on Tape: The White House Reaction to the Shooting of Alabama Governor and
Democratic Presidential Candidate George Wallace
This article originally
appeared in the History News Network edition of December 3, 2007.
May 15, 1972, Arthur H. Bremer shot Alabama Governor and Democratic presidential
candidate George Wallace five times at close range with a .38 caliber revolver
during a campaign stop in Laurel, Maryland. The shooting in the Washington, D.C.
suburb ended Wallace’s political career and he was paralyzed from the
down for the remainder of his life. In November, thirty-five years later and in
the middle of another political season, Bremer was released from the Maryland
State Penitentiary in Hagerstown on November 6, 2007. The first political
assassin to be paroled in American history, his sentence for the shooting was
reduced on good behavior from an original term of 53 years, even though Bremer
apparently never expressed any remorse.
American citizens then had a vivid memory of the recent assassinations of
President John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among
others. Therefore, the Nixon White House followed the Wallace shooting very
closely immediately after it occurred. Caught on tape, the Nixon tapes document
the President’s reaction, his assembling a kitchen cabinet in the Oval Office
to react to the crisis, and finally, a long session in his private office in the
Executive Office Building in which Nixon and his advisors discussed the
political effects of the shooting and concerns over the way that the Secret
Service and the FBI handled the subsequent investigation. The more than 100
pages of transcripts of conversations that took place in the 24 hours that
followed the shooting demonstrate the administration’s highest interest and
the direct personal involvement of the President and his top advisors in the
the afternoon of May 15, 1972, Nixon was working in the Oval Office and had just
concluded meetings on the budget and trade when he became aware of the shooting
shortly after 4:00 pm. His first reaction was to instruct the White House
Operator to reach his wife, as well as Cornelia Wallace, the wife of George
Wallace, who had been in Laurel with her husband and had held his slain body
before being transported to Prince George’s County Hospital in Cheverly,
first to Mrs. Nixon, the President said, “We’ve got a problem. Have you
heard about Wallace?”
The President’s instinct was to cancel a scheduled appearance that evening in
order to show respect, adding, “Why don’t we just tell the press it’s
closed to the press because of this event?” Nixon then comforted Mrs. Wallace:
“You tell him to keep his spirit, and tell him that all of us people in
politics have got to expect some dangers, and that Mrs. Nixon and I both send
our very best wishes, and you can be sure that we’ll remember him in our
thoughts and our prayers.”
following audio files represent merely a fraction of the total number of
conversations occurred in the White House following the shooting of George
Wallace. The participants are as follows:
P = President Richard Nixon
= Cornelia Wallace (Wife of George Wallace)
= Counsel to the President Charles W. Colson
= Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA)
HRH = Chief of Staff H.R. "Bob"
Secretary of the Treasury John B. Connally
= Assistant to the President for Domestic
Affairs John D. Ehrlichman
= Director James J. Rowley, U.S. Secret Service
= Deputy Attorney General Richard G. Kleindienst
= Thelma C. (Ryan) "Pat" Nixon
= Inspector Thomas J. Kelley, U.S. Secret Service
= White House Operator
||5:10 - 5:13 pm
||5:38 - 5:41 pm
||WHO, HRH, P,
5:41 pm and 5:45 pm
||WHO, HRH, JBC,
6:45 pm and 7:07 pm
6:56 pm and 7:07 pm
||WHO, HRH, RGK, P
7:07 pm and 7:37 pm
||7:37 - 7:42 pm
7:42 pm and 8:10 pm
||P, HRH, CWC
Nixon, without details yet on the assailant or the motive behind the shooting,
ordered Secretary of the Treasury John B. Connally to offer full Secret Service
protection to those political figures the President considered most at risk,
including Sen. Ted Kennedy. Connally, who as Governor of Texas had been injured
by a stray bullet while sitting in the same car in which President Kennedy was
assassinated, was polite but firm with the Senator: “The President asked me to
come over here a minute ago. He said he doesn’t really care what the hell the
law provides as far as our counsel is concerned. He thinks that you’re
traveling around the country, he thinks that out of all of the people who are
susceptible to some nut, you, probably more than anybody except George Wallace,
and he would like, this afternoon, to offer you a full Secret Service
protection, and I’m calling to tell you that, and it’s available to you, and
it’ll be available as of tonight if you want it, Ted.”
across the street to the Executive Office Building, the President then
brainstormed potential motivations behind the shooting of the
former-segregationist Governor during discussions with his closest advisors,
including Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, Counsel to the President for Domestic
Affairs John Ehrlichman, and Counsel to the President Chuck Colson. “You know,
how long did it have to be said that somebody was going to shoot Wallace?”
Nixon noted. “Didn’t he ask for it? He stirs up hate.” However, nearly two
hours after the shooting, the President became furious over not knowing even
basic details about the shooting or the assailant. As Haldeman said to the head
of the Secret Service, James J. Rowley, “the key thing now is the identity of
the assailant and all the particulars on him before they start putting it out to
demanded to know the details of the assailant before the press had them.
