Bigger Than Watergate:
The Cover-Up That Succeeded
11.28.2005 | POLITICS
Mark Felt as Deep Throat counseled his listeners to "follow the money," advice that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein smartly heeded. There is another money trail from the Nixon years that has yet to be fully explored: It is a trail that suggests Richard Nixon and/or operatives within the Nixon White House ordered the 1972 assassination of Alabama governor George Wallace, the populist agitator, segregationist, racist, ex-boxer, and vortex of Southern politics who presented the chief threat to Nixon's incumbency. The bulldoggish Wallace himself candidly told reporters two years after the gunshots had paralyzed his legs and confined him to a wheelchair: "I think my attempted assassination was part of a conspiracy."
If we are to build a case for Wallace's charge against Nixon and/or Nixon's henchmen--specifically the key figures of Charles "Chuck" Colson, the man who as White House special counsel once advised his president to firebomb the liberal Brookings Institution, who today is a powerful leader in the evangelical Christian movement; Everett Howard Hunt, the ex-CIA spook hired by Colson for "black ops," including the bungled Watergate break-in that occurred less than one month after the Wallace shooting; and G. Gordon Liddy, former FBI agent turned White House counsel turned dirty trickster under Colson, today a popular conservative radio host--we should rely on the two structural elements that commonly form an indictment for murder: motive and circumstantial evidence. The motive was clear. The circumstantial evidence is overwhelming.
- In the 1968 presidential election that brought Nixon to office on the slimmest of margins--Nixon defeated Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey by seven tenths of one percent--George Wallace as a candidate with the American Independent Party (AIP) carried an astonishing five states and 14 percent of the popular vote, some 10 million voters. "Not since Theodore Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party emerged in 1912," Newsweek noted, "has a third party [the AIP] so seriously challenged the two party system." The Wallace/AIP machine sparked a stomach-churning panic among Republicans under Nixon, given that Wallace had locked up a conservative Southern bloc that otherwise would have voted almost wholly for Nixon (four out of five Wallace voters told pollsters in 1968 that without Wallace in the running Nixon was their man by default; conservatives, Southern conservatives especially, could not countenance the Democratic presidential nominee, Hubert Humphrey, a liberal Minnesotan). Conversely, if Wallace had carried one percent more of the popular vote in two different states, he would have denied Nixon the electoral votes needed for victory, throwing the contest into the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, which was expected to install Humphrey.
- As early as 1966, Nixon was telling Harry Dent, his Southern strategist--who would later head an intelligence gathering operation against George Wallace that Nixon dubbed "Wallace Watch"--that Wallace was the man he "feared most."
- In 1970, with Wallace topping out on the president's growing "enemies list," Nixon secretly taps into a $1.9 million cash slush fund to help bankroll the campaign of Wallace's opponent, Albert Brewer, with infusions that eventually come to $400,000, a third of Brewer's entire campaign budget. Wallace is narrowly re-elected and fresh from victory goes on the road attacking Nixon in preparation for a 1972 run, again as a third party insurgent. The New Yorker pronounces him "an awesome and disquieting presence in national politics."
- During 1970, Nixon also orders the IRS to chase after the personal and business finances of Wallace and his brother, Gerald, a corrupt tycoon, in an effort to derail Wallace's re-election to the state house. Dubbed the Alabama Project by U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell, at least 75 IRS officers are assigned to what becomes a very expensive fishing expedition, turning up nothing. Still, according to one account, the investigation is allegedly dropped in exchange for Wallace annulling his third-party presidential candidacy in 1972 and opting instead to run as a Democrat.
- Nixon in his typical fashion is wildly paranoid that Wallace will go it alone once again if he fails to mount a decent showing in the Democratic primaries. So Nixon by 1972 lavishes another $600,000 to satisfy his Wallace obsession--this time to bankroll Wallace's campaign against Edmund Muskie in Florida. Nixon calculated that Wallace could in no way secure the nomination but a solid series of primary victories would keep him in the running as a Democrat nonetheless. Nixon has now spent at least one million dollars of his own slush fund--and countless hundreds of thousands in government money--to quell the Wallace threat.
