20 years into life sentence, George Wallace still struggles with pain

May 14, 1992|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

Sometimes as he lies in bed, curled almost like a fetus in his paralysis, George Wallace feels the bullets of Arthur Bremer plowing into him again from 20 years distant. He grabs for his side and back, twisting spasmodically in pain, while visitors in the room watch in horror, thinking that the old governor must be near death.

At other times, when the pain is gone, Mr. Wallace will recount how a scheduling mix-up almost prompted him to call off his trip to Laurel on that morning of May 15, 1972. Or how that afternoon he ignored an agreement with his aides by plunging into the cheering crowd at the shopping center. He stepped briskly from the podium to the parking lot, boiling over with vitality as he smiled and shook hands in a procession that led him straight to the gun barrel of Bremer, the pale, lonely man with the sunglasses and the vacant, goofy smile, the stalker of famous politicians who had found his mark at last.

This Friday is the 20th anniversary of the shooting, and in some ways little has changed from the moment just after Bremer's gunshots popped in the air like a string of firecrackers.

Mr. Wallace still suffers from his wounds, surviving to age 72 at his home in Montgomery with his place in history still up for grabs. Bremer, now 41 and nearly halfway home to mandatory parole, remains a riddle wrapped in the enigma of his smile, turning down all interview requests and saying little even to his parents when they visit at the Maryland Correctional Institute in Hagerstown.

Mr. Wallace has often said that he holds no ill will toward Bremer, and not even old adversaries doubt his sincerity. In fact, says one close friend, if the governor harbors any selfish emotion about Bremer, it may be envy.

"If George Wallace could face the option of the sentence given Arthur Bremer and the sentence given himself, he might just take the other side, he really might," said Alabama Secretary of State Billy Joe Camp, who was with Mr. Wallace that day as his press secretary.

"He has had a slow death, and the lifestyle he was so noted for died almost immediately."

Mr. Wallace's agonizing slide toward death nearly reached the end two months ago, friends say, when a choking spell and a bout of severe pain sent him to the hospital. He spent two weeks hooked up to a respirator. After that, he, too, turned down interview requests, until he granted a brief interview last week with the Associated Press, in which he spoke of his lost political aspirations and "20 years of pain."

Those who have visited him recently say he is puffy and sallow, his voice low. His hearing is almost gone, but that deterioration had startedwell before he was shot.

But for the moment he has again fought back and has begun to spend a few hours at his office in Montgomery, where he helps raise money for Troy State University, mostly by writing letters on the school's behalf.

Friends say that the few conversations he still has about the shooting inevitably enter the realm of "what if?" revealing two key points on which the day turned.

The first occurred in the morning. It was the day before the Democratic presidential primaries in Maryland and Michigan, and Mr. Wallace was favored to win both.

His candidacy's gut level attacks on bureaucracy and forced busing for school integration were proving worrisome to his chief rivals, Hubert Humphrey and eventual winner George McGovern.

But when Mr. Wallace and his staff showed up at the Montgomery airport that morning for their flight to Maryland, the pilots were still in their motel rooms, snoozing away after a late flight the night before.

Elvin Stanton, now his executive assistant, who in 1972 was assistant press secretary, recalled "someone, perhaps Wallace, asking aloud, 'Why go?' But the staff decided better late than never. These stops had already been scheduled, so it was a question of not canceling."

The first stop of the day was in Wheaton, and it was rough going. The crowd jeered, surged against the car and threw tomatoes. Mr. Wallace mocked the poor aim.

Then, after a stop for a trademark Wallace lunch -- hamburger steak, well done, with mounds of ketchup -- it was on to the Laurel Shopping Center, where, even if the reaction was friendly, there were no plans for handshaking.

"That had been discussed even with him -- that we did not need any," Mr. Camp said.

But the Laurel crowd was more than friendly, screaming and waving flags, and the reaction played directly to a famous Wallace weakness -- he was a sucker for a good crowd.

Wayne Greenhaw, who followed Mr. Wallace for years as reporter for the Alabama Journal, remembered how State House correspondents used to dread the dull summer days when Mr. Wallace would call them into his office. "Then you knew you were in for at least two hours of picture after picture of audiences from the last campaign. . . . 'Remember that one?' he'd say. Hell, he loved looking through pictures of those crowds."

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