A red-eyed and emotional Gov. George C. Wallace today announced the end of his long and controversial career, declaring, "I have climbed my last political mountain."
His words slurred and his voice barely audible, Wallace, who has dominated Alabama politics for a quarter-century, told a somber crowd of friends and supporters that his deteriorating health made it impossible for him to seek a fifth term as governor.
Wallace has been partially deaf and confined to a wheelchair since an assassination attempt during his campaign for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination. Today he said the five shots fired by Arthur H. Bremer that downed him at a shopping center in Laurel, Md., "gave me a thorn in the flesh like it did the Apostle Paul. I prayed it would be removed, but it was not."
"Although I am doing very good at the present time, as I grow older the effects of my problem may become more noticeable and I may not be able to give you the fullest measure you deserve from a governor," Wallace, 66, said.
"I feel I must say I have climbed my last political mountain," he continued, barely able to choke back his emotions. "There are still some personal hills I want to climb, but for now I must pass the rope and pick to another climber, and say, climb on to higher heights."
It was a poignant end to one of the most controversial and remarkable careers of the modern political era. Wallace looked like a mere shell of the fiery populist of old. His face was pale and pasty; his voice thick.
He made his announcement from the chambers of the state House of Representatives, where he began his career in 1947 and where he has delivered 20 state-of-the-state addresses since first being elected governor in 1962. It was from the front steps of the same building where Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy that Wallace shocked the nation by declaring in his first inaugural address, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever."
The aging chambers, now closed for renovation, were packed with hundreds of friends, supporters and journalists. Many of those present had supported Wallace through four terms as governor and four presidential campaigns and they wore buttons proclaiming, "We Luv Our Gov."
The crowd stood and cheered for two minutes as Wallace was wheeled from the chamber. "It's a sad day for Alabama, but I suppose all good things must end," said state Rep. Jimmy Clark, a white-haired attorney who represents Barbour County in the state's Black Belt, where Wallace grew up dirt poor during the Depression.
Among those present was a sizable number of black leaders, including E.D. Nixon, who, in 1955, founded the Montgomery bus boycott and persuaded a young Baptist preacher named Martin Luther King Jr. to join in setting the stage for the modern civil rights movement.
"Wallace's bark was always worse than his bite," Nixon said. "I have never voted against him. I have always been able to talk to him."
Wallace, elected with about a third of Alabama's black vote in 1982, has been hospitalized seven times during his last term and public opinion polls have shown him running a weak third against a crowded field of younger Democrats.
But there was a genuine air of suspense here today about whether he would announce plans to seek a fifth term or draw the curtain on his career.
An hour before the announcement House Speaker Tom Drake, Wallace's closest friend in the state legislature, said he did not know what the governor had decided to do.
"Wallace has always been very closed-mouth about his decisions," said Drake, who started working with Wallace in 1958. "In every election he has waited until the very last minute. This is no different than usual."
Drake said that "most of George Wallace's true friends feel like I do. We want him to quit on top. He deserves to go out a winner."
Wallace still has nine months to serve as governor, but today people were already debating his place in history.
Wallace's decision opens up the Alabama governorship to a new generation of Democrats. Lt. Gov. Bill Baxley, a populist who leads in the polls, was expected to be the immediate beneficiary. But former governor Fob James has been moving up in the polls.
Wallace made no mention of any of the candidates in his announcement. Instead, he talked about his roots as "a child of the Depression," the progress Alabama has made as "a vibrant part of the Sun Belt" and the problems he has faced since he was gunned downed.
Wallace has come to believe that the shooting ended his national political career and had it not occurred, he would have been on the 1972 Democratic ticket, an assertion disputed by many.
"Some of you young people might not realize that I paid a pretty high price in 1972 for doing what the people of this state wanted," Wallace said today. "I have not used this before to bring sympathy for myself or my campaign for the simple reason that I did not think it was proper to do so."
"While it may be tempting to live in the past and what might have been, I must realize as Peter the Great did, it is time to lay aside what will never return and pick up the future," Wallace said.
He then closed, saying "My heart will always belong to Alabama . . . . I bid you a fond and affectionate farewell."