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


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."

And so, in Laurel that afternoon, Mr. Wallace tossed off his jacket. He rolled up his sleeves. He stepped down to the parking lot. . . .

The man waiting for him had been to Canada, Wisconsin and Michigan in the preceding months. At first he had stalked President Nixon, only to find the president too elusive, too distant from the crowds behind his security cordon and bulletproof glass.

So, 11 days earlier he had taken an afternoon walk and watched a movie, "A Clockwork Orange." He then sat down and grudgingly picked a new target. "I won't even rate a TV exhibition in Russia," Bremer wrote that day. "They never heard of Wallace. I'll end up on the bottom of the first page in America."

Conspiracy buffs have since theorized that Bremer was manipulated by a Nixon White House aide. But most just don't see it.

Dan Carter, an Emory University history professor writing a Wallace biography, said, "With anything like this there are always loose ends, but on this one there were probably fewer than with the others. . . . You really do get the sense in reading through his diary and the transcripts of the FBI interviews that this [Bremer] is somebody who's just not connected to anybody . . . this was a truly pathetic individual."

Whatever the case, Bremer found his target, and the man who had vigorously waded into the crowd went down, never to walk again.

The next day Mr. Wallace won in Maryland and Michigan, celebrating wanly from his hospital bed. And eventually he fought off depression to run again for the White House in 1976, holding a single vision in the back of his mind.

It went like this: Mr. Wallace, a cheering crowd before him at the 1976 Democratic convention, grips the sides of the wheelchair and pushes himself up onto crutches, then swings himself to the podium, the wild roar of a startled crowd ringing in his ears as he accepts the vice presidential nomination.

Instead he got Jimmy Carter, another Southern governor who sapped his base of support. And the rest of the vision disappeared when his helpers dropped him while carrying him off a plane. At the next stop they discovered that a leg was swelling badly. It was broken, and he never again talked of walking, Mr. Greenhaw said.

But if the physical changes were for the worse, Mr. Wallace's outlook changed for the better, his friends say. "It gave him an insight into the frailty of life," Mr. Stanton said. "He has spent more time giving consideration to his spiritual condition. He has expressed to friends how important it is to be right with God."

And he softened his hard stance against racial integration, the issue that took him to national prominence while damning him with a reputation for intolerance.

But others say that pragmatism has influenced him as greatly as paralysis.

"It [his paralysis] became a very convenient explanation for why Wallace began to change," said Mr. Carter, the biographer. More telling, he said, was the arithmetic of increasing black voting strength brought on by the Voting Rights Act.

If Bremer has undergone any similar transformation in the past 20 years, he has shown no outward sign. He apparently is still pretty much the same quiet guy who, despite his earlier hunger for national attention, seems most comfortable when people simply leave him alone. And ever since he complained to prison officials about some information they released about him in 1979, they, too, have been reticent.

Hagerstown Warden Lloyd "Pete" Waters would only say this when asked about Bremer's life in prison: "He is in an individual, 9-by-6 cell. He gets up at 8 every morning like everybody else. . . . He has an institutional job assignment, just like 2,093 individuals that we have incarcerated here."

Bremer's mother, Sylvia, seems at a loss to explain her son. She said that he writes infrequently, and then only a short note when he needs clothes or money. A few months ago he asked for a warm-up suit, and when her husband, William, visited in late April, Arthur was wearing the new warm-ups.

Neither Mrs. Bremer nor her husband, who live in Milwaukee, have tried to pry from their son the reason for the shooting. "There isn't really much to say about it," she said. "It just happened."

Instead of writing him letters, they send greeting cards. "We buycards that tell him that we care about him. That's better than writing a letter," she said.

Their visits are usually short. When her husband prepared to leave Hagerstown after a morning meeting on April 29, "they [at the prison] said he could come back for another visit in the afternoon," Mrs. Bremer said. "But my husband said he'd better get back on the bus. Maybe he was getting nervous."

When asked if her son was perhaps simply a lonely young man who had been crying out for attention 20 years ago, she paused for a moment and said, "I think that's what it was, but he just didn't know how to ask."

In some ways, the day of the shooting still seems recent. Newspaper headlines from the week bear an odd alliance of past and present. In baseball, a rookie catcher named John Oates led the Orioles to a victory. In Vietnam, Pentagon officials bubbled with enthusiasm about tests of new laser-guided "smart bombs."

But for Mr. Wallace, two marriages and an unprecedented fourth term as Alabama governor have come and gone, and in 1986 he announced the end of his political career. Meanwhile, the pains of the old gunshots still haunt him, despite an operation on his spine to end them several years ago; "phantom pains," the doctors call them.

Often these days Mr. Wallace is moody and depressed, friends say. But, as always, there is still one sure way to lift his spirits. Just before last Christmas, a videotape arrived in the mail from an old admirer. It was a montage of the George Wallace of 1968 -- "a little bantam rooster," as Mr. Greenhaw described him then. "He just kept strutting about, moving here and there, and the more crowds he could find to talk to, the better he liked it."

Mr. Wallace popped in the videotape for a showing during Mr. Greenhaw's visit then, and for a few moments it was almost like old times back at the State House, with memories flashing before them in black and white, and Mr. Wallace talking of the glorious crowds.

"He was sitting in bed, chomping on that cigar, and just loving it."

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