February 14, 2016

America’s Political Assassins Ain’t What They Used to Be


In November of 1988, the day before the election, Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis (remember him?) held a rally outside Philadelphia’s City Hall. Roads had been blocked off, cops were stationed everywhere, and the stage where he would be speaking was obscured from the street by a ring of hastily-erected bleachers. I was on my way to work at the Reading Terminal Market that morning, but scoping out all the hoopla, it seemed a fine opportunity to have a little fun.

            I circled the area best as I could, taking it all in and listening to the sadly excited voices of the True Believers around me. Everyone knew at that point Dukakis didn’t have a chance in hell, but they had to pretend to believe in something, right?

            As far as I could tell, the only way inside the ring of bleachers to actually see the man was through one narrow and carefully-guarded opening, and access was apparently limited to card-carrying members of the party and registered Dukakis voters. That was the impression, anyway. Then I saw a campaign worker handing out blue and white Dukakis signs to anyone who asked, and those people holding signs were lining up outside that narrow entrance and were being marched through quickly and easily.

            What choice did I have, right?

            Now, it should be noted that being a disaffected twenty-three-year-old white boy with no imagination, I was, as chance would have it, wearing a Travis Bickle t-shirt under my open trench coat that morning. I also had a pair of brass knuckles in my pocket, which I was in the habit of carrying everywhere at the time. The kid handing out the placards didn’t seem to notice, or if he did he simply didn’t care as he handed me a sign. Clutching the sign proudly under my arm, I took my place in line and, with no metal detector, no pat down, no nothing, I was shuttled through with the rest of them into an already-crowded mini stadium. The stage was festooned with American flags and a massive Dukakis banner. The podium at the center of the stage was covered with red white and blue bunting, and a string of godawful pop songs was blasting from the PA. It was all so very grim.

            With no other choice in the matter, I worked my way up to the foot of the stage until I was standing directly beneath the podium. When Dukakis stepped to the mic, I would have had a clear shot from a distance of less then ten feet, had I been of such a mind. Having proved to myself it was possible, I then did the only other thing I could have done given my mindset and t-shirt.

            I spotted the nearest secret service agent (never a difficult thing to do) and sidled up beside him. Being a moron with, as I said, little imagination, I then began to recreate Travis’s exchange with the Secret Service agent from Taxi Driver.

            “Say, you’re a secret service man, ain’t you?”

            It seems the agent had seen the movie too, and I’m not exactly sure how this happened, but in a matter of seconds I found myself face down on the sidewalk two blocks away surrounded by men in suits.

            Little else happened. They checked my ID, took a picture, never searched me thank god, and sent me off to work. I never heard another thing about it, though to be honest I never attended another political rally of any kind after that. Just didn’t care enough I guess, and besides I’d already proved to myself an armed and alienated citizen in a goddamned Travis Bickle t-shirt could get as close as he liked to a presidential candidate the day before an election. If he had a mind to, of course.

            From John Wilkes Booth and Charles Guiteau through Leon Czolgosz, Giuseppe Zangara, Sirhan Sirhan and all the rest, America has produced more than its share of colorful, high-profile political assassins and would-be assassins. To date, four presidents have been killed while in office (three of them between 1865 and 1901), and attempts have been made on the lives of over a dozen other presidents and presidential candidates since. Until recently anyway, it seems.

            If you accept the diaries published under his name as legitimate (and there is ample reason not to), in 1972 Milwaukee-born Arthur Bremer was gunning for President Nixon not out of any political motivation, but simply to make a name for himself. Finding the security surrounding Nixon on the campaign trail far too tight to breach, however, Bremer opted to shoot the much more accessible Alabama Governor George Wallace instead. He pumped five shots into Wallace’s stomach after a rally in Baltimore, paralyzing but not killing the Democratic candidate.

