live after their release. Any money they've made from prison jobs is paid in a check, and they're given at least $50 in cash."
Gribben, Mark, "James Earl Ray: The Man Who Killed Martin Luther King", Crime Library.
Wessel, Rhea, "Forgiveness and Repentence", The Anniston Star.
Who2, "The Taxi Driver Connection".
World Book Online, "Assassination" and "Wallace, George Corley".
CNN, "George Wallace dies".
Grieder, William, "Wallace Is Shot, Legs Paralyzed: Suspect Seized at Laurel Rally", Washington Post.
Newsweek, August 14, 1972, "Guilty – and Sane."
Life, May, 1972, "The Savage Secret Behind A Smile," "The Boy Who Shut Everyone Out."
Bremer, Arthur, An Assassin's Diary, Harper's Magazine Press, New York, NY, 1973.
Clarke, James W., American Assassins, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1982.
Lesher, Stephan, George Wallace, American Populist, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Reading, Massachusetts, 1994.
Netzley, Patricia D., Presidential Assassins, Lucent Books, San Diego. CA, 2000.
Wallace, George, Jr., The Wallaces of Alabama, Follett Publishing Co., Chicago, IL, 1975.
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