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Portrait of an Assassin: Arthur Bremer


Arthur Bremer George Wallace stood behind an 800-pound bulletproof podium each time he delivered a speech. On the heels of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Wallace understood that he was a target. "Somebody's going to get me one of these days," he told the "Detroit News." "I can just see a little guy out there that nobody's paying any attention to. He reaches into his pocket and out comes the little gun, like that Sirhan guy that got [Robert] Kennedy."

A few people had noticed the "little guy" in red, white, and blue who led the crowd in cheers at a Laurel, Maryland, campaign stop on May 15, 1972. Cameramen had seen him at other Wallace rallies, had even filmed him in Michigan. When the then-anonymous Arthur Bremer finally got the clear shot of Wallace he'd been waiting for, he fired five times at close range. The violent murder of a political figure that Bremer had sought to distinguish his otherwise unremarkable life didn't happen. Instead, Bremer's shots paralyzed Wallace for life, effectively ending his long quest for national office, as well as Bremer's own quest for infamy as one of the century's great assassins.

Arthur Bremer was born in Milwaukee on August 21, 1950, one of four sons of Sylvia and William Bremer, an abusive, alcoholic couple. Early on, he escaped his ugly reality by pretending that he "'was living with a television family and there was no yelling at home and no one hit me.'" With an unremarkable academic career and no friends to speak of, Bremer found school intolerable. He wrote in the first half of his diary, unearthed in 1980 from its burial place in an excavated landfill (the second half was published, riddled with Bremer's spelling errors, as "An Assassin's Diary" in 1973), "'No English or History test was ever as hard, no math final exam ever as difficult as waiting in a school lunch line alone, waiting to eat alone…while hundreds huddeled & gossiped & roared, & laughed & stared at me…'"

A complete break with his family in October 1971 intensified his isolation. With a bent toward pornography, guns and suicide, he began to frequent a shooting range after his demotion from busboy to kitchen help at the Milwaukee Athletic Club; patrons had complained that he talked to himself. An investigator assigned to the discrimination complaint Bremer filed described him "'as bordering on paranoia.'" Bremer did not accept the investigator's assistance in arranging professional help; he bought a gun and headed to the Flintrop Arms Center instead.

His first attempts as a marksman proved disastrous. Anxious and inexperienced, Bremer shot holes in the ceiling instead of the target he was aiming at. An arrest followed when he was found asleep in his car, in front of a suburban synagogue, bullets scattered across the front seat. He underwent a rudimentary psychiatric evaluation, but was ultimately only charged with and fined for disorderly conduct.

A turning point for Bremer came around Thanksgiving 1971, when he met 15-year-old Joan Pemrich. Bremer became fixated on the girl; she may have been the first person to respond positively to him. But she broke off their relationship after only three dates because he acted, in her words, "goofy" and "weird." His inappropriate behavior escalated after the break-up -- at one point he shaved his head "to show her that inside I felt as empty as my shaved head" -- and on January 13, the same day that George Wallace announced his candidacy for the 1972 presidential election, her mother intervened and told Bremer to leave her daughter alone.

It was March of 1972 when Bremer began his diary. Increasingly lonely, he dreamed of getting attention through assassination. "'Now I start my diary of my personal plot to kill by pistol either Richard Nixon or George Wallace,'" he wrote in his first entry. Nixon was a divisive figure, and Wallace's segregationist politics had engendered violence since his first Alabama gubernatorial campaign ten years earlier. But Bremer was not concerned with politics. His plot stemmed from his desire "'to do SOMETHING BOLD AND DRAMATIC , FORCEFULL & DYNAMIC, A STATEMENT of my manhood for the world to see.'"

As Bremer debated the merits of his targets -- Nixon was more satisfying, Wallace more accessible -- he recorded his feelings of self-loathing and delusions of grandeur. Although he hoped the assassination would culminate in his death, his lasting image was of grave importance to him. On the last page of this half of his diary, Bremer decided to call himself an "assassinator." "Assissns, [sic]" he wrote, "'is so ordinary.'" Despite the name change, he had finally found a group to which he could belong, even elevating himself to the status of Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth. The image, Bremer wrote, was as important as the act: "Got to think up something cute to shout out after I kill him [Nixon], like Booth did."

