Caught on Tape: The White House Reaction to the Shooting of Alabama Governor and Democratic Presidential Candidate George Wallace





Mr. Nichter is a Ph.D candidate in History from Bowling Green State University. He is currently co-authoring a book about Nixon foreign policy based on the Nixon tapes.

On 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 waist 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 matter.

On 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, Maryland.

Speaking first to Mrs. Nixon, the President said, “We’ve got a problem. Have you heard about Wallace?”1 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.”2

Meanwhile, 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.”3

Moving 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 the press.”4

Nixon 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.

After 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 a 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!”5

The 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 1971.6 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.”7

Meanwhile, 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.”8

In 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.

Today, 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.

1 WHT 24-83, 5/15/72, 5:10-5:13 pm.

2 WHT 24-89, 5/15/72, 5:38-5:41 pm.

3 WHT 24-91, 5/15/72, Unknown time between 5:41 pm and 5:45 pm. See also 24-93.

4 WHT 24-95, 5/15/72, Unknown time between 6:45 pm and 7:07 pm.

5 WHT 24-97, 5/15/72, Unknown time between 6:56 pm and 7:07 pm.

6 WHT 24-100, 5/15/72, Unknown time between 7:07 pm and 7:37 pm.

7 WHT 24-107, 5/15/72. 7:37-7:42 pm.

8 EOB 339-4, 5/15/72, Unknown time between 7:42 pm and 8:10 pm.


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Maarja Krusten - 12/4/2007

"May 15 conversation with Bremer" should of course read "May 15 conversation about Bremer." For those of you who have never seen the President's Daily Diary, it is a compilation of his activities each day. For an example, see
http://www.ford.utexas.edu/library/exhibits/daylife/dailydia.htm
for an example for President Gerald Ford. A similar format was used for President Nixon's "Daily Diary," the releasable portions of which were released to the public in the 1980s. You can see how easy it would be to add up the number of potential hours of conversations (face to face and on the telephone) with aides known functionally or otherwise to be involved in various matters. The digest version compresses the information, listing names and times in columns but skipping some of the other details available in the full version.


Maarja Krusten - 12/4/2007

Should have proofread more carefully, reversed the letters!


Maarja Krusten - 12/3/2007

As you all know, I once worked for the National Archives. Here’s some information on an additional segment about Bremer. See
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/watergate/stories/nixon17.htm
and
http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F0DE7D71539F93AA35752C1A961958260
for news accounts in 1997 of Nixon’s May 15, 1972 conversation with Charles W. Colson. It was one of the 201 hours “abuse of governmental power” (AGOP) segments which we identified and marked for opening during the 1980s. However, the segments were not released until 1996, after Professor Stanley filed a lawsuit in 1992. From 1977, when we took physical custody of them, until 2007, Nixon’s materials were held by the Nixon Presidential Materials Staff at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

The Nixon records statute directs the Archives to reveal "the full truth" about Watergate abuses. Nixon believed Watergate tape disclosures would be limited to the sixty-three hours subpoenaed by the special prosecutor in 1973. But we archivists identified new information about Watergate and about abuses of government power during the 1980s, including the May 15 conversation about Bremer quoted below.

The May 15, 1972 segment released as part of the AGOP segments in 1996 includes Colson’s statement to Nixon, “Well, [Bremer’s] going to be a left winger by the time we get through.” He added, I just wish that . . . I’d thought sooner about planting a little literature out there [in Bremer’s apartment]. . . . It may be a little late, although I’ve got one source that maybe--.” Nixon replies, “good. (Source: Stanley Kutler, Abuse of Power, 38.)

As the Washington Post noted in 1997, "Colson’s lieutenant, soon-to-be Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt, told the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973 that he was told to get into Bremer’s Milwaukee apartment simply to find out 'what kind of a kook this guy is,' but the idea really was to salt the place with McGovern for president literature. With the FBI on the verge of obtaining a search warrant, Colson was worried only that it might be a bit too late."

Why was the tape segment not released until 1996? It's an interesting story, at least for those of us who lived through it. (Elsewhere on HNN in his article about his work as an archivist, Sam Rushay refers generally to our "struggles.")

John H. Taylor served as Nixon's chief of staff in the post-White House years and now is an official with the Nixon Foundation, which, since the incorporation of the Nixon Library into the National Archives earlier this years, works with NARA on some matters. (Tim Naftali serves as director of the Library.) Taylor in 1998 described in an article in the American Spectator Nixon’s anger when "we were told that the Hardy Boys at NARA had kept a little list -- 201 additional fun-filled hours of their own greatest hits."