(Although the animosity Nixon felt toward the press is well-documented, here
Nixon was particularly outraged over recent press reports that lambasted his May
8 decision to mine Haiphong Harbor in an escalation of the Vietnam War, a risky
move that came as final preparations were being made for the U.S.-Soviet summit
in Moscow that produced the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty on May 26.) To
ensure that he stay informed of Wallace’s evolving condition, Nixon had even
ordered his own personal physician, Dr. William M. Lukash, to oversee the
Alabama Governor, and Nixon had also offered the use of the presidential suite
at Bethesda Naval Hospital.
conflicting reports to the President from the Secret Service described the
assailant as everything from a middle-aged man to three teenagers, either acting
alone or with an accomplice, Nixon, wishing to avoid what seemed to him like a
potential government scandal on his watch, ordered Haldeman to instruct
Ehrlichman to interfere and take control of the investigation. Nixon noted,
“I’m not going to let them get away with this this time. They are to report
to me directly. I don’t want to read it in the press, and I don’t want to
hear it on the radio. I want a report, and I don’t want any cover up. You
know, this could be like the Kennedy thing. This son of a bitch Rowley is a dumb
bastard, you know. He is dumb as hell. We’ve got to get somebody over there
right away. Get Ehrlichman on him! Get Ehrlichman over there right away, Bob, to
work on it. Don’t you agree? Secret Service will fuck this up! They do
everything!” Finally, on the basis that one of Wallace’s body guards—who
included fifty Secret Service agents and a detail of the Alabama State
Police—was injured in the shooting, Nixon ordered the FBI to take jurisdiction
of the investigation away from the Secret Service: “Get the FBI. Order, at my
direction, the FBI!”
investigation soon came under control. Within the hour, the FBI traced the gun
to a purchase made on January 13, 1972, by an Arthur Herman Bremer, white male,
21 years old, from West Michigan Street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Bremer had been
previously arrested by the FBI for carrying a concealed weapon in November 1971.
He was described as “a loner” and seeking attention. Once these details
became known to the President, Nixon’s concerns shifted to how the press would
report the shooting. As the President instructed Ehrlichman, “Keep the heat on
them, because don’t let us make the mistake that was made of the Kennedy
thing. […] You don’t realize the forces that could let loose in this, you
know. This fellow [Wallace] was a Goddamn demagogue, a hate monger, and he could
let loose horrible forces, and we have got to be doing the right thing, John.
That’s what you’ve got to understand.”
Nixon instructed Haldeman to have Colson put a report out to the press: “Put a
call in immediately to [White House Deputy Director of Communications Kenneth]
Clawson, or somebody […] to the effect that the first reports of the [Bremer]
interrogation [are] that a McGovern/Kennedy person did this. Know what I mean?
Rumors are going to flow all over the place. Put it on the left right away.”
Later, Nixon further elaborated, “Just say he was a supporter of McGovern and
Kennedy. Now just put that out. Just say you have it on ‘unmistakable
evidence.’” When Colson returned to the EOB after meeting with Clawson to
execute the President’s order, Nixon asked, “You sell it?” Colson
summarized: “You don’t have to sell it to this fellow [Clawson]. He says,
‘of course, of course he’s a student radical, naturally.’ I said, ‘of
course, he’s from Wisconsin, that he worked in McGovern’s campaign.’ […]
[laughter] You don’t have to sell him. He’s already convinced.”
the days and weeks that followed, the President’s interest in the shooting
waned once the FBI brought the investigation under control. However, in the
midst of crisis immediately following the shooting, all of the classic elements
of the Nixon persona were in place: having little faith in the appropriate
government agencies, he gathered his closest advisors to manage the event. Being
fearful of history, rather than learning from it, he demonstrated a fatalistic
belief that the investigation into the Wallace shooting would be botched just as
he believed that cover-ups were made following the Kennedy assassinations.
Finally, wanting to counteract the spin control he expected the press would
leverage against his handling of the crisis, he tasked his own spin masters with
creating a portrait of Arthur Bremer as a loner who was sympathetic to
left-leaning political causes even before the FBI had finished questioning him.
Bremer is a free man at age 57, after spending two-thirds of his life in prison.
He is something of a time capsule from a tumultuous era filled with political
violence. Now a bygone era, perhaps now we will learn who the real Arthur Bremer
is. In the mean time, the Nixon tapes provide a fascinating glimpse into the
White House during a time of national crisis.
WHT 24-83, 5/15/72, 5:10-5:13 pm.
WHT 24-89, 5/15/72, 5:38-5:41 pm.
WHT 24-91, 5/15/72, Unknown time between 5:41 pm and 5:45 pm. See also 24-93.
WHT 24-95, 5/15/72, Unknown time between 6:45 pm and 7:07 pm.
WHT 24-97, 5/15/72, Unknown time between 6:56 pm and 7:07 pm.
WHT 24-100, 5/15/72, Unknown time between 7:07 pm and 7:37 pm.
WHT 24-107, 5/15/72. 7:37-7:42 pm.
EOB 339-4, 5/15/72, Unknown time between 7:42 pm and 8:10 pm.