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  • Mike Martinez

Political Assassinations: Gerald R. Ford

In this blog, I discuss Chapter 8 of my forthcoming book titled Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History: The Lasting Effects of Gun Violence Against American Political Leaders. Chapter 8 concerns the attempted assassination of President Gerald R. Ford.

As of this writing, Ford holds the distinction of being the only man to serve as president of the United States even though he was never elected to the presidency or vice presidency. (He was elevated to the vice presidency after Spiro Agnew resigned in October 1973. Ford was confirmed in December. He then became president slightly more than eight months later, after Richard Nixon resigned from office.) He also holds the dubious distinction of twice being the target of assassins—both times in September 1975. His assailants were the only two women (thus far) to try and kill an American president.

On September 5, 1975, Ford was visiting Sacramento, California, when Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a member of the infamous killer Charles Mansion’s “family,” approached and pointed a .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol at him. As Fromme pulled the trigger, Secret Service agent Larry Buendorf inserted the webbing between his thumb and index finger into the cocked hammer so the gun would not discharge. Afterward, Buendorf wrestled the would-be assassin to the ground as other agents whisked Ford away to safety. Later convicted and sentenced to serve a life sentence (before being paroled in 2009), Fromme explained, “I stood up and waved a gun him for a reason. I was so relieved not to have to shoot it, but, in truth, I came to get life. Not just my life but clean air, healthy water and respect for creatures and creation.” She claimed to be an environmentalist attracting attention for her cause. She also wanted to focus media attention on her messianic hero, Charles Manson.

Seventeen days later, on September 22, 1975, the president was standing in front of the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, California, when a radical-activist-wannabe, Sara Jane Moore, standing in a crowd of bystanders across the street, fired a .38-caliber revolver at him. The bullet missed, ricocheting off the hotel façade and injuring a taxi driver. A retired Marine, Oliver Sipple, standing close to Moore took quick action by grabbing her gun before she could fire a second shot, possibly saving Ford’s life. Moore was arrested, tried, and convicted of attempting to assassinate a president. She served 32 years before she was paroled on December 31, 2007, at the age of 77.

During an interview with television host Larry King in June 2004, Ford was sanguine about the episodes. Discussing the factors that drive assailants to attack presidents, he mused, “I guess these people who do attempt assassinations are unusual. Squeaky Fromme certainly was off her mind. Sara Jane Moore, the same way.” Asked if he changed his behavior in the aftermath of the attempts, Ford said he tried to carry on as before. “But people said to me, ‘Well, why don’t you stay in the White House and not go out to meet the public?’ My answer to them was, a president has to be aggressive, has to meet the people, and therefore, I did. And good luck, and thank God I had no further incidents.”

Both Lynette Fromme and Sara Jane Moore were rarities in American history—female shooters. They also can be classified at Type 2 actors. Although both women claimed to act on the basis of politics—Fromme seeking to publicize environmental concerns as well as Charles Manson’s skewed world view and Moore to resolve her guilt about working as an FBI informant against the interests of her radical friends—in reality they acted on other motives. Neither person was political in the sense that she sought to remove an elected official because she disagreed with his doctrines or political programs. As with so many would-be killers, Fromme and Moore targeted Ford because he served as president of the United States and his appearance was relatively convenient. Had the president not visited California on two separate occasions in September 1975, the shootings probably would not have occurred.

Type 2 actors seek acceptance, recognition, and attention. Fromme hoped that her act would highlight her environmentalism and return Manson to the headlines, and Moore apparently believed that her actions would publicize her radical proclivities. They projected their own needs and desires onto a third party, assuming that their actions in shooting a public figure would alleviate their private sufferings. Type 2 actors are trying to prove something to someone, often a significant other that has rejected them or pushed them toward action. Fromme needed to show Charles Manson that she was still a devoted follower and capable of serving him well. Moore needed to rehabilitate herself in the eyes of her radical friends. Neither woman was crazy. Fromme and Moore knew what they were doing and they were steadfast in the desire to show the world what they could do. Both women paid a heavy price for their actions.

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