As he has done throughout the past six years, George Corley Wallace stifled the tragic and courageous overtones that enveloped him when he appeared here May 18, just two nights after his stunning withdrawal from the U.S. Senate race.

Addressing a state convention of nursing-home owners, Gov. Wallace instead used rough humor in explaining his surprise announcement in Mobile May 16. Saying that he is a teetotaler, the governor added, "I believe somebody put a drink in my iced tea that night, because the next thing you know I was making a speech and saying I'm not running for the Senate. So, now I don't know how to get back in."

That was just a joke, of course, and not the real reason. But neither was the serious explanation he gave newsmen here, as elsewhere since his May 16 announcement, that "I just don't think I'd feel right in Washington being surrounded by so many pointyheads." Actually, that claim that Wallace would consider himself alienated as U.S. senator No. 100 is just a cover story.

The real reason is brutally simple: the assassination attempt of May 15, 1972, at a Laurel, Md., shopping center has, six years later, removed George Wallace from the mainstream of politics. While the spirit is willing, the flesh is not. He has finally admitted to himself he could not meet the physical demands placed on him as a senator dragging around what he privately calls "my half-dead body."

That private admission concludes a six-year struggle by Wallace to stay alive politically amid first the torment of pain and finally the permanence of paralysis. To have admitted how hard that fight had been would have destroyed him politically. Besides, he has worried about discouraging other paraplegics (the reason he has been so obscure about explaining his withdrawal from the Senate campaign). But privately he knows he was paralyzed too late in life to ever become completely self-sufficient.

Political opponents and a few former allies have been painting a blead picture of Wallace on the eve of a possibly losing Senate campaign: distraught because of his recent divorce, physically haggard and deafer than ever, living in the past rehashing his famous triumphs in national politics and showing little interest in current affairs.

The Wallace we saw here May 18 and in nearby Decatur May 19 bore no resemblance to that stereotype. His appearance and spirits were the best in years, his deafness no worse than usual. Still the master campaigner, he had been confident of winning the Senate election, an expectation shared generally by Alabama's political insiders.

As for living in the past, Wallace seems vitally interested in a broad spectrum of national events far removed from his current role as populist governor battling the conservative state senate. With wit and enthusiasm, he discussed SALT, neutron weapons, inflation, tax reform, presidential style, the Middle East, communist China, Joe Califano and, especially, turbulence in Africa and its effect on U.S. security and economics.

But Wallace in private conversation now repeatedly returns to that spring afternoon in Maryland that "was the end of me" in politics. Time and again he repeats the phrase, "If I was on my feet," in speculating on the might-have-beens. It truly would have been a different political world had Wallace not been in a wheelchair.

"If I was on my feet," Wallace says, he would have been on the 1972 ticket, for vice president if not president. Even if that went wrong, he believes that a mobile Wallace would have won 1976 primaries in Massachusetts and Florida, crushing the hopes of Jimmy Carter. And now, "If I was on my feet," he would love to try his hand in the cockpit of the U.S. Senate.

Of his long, turbulent stay on the national scene, Wallace says little about the early years fighting to save segregation. No racist at heart, he used racist political appeals only while they had major effect. No southern segregationist politician dropped that institution with less regret.

What he talks about at length is his role as a son of the rural Deep South making converts, winning primaries and wielding influence across the land. He calls himself an "instrument" to gain the respect of the non-South "looking down on us as rednecks, bigots."

Through all his personal tragedies, Wallacseems more at ease with himself than ever before. But at age 58, he speaks in the past tense. When a private college administrator recently complained about federal regulation, Wallace replied: "That's problem, I've been fighting it for so long. Now somebody else has to go on." That acknowledgement of the havoc wrought by the would-be assasssin's bullet fore-told that George Wallace would not be coming to Washington to enliven the Senate.