Political Assassinations: George C. Wallace
This blog summarizes Chapter 11 of my forthcoming book titled Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History: The Lasting Effects of Gun Violence Against American Political Leaders. Chapter 11 recounts the attempted assassination of Alabama Governor George Corley Wallace as he campaigned for president.
On Monday afternoon, May 15, 1972, the governor appeared at a shopping center in Laurel, Maryland, to address a crowd of supporters congregating to hear him speak. It was the kind of appearance that Wallace had made numerous times throughout his political career. Known as a conservative firebrand who dished out vitriolic rhetoric condemning an out-of-control federal government, a lax criminal justice system, and the fear of ascendant ethnic and racial minorities, Wallace was a master at playing on people’s fears of a changing America. This was supposed to be another stop in a long list of stops for the energetic demagogue. He briefly considered cancelling the event—he had been heckled at a previous appearance, and he was tired from his relentless travel—but he persevered. As Wallace would soon learn, this campaign stop was anything but ordinary.
He had been worried about threats to his life. Ever since his emergence on the national scene as a proponent of state rights and white supremacy during the early 1960s, Wallace had attracted attention among fringe figures on both the left and the right of the political spectrum. Now, as he campaigned to secure the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination, he was more prominent than ever. With strong primary showings, Wallace recognized that he might win his party’s nomination and advance to the general election to challenge the perennially unpopular incumbent, Republican President Richard M. Nixon. Love him or hate him, the vocal southern populist could not be ignored.
The open-air rally that Monday afternoon followed the usual pattern. A country-and-western band played music to keep onlookers entertained while the faithful assembled to hear the candidate dish out red meat. Security personnel, including US Secret Service agents, circulated through the crowd to keep an eye out for dangerous-looking characters that might wish the candidate harm. Anything out of the ordinary would be viewed with suspicion. Familiar faces and innocent-looking, fresh-faced attendees sporting crew-cuts and clothed in conservative garb received less scrutiny than foreigners and oddly-dressed Hippie types.
A smiling man in his early twenties with a short blonde haircut wearing red, white, and blue clothing along with several Wallace campaign buttons was a familiar figure that day. He arrived at the rally in a 1967 Rambler automobile, parked in the shopping center lot, and joined the crowd. Nothing seemed amiss. Then young man had attended several Wallace rallies lately and appeared to be one of the governor’s most loyal fans. Given his ongoing presence and his apparent innocuousness, no one thought the odd little fellow hiding behind sunglasses and a grinning visage presented a clear-and-present danger to the man from Alabama.
The fellow’s name was Arthur Herman Bremer and, unbeknownst to Wallace and the security personnel, he was not a Wallace groupie. The 21-year-old Milwaukee, Wisconsin, native was later described as “intelligent, rational, sometimes humorous, even thoughtful” who knew “exactly what he was doing and why—and it had little to do with politics.” Bremer was a nihilistic personality whose life was so meaningless and isolated that he believed he could create meaning only by assassinating a prominent person.
After initially focusing on President Nixon as a suitable target, he settled on George Wallace because a presidential contender was not as insulated as an incumbent president. Far from a benign presence, the clean-cut young man nursed a secret, singular goal—to assassinate George Corley Wallace. He had attempted to carry out the deed previously, but his plans had been thwarted. Today would be the day.
As Wallace waded into the crowd to shake hands, Bremer stepped forward and fired a handgun repeatedly, hitting the presidential candidate five times in the chest and abdomen. Police officers and security personnel immediately pounced on the assailant and took him into custody. Unfortunately, the damage was already done.
Frantic campaign officials rushed the stricken governor to a nearby hospital. One bullet had lodged in Wallace’s spine. After a five-hour operation, the wounded man survived the ordeal, but he was a paraplegic for the rest of his life. Three other people hit by Bremer’s bullets survived as well.
Investigators discovered that Bremer was not an ideologue. He did not shoot George Wallace because he disapproved of the man’s politics or agenda. Bremer was a strange individual who desperately craved public attention. In his writings, police found statements that Bremer planned to shoot someone famous to attract public attention. He confessed in his writings that he sought “to do SOMETHING BOLD AND DRAMATIC, FORCEFUL & DYNAMIC, A STATEMENT of my manhood for the world to see.”
The world definitely saw his actions. After his trial and conviction, Bremer was sentenced to 63 years in prison (later reduced to 53 years) for those actions. He was released in 2007 after serving 35 years of his sentence. He will remain on probation until 2025.
Perhaps to the gunman’s delight, he became an indelible part of American popular culture. The fictional Travis Bickle character in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver loosely resembled Bremer. As production began on the film, the director explained that Bremer’s diary inspired screenwriter Paul Schrader to create the Bickle character. Rock musician Peter Gabriel based his 1980 song “Family Snapshot” on Bremer’s diary. In a curious art-imitates-life-imitates-art evolution, John W. Hinckley, Jr., President Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin, drew inspiration from Taxi Driver when he shot the president in 1981. In 1990, Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins featured Bremer’s offstage voice speaking to characters on stage. The 1994 film Forrest Gump briefly showed a clip of the Wallace shooting, although Bremer was not mentioned by name. Stephen King referenced Wallace’s shooter in the acclaimed novel 11.22.63.
As for George Wallace, his presidential campaign ended as a result of the shooting. Nonetheless, after he recuperated from the attack, he remained in office as governor and even won reelection several times. He finally retired from office in 1987. He died in 1998.
Even with the benefit of hindsight, categorizing Arthur Bremer based on his motives is a difficult enterprise. Clearly he was not a Type 1 assailant. He expressed no interest in achieving a political goal. By his own admission, his interest in shooting Richard Nixon was not related to disagreements over the president’s policy positions. When he realized that he would never get close enough to Nixon to shoot the man, he seamlessly changed course and stalked George Wallace. If Wallace had proved to be inaccessible, no doubt Bremer would have selected another target. His interest in shooting a political figure was related to the prominence of the target, not the target’s politics.
Bremer also was not a Type 4 actor. He did not suffer from severe cognitive distortion. He never spoke of hallucinations or strange visions directing his actions. By all accounts, he was lucid and able to distinguish between reality and flights of fancy.
The difficulty lies in determining whether Arthur Bremer was a Type 2 or Type 3 shooter. The suggestion here is that he belongs in the Type 3 category. A Type 2 actor seeks recognition and hopes that assassinating a famous public figure will provide the fame he desperately craves. This description seems to apply to Bremer. He was not a political ideologue infuriated with George Wallace’s racial views or the candidate’s rigid stance on law and order. Bremer was a non-entity seeking to become an entity.
Yet seeking attention was not the central feature of Arthur Bremer’s distorted personality. As his diary revealed, he had lost his way. He viewed life as purposeless. His absurd attempts to provide meaning in his life ended in abject failure; thus, he believed that existence was a matter of no great consequence. Shooting George Wallace was his method of imposing the meaninglessness of his life onto another person.
In some ways, the distinction between Type 2 and Type 3 actors is a matter of degree. Type 2 actors possess low self-esteem and use violence as a means of invigorating their lives. They hope that somehow the fame that flows from the act will ease their pain. Type 3 actors have given up on easing their pain. They hope for nothing, for hope implies that the existential condition can improve, and this they do not believe. They only seek to share their misery, projecting their nihilism into a public realm. As commentator James W. Clarke has noted, Type 3 actors appear to “derive some satisfaction, perhaps pleasure, in their own debasement.” A Type 3 assailant “is not someone who has lost his reason; rather he is someone who has lost everything but his reason.”