- In 1971, Nixon's henchmen under the leadership of Charles "Chuck" Colson--"tougher than hell, smarter than hell, meaner than hell," Colson was Nixon's go-to man for dirty tricks and later a key figure in the Watergate affair--even went so far as to attempt to purge American Independent Party voters from the rolls in California. This was in order that AIP, so successful backing Wallace in 1968, would fail in 1972 to meet California's registration minimums for a spot on the ballot.
- Wallace places well in some primaries--he wins Florida, for example--does passably in others...but always the question of whether he'd go the third-party route darkened the future of the Nixon White House. The "entire strategy" of Nixon's reelection, Nixon backer Robert Finch noted at the time, "depends on whether George Wallace makes a run on his own." A 1971 poll showed Nixon leading by four to six points in a head-to-head race with any of the likely Democratic nominees (Muskie, Ted Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey), a lead that dropped to a distressing one percent when Wallace as a third-party candidate was factored in.
- In May 1972, John Amos, an insurance executive working as Hubert Humphrey's Southern strategist, contacts Jimmy Faulkner, Wallace's right-hand man from Alabama, to set up a line of communication between the two candidates. What prompted Humphrey's overture? Did Humphrey have intelligence that Wallace was abandoning the Democratic ticket to go third party? If so, Humphrey would have asked Wallace to free up delegates won in primaries that spring. Jimmy Faulkner was to have briefed Wallace on the Humphrey overture on May 19.
- On May 15, 1972, four days before the meeting was to happen, George Wallace is shot five times at a Maryland campaign stop by would-be assassin Arthur Bremer, 21, a shy and bespectacled community college drop-out from Milwaukee, who is disarmed of his .38 caliber pistol and pummeled to the ground by onlookers. George Wallace, his spine pierced with bullets, in agony clings to life, and later spends 54 days in the hospital, undergoing multiple operations; he loses all use of his legs and will suffer the rest of his life bound to his wheelchair in constant pain. On May 3--just under two weeks before he was shot--Wallace had confided to a journalist that he had a feeling "somebody's going to get me one of these days."
The Assassin: The Srange Case of Arthur Bremer
- A nearly penniless busboy and part-time janitor, the son of an alcoholic truck-driver and depressive mother, Bremer in the two months before the assassination suddenly went on the move, purchasing a blue AMC Rambler for $800 in cash. According to the Washington Post and Time Magazine, federal income tax forms discovered in his apartment indicated he'd only earned $1,611 the previous year--so the Rambler was an almost impossibly deep-pocket purchase. A month before the assassination attempt, Bremer flew to and from New York, where he chartered a helicopter over the city, hired a limo, stayed at the Waldorf-Astoria, and visited a high-rolling massage parlor (tipping the masseuse who masturbated him $30). Bremer often earned less than $10 in a day. When he drives to Ottawa, Canada, three weeks before the shooting, he stays at the exclusive Lord Elgin Hotel. He later purchases three guns for $80, a tape recorder, a police radio, and binoculars. Wallace himself wondered publicly as to who bankrolled these profligate excursions and purchases, all cash paid.
- Did Bremer have accomplices? According to investigative reporter Donald Freed, writing in the Los Angeles Free Press in June 1972, Bremer was seen on "several occasions" talking closely with an "older, heavy-set man" as they rode the route of a Michigan ferry back and forth. Investigative reporters Sybil Leek and Bert Sugar claim that Bremer's visit to the Lord Elgin hotel in Ottawa included a rendezvous with one Dennis Cossini, identified as a CIA agent. Cossini, who had no history of drug abuse, was found dead from a massive heroin overdose two months after the Wallace shooting. An eyewitness on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway told The New York Times and Associated Press that in April and May of 1972 he saw Bremer traveling by train across Wisconsin in the company of a well-dressed man who stood 6'2" tall, weighed 225 pounds and spoke with a New York accent. The eyewitness said the man talked heatedly about moving a political campaign--which campaign the witness could not say--from Wisconsin to Michigan. Was this the same "heavy-set man" from the Michigan ferry?
