George Wallace: symbol of hatred, victim of madness

MICHAEL OLESKER

May 17, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Twenty years ago, just days before his date with a gunman's bullet in Laurel, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama sat in his room at the downtown Baltimore Holiday Inn and fought with his wife.

History consists of more than the names of presidents and the dates of wars. It's the little stuff, too. Wallace smothered a steak in a lava of ketchup. The wife, Cornelia, fussed over him like a schoolboy. Somewhere in America, a strange kid named Arthur Bremer was keeping a diary.

Cornelia Wallace didn't wish to be interviewed. Her husband talked easily, when he could hear the questions. I sat 3 feet from him, and he had to read my lips.

"Go ahead and answer the man's questions," Wallace told Cornelia.

"Well, usually you just tell me to be quiet," she snapped.

"Yeah, but this ain't politics."

He turned his head to look for a clock. In his run for the presidency, he was due to speak at the 5th Regiment Armory in about an hour. I asked him another question and got no response.

"He didn't hear you," said Cornelia, as her husband's eyes scanned the room for the clock.

"I know," I said. "He hasn't heard a word I've said. He's going deaf, isn't he?"

"Yes," she said.

"But I haven't read anything about it."

"Nooo," she said.

Implicit was Wallace's dread: If voters knew he was hard of hearing, would they worry about him getting on the hot line with the Russians?

Inside the steamy armory that evening, Wallace gave his standard talk about why he wanted to be president. The big crowd roared and whistled. Wallace never mentioned blacks, never mentioned segregation. He didn't have to.

The man who'd stood in the Alabama schoolhouse door, vowing segregation forever, was beginning to use the language of mainstream politicians: speaking in codes, giving the little verbal winks to the insiders, all of it intended to poke at the country's sore spot while fending off the charges of overt racism.

After the speech was a press conference, where Wallace needed an aide to whisper the questions to him. I grabbed a New York reporter who'd been tailing him around the country.

"He can't hear anything," I said.

"Right," he nodded.

"Have you written that?" I asked.

"Nah," the reporter said. "I just cover politics."

I went back to my newspaper office and wrote a piece about the evening. It included the parts about Wallace's growing deafness. An editor killed the story, implying I was making it up because I didn't like Wallace.

Furious, I wrote a letter of resignation and escaped to friends in NTC New York for a few days. Somewhere on the road, a frantic Arthur Bremer picked up his diary and wrote his last entry:

"My fuse is about burnt. There's gonna be an explosion soon. I had it. I want something to happen. I was supposed to be dead a week and a half ago. Or at least in a few hours. . . . Ask me why I did it and I'd say, 'Nothing else to do,' or 'I have to kill somebody.' That's how far gone I am."

On the afternoon of May 15, walking along 14th Street in New York, I saw a man run out of a delicatessen with his eyes popped open.

"Did you hear?" he said. "The radio says somebody just shot George Wallace."

"Wallace?"

"In Maryland," the guy said.

"That can't be," I muttered, half to myself. "I was just with him."

The guy gave me a New Yorker's sure-you-were look, and I felt extraordinarily stupid. I drove back to Baltimore, got my old job back, and for 20 years I've read the stories about the deterioration of George Wallace.

The latest reports say he's failing pretty fast. He's never walked again, and his hearing is bad, and his mood is pretty dark.

Sometimes we ask how things might have been different if Arthur Bremer hadn't been driven by his strange madness, if Wallace hadn't gone to Laurel, if he'd continued his climb to the White House while spreading his message of racial divisiveness.

How different? Maybe not so much. Nobody in mainstream politics talks openly of segregation these days, but they don't have to. They've learned Wallace's old trick of talking in code: speak of brotherhood, but cut the cities off from help. Pit the haves against the have-nots.

How much change in 20 years? The schools went through brief integration, but are essentially segregated again. The poverty rate among blacks is triple the white rate. The streets of Los Angeles erupt, and everybody calls it a throwback to another time.

Yeah, George Wallace's time. Two decades ago, my newspaper sent me to Upper Marlboro to cover the trial of Arthur Bremer. It felt like an afterthought. The trial started on a Monday and ended on a Friday, because the judge was scheduled to go on vacation.

Testimony started at nine and ended near midnight. The jurors listened to the most delicate testimony about Bremer's state of mind, with their eyes drooping and their bodies slumping and their feet literally propped up on the jury box.

When they read Bremer's diary aloud -- every word of it -- his own attorney laughed heartily and then apologized. Not to Bremer, but to the judge.

George Wallace never came to court. Nobody talked about his politics, nobody mentioned how his language contributed to the general madness of the time.

Now it's 20 years later, and the language is different. Wallace, from his bed, says he doesn't hate anybody. The politicians all talk in more mollifying language. Bremer's in a cell in Hagerstown, talking to no one. Everybody says America has changed a lot since that day in Laurel.

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