Gerald Ford was the least objectionable kind of politician, and they tried to kill him—twice that we know of.
Ford, the moderate Republican who did his best to try to quiet things down after Watergate (please let us give up the idolatrous pretense that a president can “heal the nation” or should try to) is mainly remembered for pardoning Richard Nixon and then losing in a kind of public sacrifice to the grim and sanctimonious Jimmy Carter. As in the case of Sarah Palin, the public figure himself has been supplanted in the American consciousness by a Saturday Night Live parody. (No, Palin never said, “I can see Russia from my house,” that was Tina Fey—and Ford, possibly the finest athlete ever to serve as president, was far from Chevy Chase’s klutzy caricature.*) Of course, the median 1970s Midwestern Republican politician looks like Cincinnatus compared to what the Trump-era GOP puts forward.
The two attempted assassinations of Gerald Ford came only 17 days apart, and both would-be assassins were women. Perhaps we should for that reason consider September of 1975 the apex of American feminism, a fortnight and change in which American women finally proved that they had it in them to be as insane and violent as American men.
The first attempt happened on September 5, 1975, when Squeaky Fromme (given name Lynette), a senior lieutenant in the Charles Manson cult, decided to kill President Ford in retribution for his perceived failure to act on environmental issues. Happily, Squeaky was a well-heeled suburban child of privilege who didn’t know how a semiautomatic handgun works, and so she put a magazine into the .45-caliber M1911 pistol she procured for the assassination but did not rack the slide to chamber a round. “Can you believe it? It didn’t go off!” she said after the failed attempt.
After her arrest, Squeaky promised that “if Nixon’s reality wearing a new Ford face continues to run the country against the law our homes will be bloodier than the Tate-LaBianca houses and My Lai put together.” Manson, she said, “wrote to us and said he was mad at Nixon and we should explain why.” Among her complaints was that Nixon had “ruined the economy”—even the Manson Family turned out to be bourgeoisie in the end!
Squeaky Fromme and the rest of the Mansonites were political. They were also insane. The line between crackpot hippie cultism and ordinary left-wing radicalism was pretty blurry at that time: Bernardine Dohrn—later Professor Bernardine Dohrn of the Northwestern University School of Law—spoke for many leftists enthralled by the Manson travesties: “Offing those rich pigs with their own forks and knives, and then eating a meal in the same room, far out! The Weathermen dig Charles Manson.” One expects that David DePape, the hemp-bracelet-peddling hippie who attacked Paul Pelosi and apparently intended to abduct the speaker of the House, would have fit into that milieu seamlessly. He even looks a little like a young Brian Wilson.
Sarah Jane Moore, who attempted to assassinate Ford less than three weeks later, was also a left-wing radical, one who was obsessed with Patty Hearst and managed to insinuate herself into Randolph Hearst’s philanthropic project, People in Need. She favored more serious armaments than Squeaky Fromme had, acquiring a .44 revolver to do the deed, but was inconveniently arrested on an illegal-gun charge the day before she was going to assassinate the president. So she ended up with a little .38, which offers a good deal less panache than the big magnum pistol—if you’re going to do it, go big—but which she didn’t know how to shoot, anyway. She squeezed off two rounds but didn’t hit the president. Moore already was on the Secret Service’s radar before she was picked up on the gun charge, but nobody did anything to keep her from attempting the murder—some things never change.
Four American presidents have been assassinated in office, two survived gunshot wounds, and at least 15 of the presidents who served between Andrew Jackson and Barack Obama were the targets of serious assassination plots.
There have been dozens and dozens of successful assassinations of U.S. politicians and political candidates, many a man you’ve never heard of killed over forgotten or moot issues: Gov. Edwin Stanton McCook was shot to death after a fight (a literal fistfight) over the financial arrangements of the Dakota Southern Railroad; Rep. John Pinckney of Texas died in a 1905 anti-prohibition riot; George Lincoln Rockwell of the American Nazi Party was murdered by a former acolyte who had been kicked out of the organization for being too much of a dirtbag for the American Nazi Party. This isn’t all ancient history, either: The Republican district attorney of Kaufman County, Texas, was murdered in 2013 by a former justice of the peace who was convicted of burglary while serving in that office. Sometimes politicians are murdered, and sometimes they do the murdering: Reporter Jeff German of the Law Vegas Review-Journal was brutally stabbed to death earlier this year, and the man charged with the crime is a local Democratic official, Clark County Public Administrator Robert Telles, who was a subject of the reporter’s investigations.
(Yes, yes, innocent until proven guilty and all that. Maybe there’s a totally innocent reason Telles’ DNA was found at the murder scene.)
Public figures who are not in elected office increasingly are targets of violence that typically is imbued with some complex combination of political and psychotic characteristics. Tucker Carlson’s home was the scene of a mob attack, and in 2019 the FBI arrested a man who was talking about killing Ben Shapiro. (Shapiro says his company is obliged to spend a seven-figure annual sum on personal security.) In 2012, a man irritated by the Family Research Council’s conservative activism shot up the organization’s Washington office, wounding a security guard. Left-wing political activist James Hodgkinson would have executed a massacre of Republican figures if he’d been more capable; as it was, he succeeded in seriously wounding Republican Whip Steve Scalise, a congressional aide, a lobbyist, and a Capitol Police officer.
Politics, like religion, attracts crazy people, and it can bring out and deepen the crazy in people already inclined in that direction. Sorting out the crazy from the politics can be difficult: John Salvi, who murdered two people and wounded five at an abortion facility in 1994, hated abortion, but he also believed that the Vatican was involved in some daft scheme to manipulate international currencies, possibly in league with the Freemasons, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Mafia. The political gadfly Gore Vidal never assassinated anybody, but at the end of his life he was writing Vanity Fair essays alleging some connection between the Catholic lay organization Opus Dei, the FBI, and Oklahoma City terrorist Timothy McVeigh. Surely I am not the only reader who sees a reasonably clear and straight-enough line between Vidal’s 1968 novel Myra Breckenridge and the later black-helicopter stuff. There is nothing less exotic or more tediously predictable than modern American madness.
Those worried about political violence emerging from right-ish precincts spend a lot of time worrying about boorish and boobish Republican candidates who brandish firearms in their campaign ads. That stuff is in poor taste, and it is irresponsible, but that is not where you find the genuine grade-A crazy: There were an awful lot of yoga enthusiasts in the January 6 mob, and the link between imbecilic political radicalism and health-and-fitness kookery, including anti-vaccine kookery, goes back through the 1960s to 18th- and 19th-century utopian communities. Squeaky Fromme didn’t think she was a homicidal cult moll—she thought she was a crusader for the environment, social justice, and a more sustainable economic policy.
The Washington Post promises to campaign against misinformation and fake news. It publishes serious political news, and it also publishes horoscopes—and the nuts can find what they are looking for in one if they don’t find it in the other.
Correction, November 3: This piece originally misquoted Tina Fey’s parody of Sarah Palin.