Political Assassinations: Richard M. Nixon
On February 22, 1974, bleary-eyed passengers lined up at Baltimore-Washington International Airport to shuffle onto a DC-9 airplane. It was a cold, overcast, dreary daybreak. Delta Flight 523 was scheduled to depart shortly after 7:00 a.m., bound for Atlanta, Georgia. For all intents and purposes, it was another routine Friday morning.
Suddenly, as the boarding process commenced, an agitated, heavy-set man appeared in the gate area. Walking up behind a Maryland Transportation Authority security guard, the man whipped open his raincoat, produced a .22 caliber pistol, and shot the guard twice at point blank range. One bullet tore through the officer’s back, severing his aorta. The victim, 24-year-old George Neal Ramsburg, never knew what hit him. He instantly fell dead as stunned onlookers recoiled in horror. The gunman did not speak.
The rampage had only begun. In a swift, fluid motion surprising in such an overweight man, the assailant leapt over a security chain and scurried down the jetway, boarding the plane before anyone could react. As he entered the cockpit, the man fired a warning shot. “Fly this plane out of here,” he ordered the startled pilots. Frightened flight attendants, recognizing that a crazed intruder was brandishing a gun, fled before they could be shot.
The pilot, Reese (Doug) Loftin, calmly explained that he could not take off until someone removed the wheel blocks from the plane’s tires. The explanation drove the gunman into a rage. He pointed his gun at the co-pilot, Fred Jones, and fired a bullet into the man’s stomach. “The next one will be in the head,” he vowed.
Still furious, the man reached out and grabbed a nearby passenger. “Help the man fly this plane,” he screamed. When he heard a noise outside the plane, he pushed the woman away and fired two shots, striking Jones in the head and Loftin in the shoulder.
Loftin frantically called ground control, explaining that “this fellow, he shot us both” and declaring, “this is a state of emergency.” He relayed the would-be hijacker’s demands. “Get a hold of the ramp people and ask the people to come on out to unhook the tug.”
Loftin lost consciousness soon after he spoke to the tower officials. Now apoplectic, his face contorted into a red mask of fury, the gunman reloaded his .22 and turned his wrath on another passenger. Dragging a woman by her hair from her seat and thrusting her into the cockpit, he told her to fly the plane even though she was not a pilot. Frustrated as his plan unraveled, the man again shot Loftin and Jones. He ordered a nearby flight attendant (one of the few who had not escaped) to close the airplane door or he would blow up the aircraft.
By this time, Anne Arundel County police officers had arrived. They could not allow the plane to take off even if someone could be found to handle the controls. Despite their efforts to forge a peaceful resolution, the man would not listen to reason. When it became clear that the hijacker would not be placated, authorities resolved to act decisively to end the standoff.
Officer Charles Troyer, carrying Officer George Ramsburg’s .357 Magnum revolver, took charge, firing four rounds through the window of the aircraft door. One bullet struck the hostage in the thigh. In response to the hysterical woman’s pleas, the assailant told her to return to her seat. Seconds later, two more shots flew through the window. Hit in the lower chest and stomach, the gunman fell to the floor. Writhing in pain, he turned the pistol on his right temple and pulled the trigger. As Officer Troyer and armed security personnel stormed through the door, they found a briefcase as well as a gasoline bomb strapped to the dead man’s body.
The man, Samuel Byck, was 44 years old when he died on the DC-9 that day. I discuss his assassination attempt in Chapter 7 of my forthcoming book, Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History: The Lasting Effects of Gun Violence Against American Political Leaders.
Byck’s early life gave no indication of mental illness, but gradually circumstances changed. He dropped out of the ninth grade to support his family before enlisting in the U.S. Army. After raising four children and enduring a devastating divorce, he suffered a serious bout of depression. He even checked into a psychiatric ward for two months. After he unsuccessfully applied for a loan from the Small Business Administration (SBA), Byck became convinced that Nixon was responsible for the decision to deny him the funding. He garnered attention from the Secret Service when he sent a threat to the president and later marched around wearing signs calling for Nixon's impeachment, but the Service considered Byck a harmless, delusional man.
Perhaps Byck was delusional, but he was not harmless. He decided to murder Nixon. In one of the more bizarre assassination attempts in American history, his plan was to hijack a commercial airliner and fly it into the White House on a day when the president was working there. His story was the basis for a 2004 Hollywood film, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, starring Sean Penn.
Classifying Samuel Byck in a typology of assassins is complicated, although the Type 2 category appears to be the best fit. A case might be made that he was a Type 1 assailant because he objected to the politics of the Nixon administration, and Type 1 actors typically are motivated by strong objections to the target’s public policies. Alternatively, he might be seen as suffering from mental illness owing to his paranoia and frequent bouts of depression and psychiatric breakdowns. Type 4 actors experience cognitive distortion, hallucinations, delusions, and feelings of persecution.
The Type 1 classification assumes that the primary motivation is political. The shooter hopes to effect changes in public policy by engaging in a relatively straightforward political analysis: the target has developed and/or implemented a policy that I find to be highly objectionable. If I eliminate the target, the successor will ameliorate or change the policy. This conclusion is based on a logical understanding of cause and effect. In Byck’s case, however, he blamed Nixon for all manner of ills that the president did not cause. Byck was upset because the SBA had not approved his loan application, and he believed that Nixon had influenced the decision. This reasoning was fanciful. He transformed the president into a scapegoat for many social and political problems that Nixon could not control. This sort of muddled reasoning knocks Byck out of the Type 1 category. Whatever objections Byck had with respect to Nixon’s policies were tangential to Byck’s motives in attempting an assassination.
As for being a Type 4 actor, Byck certainly suffered from mental illness. Yet he was not out of touch with reality. Strange voices or visions did not direct his actions. He was lucid enough to understand that his actions would have consequences.
Samuel Byck tried to assassinate Richard Nixon because he believed the act would give his life meaning. Byck’s self-esteem was so low that he thought the only way he could prove his worth was to become an assassin. Like so many people who see themselves as nobodies, he came to see that an act of aggression aimed at a public figure would transform him into a somebody. He was a Type 2 assailant.