- It is also of note that ballistics investigators in the Wallace shooting found disturbing discrepancies. Wallace alone was wounded in nine different places, while three other victims--a Secret Service agent, a campaign worker, and an Alabama state trooper--were each wounded once. Altogether 12 separate wounds were inflicted on that fateful day by a lone gunman firing a .38 caliber revolver that held only five bullets--magic bullets, one might assume. Yet this wound count presumably includes entry and exit wounds, rendering the scenario entirely possible, though improbable. The New York Times, however, made note of the fact that "four persons had suffered at least seven separate [initial entry] wounds from a maximum of five shots." The Times noted there was "broad speculation" as to how this could be--as, logically, it was simply not possible without a second gun, or second shooter, in the mix. Added to the ballistics conundrum is a further mystery: several of the bullets recovered could not be matched to Bremer's .38 caliber weapon (the experts, en revanche, claimed the bullets were too damaged for a positive identification).
- A CBS News cameraman caught the events before and after the shooting and later provided the FBI a clip that reportedly depicted a man in the crowd near Wallace who resembled none other than G. Gordon Liddy, the Watergate break-in mercenary under Hunt. CBS reporters from their film documentation alleged that Liddy "led Wallace into Bremer's line of fire." George Wallace told the FBI that he believed Liddy was standing directly behind Arthur Bremer.
- Authors Freed, Leek, Sugar and others have suggested that Bremer had a control agent who was running him in the Wallace assassination project. The writers have also speculated that Bremer was a programmed assassin, mind-controlled by CIA handlers using psychedelic brainwashing techniques--massive doses of LSD and BZ coupled with hypnosis--perfected in government Cold War programs such as MK-Ultra and Operation Artichoke. There is no hard evidence to support a Bremer-as-Manchurian-Candidate scenario. Yet Bremer's disassociated behavior--his indifference, incoherence, his noted roboticism, the "silly grin" he consistently wore--raises questions. He writes in his diary that he would shoot Wallace in order to secure fame and publicity. But then, jailed and accused, he refused to speak to the press and, even after his conviction--he was sent to prison for 53 years--he has never talked since. "I stand mute," he said. Bremer's lawyer at the opening of his speedy five-day trial told the court that given the defendant's mental state--the eerie non-presence of the man--it is not surprising that "some doctors will tell you even Arthur Bremer doesn't know if he shot Wallace." When Bremer was arrested and charged, a federal officer noted that he was "almost oblivious to what was going on." Today, Bremer spends his time in prison talking to "inanimate objects," though he has not been declared insane.
- Nota bene: It was long rumored among CIA operatives that the public meltdown of the normally composed Sen. Edmund Muskie--the strongest of the Democratic contenders who doomed his candidacy by bursting into whimpering tears at a New Hampshire podium--was the result of LSD poisoning. Miles Copeland, a veteran CIA operative, writes in "The Real Spy World" that the CIA was asked (presumably by Republican operatives) "for an LSD-type drug that could be slipped into the lemonade of Democratic orators, thus causing them to say sillier things than they would anyhow. To this day, some of my friends at the agency are convinced that Howard Hunt or Gordon Liddy [slipped such a drug] into Senator Muskie's lemonade before he played that famous weeping scene."
Nixon's Dirty Tricksters: Colson, Hunt, Liddy and the Bremer Connections
- Bob Woodward in 1972 diligently chased through the labyrinth of the Wallace assassination story but failed to uncover definitive evidence of a White House-Bremer connection (at least nothing that satisfied his editors, who were difficult enough to convince that a sitting U.S. president and/or his closest advisors would cover up a two-bit break-in, much less abet murder). Woodward at one point received an anonymous tip that a Watergate suspect had met with Bremer in Milwaukee. But he could find nothing to support the tip.
- Two years later, in May 1974, Martha Mitchell, the estranged alcoholic wife of the embattled U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell, visited George Wallace and his wife Cornelia at their home in Montgomery, Alabama. According to Wallace biographer Dan T. Carter, Martha told Wallace an incredible story: John Mitchell, unnerved by what he believed to be a "Colson-Bremer connection," had repeatedly wondered aloud to his wife, "What was Charles Colson doing talking with Arthur Bremer four days before he shot George Wallace?" (Martha Mitchell, unfortunately, is dead.) Was Colson the Watergate suspect who visited Bremer?
