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People Top 5
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- May 06, 1974
- Vol. 1
- No. 10
Governor George of Alabama
George Wallace Talks About the Healing Power of Politics and His Wife and Rock Cornelia
"Cornelia gave me this cold," he jokes to the newly arrived visitors. "I think it's because her uncle, Jim Folsom, is running against me for governor." George Wallace, who in 1968 received 10 million votes as a third party presidential candidate, can afford to make jokes about his competition. He's the undisputed favorite in a five-way race for the May 7th Democratic nomination for governor. He is expected to have no opposition in the general election.
At first glance, seeing him lounging on his propped-up bed, it is easy to forget that he is paralyzed from the waist down. In the two years since Arthur Bremer's bullets damaged his spinal column, Wallace, with the help of loyal aides and his family—especially his 35-year-old wife Cornelia—has established a new way of life. "It has to be different when you're either in a wheelchair, or in bed or standing up on braces between parallel bars," says Wallace. "But you adjust. There's nothing you can do about it."
These days the governor is in good spirits. Slightly tanned, looking more like the robust politician he was before the shooting, he insists on stressing his physical progress. "I'm not under medication now of any sort," he says proudly, "not even iron tablets, not even vitamins." His only therapy is daily exercises, which keep the blood circulating properly in his legs and tone up the paralyzed parts of his body. The pain is constant, he says, but he has learned to tolerate it. For a time he tried acupuncture (PEOPLE, April 15), but the results were disappointing. Nonetheless, people who have seen him over the last few months and watched his determination to set aside the role of a cripple, agree that Wallace, who is now 54, expects to play a decisive part in the 1976 presidential race. "Politics really did help keep him alive," says Cornelia.
In some ways, she says, the tragedy has brought them closer together. At least now he spends more time at home. Before, to get the governor home for dinner, Cornelia would have to start calling the capitol at 5:30 and would consider herself lucky if the governor showed up by 9. Now, because he must stick to the physical routine that was established for him at a rehabilitation center in Maryland, he arrives home promptly in time for dinner at 6 with the younger children—her two sons from her previous marriage, Josh, 9, and Jim, 10, and his youngest daughter, Lee, 13.
When Cornelia and George were married in 1971, she thought she had snared the most enviable catch in Alabama. She still feels that way. "You know there were plenty of women he could've married," she says. "And even now a lot of women want to mother him." But she knows that is not what he needs. Cornelia, whose first marriage ended in divorce in 1970, has definite ideas about what is best for her husband. "I decided right from the beginning he would feel more independent if I did not make him feel helpless by waiting on him," she says. She spends as little time with Wallace in his exercise-therapy room as possible. Whatever help he needs, he gets from his attendant, Edward. "I read somewhere that it kind of demoralizes the spouse to be looked after by the other mate," says Cornelia. And she has stuck to her theory, although the governor seems to enjoy being babied by her. He complains more about his physical discomfort when she is around—but she just jokes him out of it.
Only in the evening, preparing him for bed in the privacy of the master bedroom, does she break her rule. It's then that they relax, watching television while propped up on the two hospital beds they have pushed together to form a king-size bed. "It's more comfortable than putting huge pillows on a regular bed. But the crack does get in the way sometimes," says Cornelia with a wink. She does not hesitate to discuss their physical closeness. "He's more affectionate now. He likes the press of flesh and all that. He gets a lot from it, and he gives a lot back."
The Wallaces rarely entertain socially at the mansion. The large state dining room is reserved for political gatherings and special family affairs—like the wedding of Wallace's middle daughter, Peggy, last December. A nondrinker himself, the governor likes to set an example, and no alcoholic beverages are served within the mansion.
When they eat together as a family, it's in the small breakfast room off the kitchen. At one recent dinner the governor sat quietly at the head of the table picking at his turkey dinner and gently rubbing his side to ease his constant pain. But as soon as some visitors joined the group he spilled forth with animated conversation. He has always liked to talk, but now talking is probably the most effective anesthetic against the pain. When Cornelia—who also enjoys an audience—tried to interject, he gently quieted her. "Hush, Cornelia," he said. She merely smiled.
"All the women on my mother's side are strong-minded, strong-willed women," she said later. "But they still pamper the men. They cook and they do things to please them." She nonetheless always tells the governor what she thinks. "He's a strong enough man that I can tell him anything," she says. "Sometimes we fight, and the next day or within an hour or maybe 30 minutes, I can't tell you what it was about. We don't have any repressed feelings. And I think that's one of the healthiest things about my marriage to George Wallace."
Despite a staff of seven live-in servants—all convicts from the state penitentiary—Cornelia runs a most informal, homey mansion. There are always tourists walking through, since the mansion is open to the public every day. And while the tourists are barred from the upstairs family rooms, they often get to visit with Cornelia or the younger children, who breeze in and out. George Jr., 23, who has had his fling at show business with a rock band, is now back in school and is also living in the mansion.
On Sunday all politicking stops. It's a day reserved for family. "We just kind of rest," says Cornelia. "We sit in the sun and relax. George reads the papers. I piddle around or read a book."
The governor's physical limitations have put a considerable crimp in his highly successful mingle-with-the-masses Wallace political style. "I used to be so active and agile," says Wallace, cheerful at the memory. "I could run up the staircase and run down. Jump in the automobile and take off someplace. Now I have to go to the trouble of getting into the chair and getting into the car and being carried bodily into the airplane. I can't speak five or six times a day now. It takes me longer to get up in the morning, longer to get dressed, longer to get out. I used to jump up and shower and shave and dress in 15 minutes. Now it takes a couple of hours."
Nevertheless, Governor George Wallace is at his desk every morning and puts in a full day of seeing constituents, fans and local politicos. He's been running his state and his reelection campaign. The rest of the nation is keeping close tabs on him. It is mindful that he has muted his racist style and won some local black support, and that the country itself has become more conservative on school integration. The same people who would not share a platform with him in 1967 are courting his favor. Even his old enemies in the eastern press are taking him more seriously these days. Does this mean they've come to like him? The governor shakes his head from side to side. "They still quote me in dialect," he says with a wry smile.
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