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19 February 2001

The case for killing a president

Why do American leaders so often attract the attention of potential assassins? Philip Kerr finds a p

By Philip Kerr

So here’s the joke: John Hinckley, the man who shot Ronald Reagan on 30 March 1981 and was obsessed with Jodie Foster, is currently in St Elizabeth’s mental hospital in Washington. If the Supreme Court agrees with the Court of Appeals, he may soon be released from there. He receives – goes the joke – a letter from Al Gore that reads:

“Dear John, I’m so glad you’re feeling better and that you are to be granted supervised release to visit with your family and friends. You are still only 44 years of age and, with the love of God, it’s still not too late to make something out of your life. Tipper and I wish you all the best.

“Yours sincerely, Al Gore. PS: Did you know that George W Bush is really Jodie Foster?”

It seems unlikely that Robert Pickett’s single shot outside the White House on 7 February will ever put him in the major league of would-be presidential assassins. From the evidence, it looks as though he wanted merely to commit suicide and had hoped, by waving a gun outside the fence on Pennsylvania Avenue, that he might persuade the Secret Service to do the job for him. It was not an unreasonable expectation; after all, three similar incidents during 1994 and 1995 all resulted in the death by shooting of the assailant; and one of them was armed with nothing more deadly than a penknife. But that Wednesday, with hardly typical restraint, the Secret Service merely shot Pickett in the knee.

Since 1865, when Abraham Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theater, there have been four presidential assassinations and five other serious attempts.

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When I was in LA last December, a huge poster on Sunset Boulevard announced that since John Lennon was shot in 1980, more than 600,000 Americans had died in gun-related incidents. Despite this staggering statistic, it is perhaps too easy to say that it is the number and availability of guns in America that makes being president so hazardous. As the sadistic drill sergeant in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket tells his raw recruits: “A rifle is only a tool. It’s a hard heart that kills.”

There is no doubt that Americans are hard-hearted. Even now, state governors across the country are signing death warrants to send men, and women – let us not forget Carla Faye Tucker – to their executions. But it is not just a hard heart and some cloth-eared fundamentalist adherence to the concept of lex talionis that makes Americans inclined to kill each other, or their presidents, with such alacrity. The real reason can be explained in rather more philosophical terms.

In his book The Divided Self, the Scottish psychiatrist R D Laing described the existential concept of “ontological insecurity”. It is easy for the self to feel divided in America. On top of the Rocky Mountains, stranded on the Great Plains of the Midwest, dwarfed by the skyscrapers of New York or Chicago, the insignificance of one’s own being is all too apparent.

Driving through New Mexico a couple of weeks ago, I was struck by the vast emptiness of the country. There are huge areas of America with nothing in them; and the poor quality of the town planning does little to create an impression of real settlement and permanence. Everything looks itinerant, as if some impoverishing wind might move everyone on to somewhere else. No one walks the streets; in an America still dominated by the spirit of the automobile, ontological insecurity is everywhere around you.

It is simple to imagine, therefore, how men – with the exceptions of Lynette Alice (“Squeaky”) Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, would-be assassins are nearly always men – might be persuaded to follow in the footsteps of Albert Camus’s Meursault and create themselves through one act of pure decision. I can understand only too easily how a lonely etranger, such as Lee Harvey Oswald, from some insignificant suburb of New Orleans, could contemplate finding his place in the scheme of things by the existential leap of killing someone more famous than himself. It is no different from the way Native Americans once believed they would take an enemy’s power when they tortured and killed him. And who is more famous than the American president?

What is perhaps more surprising than that some lone nut should try to kill a president is that more people don’t pick up their Mannlicher-Carcano rifles and have a go themselves. After all, since Eisenhower, most presidents have been revealed as crooks, morons or satyrs. What is more, television makes presidents seem like ordinary people; it brings them into our homes and shows us, on an almost daily basis, that they have feet of clay and are just as vulnerable as the rest of us.

Kill a president and you will achieve instant celebrity and have your own movie. Not only that: America’s X-Files/internet culture will ensure that you also spawn your own conspiracy theories. They are easier to make than you might think. For example, here are some true facts about John Hinckley (I leave the specious speculation to others): the night before Ronald Reagan was shot, Scott Hinckley, brother of John, was to have dined with Neil Bush, George W’s brother. Did you also know that George Bush Sr, Reagan’s vice- president, the owner of Zapata Oil, was John Hinckley Sr’s business rival and near neighbour in Houston, Texas? You didn’t? Sure. John Hinckley Sr was the owner of Vanderbilt Oil. And John Hinckley Sr was a major contributor to Bush right back when he was running for Congress. I mean, who was Hinckley really gunning for?

Everyone over the age of 42 probably remembers where they were when Kennedy was shot. But would anyone have remembered where they were and what they were doing if any of the other leaders since then had been terminated?

Well I ask you, these days, why not kill a president?

Assassinations and attempted assassinations of US presidents since 1865

Abraham Lincoln: Shot on 14 April 1865 in Washington DC by John Wilkes Booth; died 15 April.

James Garfield: Shot on 2 July 1881 in Washington DC by Charles J Guiteau. Died 14 September.

William McKinley: Shot on 6 September 1901 in Buffalo by Leon Czolgosz. Died 14 September.

Theodore Roosevelt (ex-president): Shot on 14 October 1912 in Milwaukee, while campaigning for presidential office. Survived.

Franklin Roosevelt (president-elect): Escaped assassination attempt on 15 February 1933 in Miami by Giuseppe Zingara. Fellow passenger in car shot dead.

Harry S Truman: Escaped assassination on 1 November 1950 in Washington DC, when two Puerto Rican nationalists attempted to shoot their way into the White House.

John F Kennedy: Survived in December 1960, when Richard Pavlick intended to blow him up with a car bomb.

John F Kennedy: Assassinated on 22 November 1963 in Dallas, Texas, by Lee Harvey Oswald.

Gerald R Ford: Survived on 5 September 1975 in Sacramento, California, when Lynette Alice Fromme, associate of Charles Manson, pointed but did not fire a .45-calibre pistol.

Gerald R Ford: Escaped assassination on 22 September 1975 in San Francisco by Sara Jane Moore, who fired one shot from a .38-calibre pistol; the shot was deflected.

Ronald Reagan: Shot in left lung by John W Hinckley Jr on 30 March 1981. Three others left seriously wounded.

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