- Author Dan Carter, noting Martha Mitchell's erratic behavior and heavy drinking, offers that Martha "may simply have misunderstood her husband's response to the news that Colson had ordered a break-in of Bremer's apartment." The Bremer break-in was another piece of the Wallace assassination puzzle. According to Woodward and Bernstein, Colson ordered CIA black ops specialist and ersatz author of spy novels E. Howard Hunt, who would be quickly implicated in the Watergate burglary that followed within weeks of the Wallace shooting, to enter Bremer's Milwaukee apartment and plant pro-Democratic literature to make the assassin appear a proxy for the McGovernite left. It is unknown whether Hunt completed the task. In any case, the FBI inexplicably failed to seal Bremer's apartment for a period of at least 90 minutes, during which time the place was stampeded by media and key evidence was reportedly removed and/or tampered with. One report states that Secret Service agents on site allowed reporters to make off with crime scene evidence. Investigators found an incongruous stash of campaign literature: Black Panther and ACLU buttons; Wallace campaign literature; a Confederate flag; and a scribbled note about the pains and pleasures of masturbation.
- Meanwhile, in Bremer's car a diary surfaced that was reportedly an accounting of Bremer's travels and thoughts in the two months before he shot Wallace, bearing on its pages the loud declaration that "I have to kill somebody" and "I am one sick assassin." But Wallace himself came to believe that the diary, with its bizarre admixture of sophistication and stupidity (complete with spelling errors so egregious they seem almost purposeful), was in fact a forgery. Its tone, he noted to reporters, was "contrived," as though "it were deliberately written to throw off inquiry into a possible conspiracy."
- Gore Vidal in the New York Review of Books in 1973 came to a similar conclusion. Vidal's article, "The Art and Arts of E. Howard Hunt," traversed Hunt's long career as a spy novelist and concluded that Hunt likely authored the Bremer diary.
- Seen in this light, one wonders if Nixon's pay-offs to the blackmailing E. Howard Hunt (as much as $180,000 in cash at a time) served not merely to cover up the break-in at the Watergate Hotel--but to cover up a Hunt-Bremer-Wallace connection to Chuck Colson and the White House, a connection that ultimately might have signaled complicity in attempted murder.
- Anecdotal evidence supports the notion of assassination plots issuing from the Nixon White House. A Boston intelligence operative named William Gilday as early as 1970 reportedly met with Nixon aides who recruited him for "schemes ranging from dirty tricks to murder," according to Anthony Summers, author of The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon. "Those [Gilday] was incited to kill," Summers writes, "included Senator Edward Kennedy and George Wallace. The aides in question are unnamed here for legal reasons but Gilday has appeared to have knowledge of corroborating details--their nicknames, for example--and has provided reconnaissance photographs he said were taken with Kennedy's murder in view." The Nixon White House Tapes suggest a Boston connection to Chuck Colson, who in conversation with a worried Nixon--who complained that operations that were "very close to me" had been rife with mistakes--told his president that he would never betray him. "I did things out of Boston," Colson said, referring to "15 or 20 black projects." "We did some blackmail and... my God, uh, uh, uh, I'll go to my grave before I ever disclose it."
- Note that Nixon from the first news of the Wallace shooting became obsessed with the case, ordering the FBI to immediately force jurisdiction. Mark Felt, assistant FBI director under acting director and faithful Nixon appointee L. Patrick Gray, took charge in the critical first hours, but was quickly replaced by Gray, who would later help destroy Watergate evidence and was also pivotal in shunting the Bremer case out of the purview of the Watergate hearings. Gray briefed Nixon daily on the Bremer developments. Nixon stipulated that all evidence seized in Bremer's apartment be remanded to the White House rather than FBI headquarters, against protocol. All copies of the Bremer diary transcripts that had been provided the Secret Service and other agencies were to be surrendered and destroyed immediately. All records that the White House itself had even seen the diary were to be destroyed. Nixon apparently felt the need to cover tracks.