Expecting it to be found and read worldwide after his death, Bremer buried his diary on April 3, the day before he flew to New York to put his plot against Nixon into action. If the intended result had not been so dire, what followed might have been a comedy of errors. Instead, the events of the trip were yet another example of the "awesome incompetence" that Bremer felt stymied by. Both his plans to rent a car to drive to Ottawa and to lose his virginity to a prostitute were foiled. He nearly shot himself after his gun went off accidentally in his hotel room; and finally, as he hid one of his guns in the trunk of his car in preparation for a trip across the border from Wisconsin, he wedged it in so far as to make it unrecoverable.

When Bremer reached Ottawa, security was tight; he feared getting close to Nixon would be impossible. Attending rallies where Nixon was speaking, he became furious with the protestors, who he felt conspired against him, attracting attention that was rightfully his. "A guy tapped me on the shoulder…. He goes in front of me & carefully photographs the speakers. What a dope! Those noise makers were all on news film! He should of photographed the quiet ones. He never pointed his camera at me."

Bremer was doomed to anonymity again. As his frustration mounted, his diary entries became more explosive. " I want something to happen," he wrote on April 24, shortly after his failed trip to Ottawa. "I was supposed to be Dead a week & a day ago. Or at least infamous." Always keeping an eye toward publication, he threatened to burn his diaries, believing there would be an audience to let down. "Burn all these papers…& no one would ever know 1/2 of it. But I want em all to know. I want a big shot & not a little fat noise… tired of writing about…about what I failed to do again and again."

Bremer took a ten-day break from writing, apparently to rethink his path to notoriety. When he resumed on May 4, he had decided that "Wallace [would] have the honor" of being his victim. At times excruciating in its detail, the diary faithfully tracked Wallace's campaign stops, but Bremer saw his latest pursuit as another symbol of his incompetence. "[T]o this man it seems only another failure.… I won't even rate a T.V. enteroption in Russia or Europe when the news breaks …. He won't get more than 3 minutes on network TV news." At this point he just needed to kill somebody: "Ask me why I did it & I'd say 'I don't know', or 'Nothing else to do', or 'Why not?' or 'I have to kill somebody.'"

From Michigan to Maryland, Bremer marveled at how accessible Wallace was. Once away from the podium, Wallace mingled freely with the crowds, provided they weren't hostile. While his diary entries about Wallace may have lacked enthusiasm, Bremer never lost his desire to gain notoriety. "It bothers me," he wrote a week before he shot Wallace, "that there are about 30 guys in prison now who threatened the Pres & we never heard a thing about them….Maybe what they need is organization.…"

Bremer's actions on May 15 attracted plenty of attention, but his plot to kill George Wallace failed on many counts. The assassination would forever be labeled an attempt. Bremer never achieved the stature of John Wilkes Booth, nor did he yell out his "cute" phrase, "A penny for your thoughts," as the gun went off. Bremer's fame has paled in comparison to the fictional character he inspired, the nonpolitical would-be assassin, Travis Bickle from "Taxi Driver,." played by Robert DeNiro. Perhaps most significantly for Bremer, he was not killed, but merely wrestled to the ground by the true Wallace supporters standing next to him. He was convicted that summer of attempted murder and sentenced to 53 years in prison, a fate he dreaded. Currently about halfway through his sentence at the Maryland Correctional Institute, Bremer recently sought parole, arguing that his attack on Wallace was not as serious an offense as an attack on a mainstream politician."

John Hinckley, who tried to kill Ronald Reagan in 1980 to get the attention of "Taxi Driver" co-star Jodie Foster, told "Newsweek" magazine in 1981 that assassination attempts generally have nothing to do with political motivation. In 1992 John Lennon's assassin, Mark David Chapman, said that if he could, he would tell Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, "'I wasn't killing a real person. I was killing an image. I was killing an album cover.'" The irony of Arthur Bremer is that he tried to kill an image in order to create one for himself, and ultimately succeeded at neither.
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