By TOM LAWRENCE The Daily Republic
Gunfire was an all-too-common part of American politics in the 1960s and ’70s.
President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, were both slain by assassins. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who crusaded for civil and political rights for blacks, was also shot and killed, as was Malcolm X as were other civil rights were leaders.
Two would-be assassins took aim at President Gerald Ford in 1975 but neither attempt was successful. The 1972 Democratic presidential campaign was impacted by bullets as well as ballots.
By the middle of May 1972, the gaggle of Democratic candidates who launched campaigns in the winter had been reduced to three main contenders: Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, Sen. Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota and Alabama Gov. George Wallace.
On May 16, the Maryland and Michigan primaries were scheduled, and McGovern, Humphrey and Wallace were all contenders.
That changed in a hail of bullets in a Maryland shopping mall parking lot the day before votes were cast.
Arthur Bremer, a classic example of the “angry loner” type, had been stalking President Richard Nixon and Wallace for several weeks.
Bremer had decided to make himself famous by shooting one of them. Nixon, he decided, was too well guarded.
On May 15, as Wallace shook hands with people after a rally in Laurel, Md., Bremer emptied his .38-caliber handgun at point-blank range.
Wallace was struck four times. Three other people, including a Secret Service agent, an Alabama state trooper and a campaign volunteer, were also struck.
Wallace lived, but was paralyzed from the waist down.
He won both primaries the next day, but his presidential hopes were essentially ended.
McGovern visited Wallace in the hospital, and the wounded governor urged him to wear a bulletproof vest, which McGovern did a few times.
McGovern himself received threats during the campaign and once was asked by the Secret Service to speak behind bulletproof glass during an appearance in Buffalo, N.Y.
“I did it but I never liked it,” McGovern said. “I never did it again.”
Wallace had earlier run for the White House in 1964 and 1968 and, as a third-party candidate, had garnered 46 Electoral College votes and almost 10 million popular votes in 1968.
In 1976, he mounted a brief campaign but questions about his health plagued him and he dropped out in the summer. While he served two final terms as governor, his time on the national stage was at an end. McGovern said Wednesday he has always wondered what might have happened in the 1972 general election if Wallace had not been shot.
If Wallace had once again mounted a third-party campaign, he may have drawn enough conservative votes from Nixon to allow McGovern to win.
“Yes, that’s possible,” he said.
While both men were Democrats of a similar era, McGovern was a liberal and Wallace an avowed segregationist and conservative.
“He and I disagreed on the issues,” McGovern said. “I was pro-civil rights for all Americans and he was against that for blacks.”
After the shooting, McGovern said he saw Wallace from time to time over the years.
“Oh, yes, I used to see him at political functions,” he said. “We always had a congenial relationship. We exchanged pleasantries.”
Wallace renounced his racist views at the end of his political career. He died in 1998 at the age of 79.
Wallace said he was in pain every day after the shooting.