- The FBI re-opened the Wallace case at least four times in the years since Bremer's conviction, though these have hardly been extensive in their scope. In 1993, for example, FBI conducted only one interview with an undisclosed individual and then once more retired the case (FOIA requests may reveal the interviewee). According to the FBI's case dossier, known as the WalShot Files, the agency's original investigation during 1972-74 failed to explore key avenues of inquiry. The FBI under L. Patrick Gray refused to look at the wide-ranging information unearthed in the Watergate hearings and possible connections to Nixon's dirty tricks bandwagon and Bremer. Even Bremer's defense lawyer, Benjamin Lipsitz, was asked to testify before Senate Watergate investigators. "I thought these guys were off the wall," Lipsitz told Insight Magazine in 1998. Lipsitz thought: "What does Bremer have to do with Watergate?" George Wallace, meanwhile, had high hopes for the Watergate hearings, with UPI reporting in 1974 that Wallace felt the investigation "would turn up the man who paid the money to have him shot."
- In 1992, George Wallace Jr., Wallace's son, requested the FBI and Congress re-open the case "to learn if there is any truth to a report that the attack was discussed in the Nixon White House," according to the Associated Press. Wallace was careful to note that he did not suspect Nixon's involvement. "My question is, did anyone else involved in Nixon's campaign have prior knowledge?"
- According to Seymour Hersh, writing in the Atlantic Monthly in 1983, even Gerald Ford, on the eve of pardoning Nixon, demanded of Nixon's lawyer, James St. Clair, to get to the bottom of the widening rumors of a Nixon White House involvement in the Wallace assassination. "Is there anything to it?" asked Ford. "Was the White House behind the Wallace shooting?"
- Writing on Wallace, H.R. Haldeman noted in his diary that Nixon "felt very strongly that, under any circumstances, it would be better for us to have [Wallace] out..." This was Haldeman's last entry on the matter. Years later, even after Nixon's death, Haldeman's lawyers have continued to fiercely rebuff all efforts to open documents and records pertaining to Nixon and Wallace. Why specifically the blackout on the references to Wallace?
- In the spring of 1974, Los Angeles Times correspondent Jack Nelson, having heard Wallace's allegation of conspiracy and cover-up in his assassination, set out to get answers from the Nixon White House, which was riding out the first shockwaves of the Watergate scandal. Nelson had come across a story that the man Bremer had met with riding the ferry back and forth in Michigan was none other than G. Gordon Liddy. He presented his questions, was stonewalled into the summer, until events moved faster than he or the White House or anyone expected: Congress was moving to impeach.
- Ironically, the one man to whom Richard Nixon, alone and embattled, could now turn was George Wallace, who carried enough influence to sway the votes of the Dixiecrats who could save Nixon from the axe. "George, I'm just calling to ask if you're still with me," Nixon told Wallace. "No, Mr. President," Wallace replied, "I'm afraid I'm not." Nixon hung up, and turned to Alexander Haig, Nixon's chief of staff, delivering the famously echoed epitaph to his career: "Well, Al, there goes the presidency."
- "In reality," observes Dan Carter, "what provoked [George Wallace to refuse help to Nixon] was the ongoing refusal of the Nixon White House to divulge the details of the actions of Nixon and Colson on the night of his shooting." What can we assume from this seemingly minor detail? Richard Nixon might have saved his presidency by fully disclosing to Wallace the truth behind the WalShot case; he instead opted not to. Perhaps he feared such a disclosure more than the loss of his presidency. Perhaps he feared something worse than impeachment or resignation. Perhaps he feared a lifetime in prison for attempted murder.
Wallace's Significance in the Continuum of American Politics
- George Wallace's coalition of conservative Southern voters ushered in the era of the Republican Southern Strategy, which has defined the parameters of victory for the GOP for over a quarter-century. The attempted assassination of Wallace and the end of his 1972 campaign allowed Nixon to harvest a franchise that arguably came to fruition outside the traditional Democratic Party by the demagoguery and leadership--however atavistic and ugly--of George Wallace. Without Wallace and the bullets that stopped him, there would be no GOP as we know it today. That is Wallace's legacy.