Thursday, June 19, 2008

Nixon’s Reaction to the shooting of George Wallace

This article by Luke Nichter goes into the reaction of Richard Nixon when he found out that George Wallace had been shot by Arthur Bremer.

Bremer shot Wallace on May 15, 1972 in Laurel, Maryland. Nixon was at work in the Oval Office when he heard:
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?” 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.”

Nixon wanted to keep the situation so he took steps to have an ear in the hospital:
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.

With conflicting reports, Nixon ordered the FBI to step in rather than the Secret Service (this also really have a flavor of Nixon – language and all):
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!”

Nichter says that his incident really shows Nixon’s personality:
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.

So some more interesting tidbits from the White House Tapes.


schiller1979 said...

It is an interesting article. However, he got one detail very wrong. The shooting did not end Wallace's political career. He ran again for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976. Also, he was twice re-elected as governor, subsequent to the 1972 shooting.

Anonymous said...

The point that I was trying to make by saying that the shooting ended Wallace's political career was that the shooting had ended his chances for a national political career. He did run for the Democratic nomination again in 1976, but he was handily defeated by both Jimmy Carter and Jerry Brown, was unable to win key primaries even in the south, and left the campaign early in June. Wallace never mounted a campaign again after the shooting like those that had attracted so much attention, and controversy, before the shooting, in part also because his conversion to Christianity that occured a handful of years after the shooting softened his stance on race. Perhaps I should have been more clear in the original article, however my focus was on the shooting itself, and specifically what the Nixon tapes tell us the reaction of the White House was, and not the career of George Wallace.