Here is what court records tell us about how Stanley Kutler’s lawsuit came about. According to the Complaint filed in federal District Court on March 19, 1992 by Dr. Kutler and Public Citizen, a letter was hand delivered to NARA on behalf of Stanley Kutler in December 1991. The complaint notes that in response:

"By letter dated January 21, 1992, John Fawcett, Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries, stated that all integral file segments related to abuses of governmental power popularly identified under the generic term ‘Watergate', of Nixon Presidential papers and tapes are now open. The letter further indicated that the Archives would next begin processing tapes of Cabinet Meetings, but offered no schedule for releasing any additional materials."

Dr. Kutler later wrote in an article in the Legal Times (May 6, 1996), "I sued reluctantly, for the Archives is a precious place for me -- one [filled] with dedicated public servants, committed to the principles of an open society. Nixon intervened, with arguments largely supporting the Archives. Eventually, the Archives acknowledged it held hundreds of
hours of Watergate tapes, but only after I proved their existence by working through the internal evidence of the Nixon Papers. The Archives thus exposed its own cover-up."

I worked for the National Archives with the Nixon tapes from 1976 to 1990. By 1992, I had moved on to my present job in another federal agency. I had no contact with Dr. Kutler in 1992. So I do not know what "internal evidence of the Nixon Papers" he then relied on. However, there certainly was evidence to suggest that 63 hours may not have constituted all the “abuse of governmental power” information recorded on Nixon’s tapes.

After I heard that Stanley had filed a lawsuit, I went out to NARA’s Nixon Project (then in Alexandria, VA) in 1992 and had the staff copy for me from publicly released files the digest of President Nixon's "Daily Diary." After I received the copies, I reflected on released documents and on what Mr. Nixon, H. R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and others had written in books published between 1974 and 1992. Then, using the Daily Diary digest, I added up the hours of potential meetings Nixon may have had with Watergate principals. (Of course, I actually knew the amount of hours they had spent discussing Watergate, having once specialized in working with the then still unreleased abuse of power tape segments.) I came up with 200 to 300 hours of possible unreleased tape segments dealing with abuses of governmental power.

After the settlement of the Kutler lawsuit, NARA released 201 hours of Watergate tape segments, so my admittedly well-educated guess (well, not actually a guess but a sense of honor naturally kept me from discussing, ever, what was on unreleased tapes) was in the right range. Keep in mind, Mr. Fawcett’s letter constituted NARA’s official response to Dr. Kutler’s inquiry. He, not I, spoke for NARA.

If in 1992 I was able to do this from outside NARA (whose employ I had left in January 1990), then certainly any NARA employee could have added up potential hours of unreleased Watergate conversations before anyone in the agency responded to Dr. Kutler's December 1991 inquiry. I don’t know why NARA responded as it did. I have no information on what risk assessment, if any, NARA’s managers, staff and lawyers may have done before responding to Dr. Kutler. In my testimony in the Kutler lawsuit (I was noticed for deposition in 1992), I testified that I would have responded to the December 1991 inquiry differently.

A note about how Nixon’s materials are being released. (See Sam Rushay’s article on the main page this week for more on the process.) The people Tim Naftali supervises and we, as their predecessors, released material as a result of what is called systematic review. When I worked on the Nixon tapes from 1978 to 1987, the review process was not personalized in any way. I never thought about Stanley Kutler, Joan Hoff, Jeffrey Kimball, Robert Dallek, Jonathan Aitken, Steve Ambrose, Bruce Oudes, Fred Emery, or any of the other people who have written about the Nixon administration in recent decades. We had a nearly ten year period to work in which we never dealt with researchers, except for the ones who came in to listen to the 12 1/2 hours of Watergate trial tapes that already had been played in open court during the 1970s.

We identified abuse of power information as well as material of “general historical significance.” Our decisions to mark something for release or restriction were pristine in the sense that all we had in mind was our interpretation of the guidelines under which we worked. When Nixon's agents reviewed materials, they too presumably worked toward a generic concept of release or intent to file objection. For archivists and Nixon agents alike, review was not geared towards any particular individual, only towards "the public."

Processing works differently under the Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978, which applies to the records of Presidents starting with Ronald Reagan. According to its own accounts, NARA now does almost no systematic review at the PRA-administered Presidential Libraries. Materials largely are released in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, so there is a known requester associated with the review process. NARA does its review, then passes on what it deems releasable under statute to the former President’s agent to see if he wants to exert a claim of “communications privilege.” The sitting President also has a chance to weigh in with claims of privilege. To what extent does knowledge of the identity of the requestor and speculation about the use he or she might make of the material affect the release process? I don't know, there would be no way to tell, ever, if it does or not.

I recognize that historians generally don’t have much interest in (or, putting a more positive spin on it, the time to think about) how it is that material comes to be withheld from release. “Someone” in a position of authority takes it out of the file “somehow” for “some reason” and it doesn’t end up in their hands in the public research room. While Nixon evidently did not anticipate that the May 15 conversation with Bremer would be released as responsive to the requirement to reveal all the abuses of government power generically referred to as Watergate, it ultimately was – but not during Nixon’s lifetime and not until after a very contentious lawsuit.

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