Inside the Mind of a Would-Be Assassin
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because history changes in the strangest of ways sometimes.
By Eugene S. Robinson
The year 1972 was a heavy one. America already had the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. under its belt. Same with the Manson killings, and Vietnam was three years from ending. College students had been shot to death at Kent State, and a few years before, there were riots at Stonewall for gay rights and at Attica for prisoners’ rights. Guns were our lingua franca and spoke in a language that served some of our darker desires.
In this instance embodied by the 45th governor of Alabama, presidential candidate, Democrat and ardent segregationist George Wallace. He of the “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” blast from his January 1963 inaugural address; he of the phalanx, flanked by armed peace officers, that blocked Black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama.
Race is always important in American politics … but one crazy person is not a representative sample of anything other than crazy.
Lee Drutman, adjunct professor, Johns Hopkins University
But it was in the midst of a campaign rally in Wheaton Plaza in Wheaton, Maryland, that Wallace finally heard America speak. Faced with heckling and thrown tomatoes, he moved to another shopping center in nearby Laurel, where Wallace found the crowd generally friendlier, and none more seemingly so than a 22-year-old man dressed in a red, white and blue blazer pinned with a Wallace campaign button.
His name was Arthur Bremer, and he stepped from the crowd of well-wishers and shot Wallace four times. It was May 15, 1972. A month later, I nosed the front tire of my bicycle over what I had been assured by my friend Tommy Smallwood was Wallace’s blood. It may or may not have been, but the grainy images of Wallace going down, and the purported shooter’s cri de coeur, “A penny for your thoughts!” — a line he forgot to utter in the heat of the shooting — stuck.
Bremer was immediately arrested, and the whole circus of crazy came spilling out. His lawyers used an insanity defense. Looking back over his 22 years of living, it was a credible claim as Bremer had drifted, undifferentiated, through minor brushes with the law and family squabbles. His eventual trigger — a relationship gone sour — tripped his interest in first planning to assassinate that year’s eventual presidential winner, Richard Nixon, before settling on Wallace. Not because Bremer was especially opposed to Wallace’s racism but because he, Bremer, wanted to be famous.
“Race is always important in American politics,” says Lee Drutman, adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins and senior fellow in the political reform program at New America. “It’s caught up in a broader sense of cultural change, but one crazy person is not a representative sample of anything other than crazy.”
But Bremer’s crazy resonated. So much so that it framed what Paul Schrader, screenwriter of Taxi Driver, called “Taxi Driver” kids — our particular brand of alienated American strangers, namely John Hinckley, Mark David Chapman, Sara Jane Moore and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. “Arthur Bremer’s journal came out after I had written the script,” Schrader said in an NPR interview with Terry Gross. “I was very surprised to find that the voice was almost identical.”
Bremer for his part just wanted “to do something bold and dramatic, forceful and dynamic, a statement of my manhood for the world to see,” he wrote in his diary. Thirteen entries, some half a page, some nearly 20, written during the six weeks prior to the shooting showed a man in the grips of existential concerns about his place in space. Much like a lot of his fellow travelers and other generational compatriots.
Wallace survived, wheelchair-bound for the remainder of days that saw him repudiate his segregationist ways before his death in 1998, at the age of 79. Bremer, originally sentenced to 63 years for shooting Wallace and three others, was released on supervised probation 10 years ago this November at age 57. “Looking back on my life,” Bremer was reported to have said at his sentencing, “I would have liked it if society had protected me from myself.”