            After stewing for years over a life that hadn’t turned out quite as planned, overweight and unemployed Philadelphia tire salesman Sam Byck concluded the president was to blame for all of his troubles. On February 22, 1974, he attempted to hijack a DC-9 at the Baltimore airport. Armed with a stolen handgun and a homemade gasoline bomb, his plan was to fly the plane thirty miles to Washington, DC before crashing it into the White House, killing Nixon. The scheme was thwarted, however, when Byck made the mistake of shooting both the pilot and co-pilot before the plane even left the gate, then getting shot himself by a Baltimore cop.

            The following year on September 5, Manson Family alumnus Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, having forgotten the bullets back in her room, was nevertheless arrested for pointing an empty gun at President Gerald Ford’s head in Sacramento. Three weeks later in San Francisco, Sara Jane Moore (who had the wherewithal to remember the ammo) fired two shots at Ford but missed. Interestingly, to date Fromme and Moore remain the country’s only female would-be presidential assassins.

            On March 30, 1981, just over three months into his first term, Ronald Reagan and three others were shot on the sidewalk outside a hotel in Washington, DC by unbalanced rich kid and failed pop musician John Hinckley, who was apparently hoping to parlay the attempt into a date with Jodie Foster. It didn’t pan out.

            If you count Martin Luther King, Jr. as a political figure, between 1963 and 1981 there were seven high-level assassination attempts in the United States. Across the 35 years and four administrations that followed Hinckley’s attempt on Reagan, there has been a noticeable silence. Apart from a few hepped-up fence jumpers and one less than effective kamikaze bid in a private plane, there hasn’t been a single serious attempt on the life of an American president or presidential candidate. It becomes all the stranger when you stop and think we’re living in a nation in which mass shootings have become so commonplace they’ve started to blur together, and one in which the ideological divide within the population has become so wide, the vitriolic rhetoric on both sides so poisonous, it seems almost suspicious that for all the swirling hatreds and vicious epithets hurled at the likes of George W. Bush, Obama, Trump, and Hillary Clinton, nobody has become so consumed with rage they’ve decided to take it that next logical step.

            So the question is, in the most gun-happy nation on earth, why don’t people try to kill the president any more? Way I see it, there are three possible explanations for this.

            First, as Bremer discovered in 1972, security surrounding a sitting president may have grown so impenetrable the idea of getting close enough to do any damage is almost unthinkable. But my own experience in 1988 kinda puts the screws to that one. What’s more, given the number of stories that have come out in recent years concerning the drunken and bumbling antics of on-duty Secret Service agents, from sleeping on the job to drunk driving mishaps, wild parties and hooker-related mayhem, it seems doubtful a clever, driven and angry Joe with a plan couldn’t slip through a chink in the armor.

            Another possibility of course is that there really have been any number of serious attempts on the lives of Obama and Bush, but as in the case of Sam Byck the media never reported them as such for fear of inspiring copycats or revealing any glaring flaws in security protocol. Again that seems doubtful. In a world in which everything is public, everything is filmed by multiple cameras, and everything is posted online, it only seems reasonable to think that if anything had happened it would have been reported somehow, somewhere, and disseminated too far and wide for the NSA to quash it completely.

            The third and most likely possibility is that the masses, angry as they are about most everything these days, have been so thoroughly domesticated over the past fifteen years that the kind of rage that might have once erupted into violent, stone-throwing riots or attacks on federal buildings has been subdued, sedated, distracted and re-directed. Now it seems we’re content to vent our overwhelming anger at the government via tepid and impotent online rants. We’ve been trained to believe, as was never possible before, that if half a dozen people click the “like” button at the bottom of a post about what a racist zealot that Ted Cruz is, how you hate him way more than anybody else and wish someone would just kill him, then our voices are being heard. That right there is a major pressure release valve. If someone out there is actually listening and commiserating, why go to all the trouble of planning and undertaking a plot to kill the president? And of course posting all of our outrage online only makes things that much easier for those people charged with presidential security to track us.

            Now that I think of it, I start to wonder if maybe I had such an easy time getting to Dukakis (and was let go so easily afterward) simply because someone wanted him to get shot.


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