The Deaths of Presidents. The Authors Collection.
November 25, 2013
Question: What do Osama bin Laden, Jody Foster and John Shrank have in common?
Answer: Each supposedly was at least a footnote if not a star in a presidential assassination plot.
With the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in the news, I became curious about the historic and cultural significance of that day in Dallas. Specifically, why did that event shock the nation in such a profound way?
Naturally, I turned to Wikipedia to bone up on presidential assassinations. I found a couple of answers to my initial question but also a lot of interesting facts and trivia surrounding American presidents and the people who try to kill them.
First, John Kennedy.
He was the fourth president to be murdered while in office. In each presidential assassination – Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy – the murder weapon was a handgun.
Lincoln’s death as the first presidential assassination, and particularly in view of his role as the heroic and beloved (in the North at least) leader of the Union during the Civil War, must have shocked the nation at least as much as Kennedy’s. Also, the circumstances of Lincoln’s assassination were dramatic. He was shot by a famous actor while watching a play. Other national leaders were targeted as well. And Lincoln died within a day.
In comparison, the assassinations of Garfield and McKinley couldn’t have had the same impact on the nation’s consciousness.
Garfield’s assassination followed Lincoln’s by 16 years and McKinley’s death occurred 20 years after Garfield’s. So while certainly not a common occurrence, most people would have lived through an earlier assassination providing them at least some psychological preparation for the next.
Also, Garfield and McKinley didn’t die immediately. Garfield lived for 11 weeks and McKinley for eight days before they succumbed probably more to infection than from gunshot trauma. The country had time to anticipate their actual deaths.
With a 62-year gap between McKinley’s assassination in 1901 and Kennedy’s, Americans had reason to have been lulled into a state of relative innocence.
Kennedy’s killing also was the first presidential assassination to occur in the age of media immediacy. Although the telegraph was in use as early as Lincoln’s death, even McKinley’s assassination predated commercial radio broadcasts. Some telephone networks existed by 1901 but they were isolated, installed community by community. A single, nationwide interconnected system was still in the future. People would have learned of the earlier assassinations by word of mouth and through reports in their local newspapers.
When Kennedy was shot, the television networks broke into their midday programming – mainly soap operas – to report that news followed shortly afterward by the stunning reports that the president was dead. The subsequent developments and images – Lee Harvey Oswald’s arrest, Jackie Kennedy’s blood-soaked pink dress – came in front of a rapt national audience watching in real time. Oswald’s fatal shooting two days later occurred during a live television broadcast. The footage was replayed incessantly in the following days, often in slow motion.
Then, there was the movie-star quality of Kennedy himself as well as his family. His youth, good looks and popularity added to the sense of shock and tragedy. It would be like having Barack Obama, George Clooney and Miley Cyrus all go down at once.
Finally, there is the fact that within ten years of Kennedy’s death, two more major American political figures were assassinated (Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.) and another paralyzed after being shot while campaigning for president (George Wallace). So it’s hard not to view Kennedy’s death as the end of a more innocent time. Indeed, in that same decade civil rights and Vietnam protests took center stage in the nation’s affairs. Stories of related murder, bombings and other violence became commonplace.
But, what of Jody Foster and Osama bin Laden?
Foster had the misfortune to be the object of John Hinckley, Jr.’s obsession. Hinckley tried to kill Ronald Reagan in 1981 to impress the actress, then a college student. Reagan fully recovered from his gunshot wounds but his press secretary, James Brady, suffered extensive brain damage in the incident and was permanently disabled. Hinckley was deemed mentally ill and remains under psychiatric care.
Bin Laden reportedly masterminded an assassination attempt on Bill Clinton five years before the destruction of the World Trade Center towers. The plot, to which at least one other key al Qaeda figure confessed, involved a bomb planted under a highway bridge in the Philippines in 1996. Clinton, who was there for an economic conference, was routed away from the bridge after American intelligence intercepted a suspicious radio transmission on the morning of the purported bombing attempt.
And who was John Shrank?
Shrank was responsible for one of the more remarkable assassination stories. In 1912, he shot Theodore Roosevelt in Wisconsin before a Roosevelt was to deliver a campaign speech. Roosevelt had left office three years earlier and was running for president again as a member of the Progressive Party.
The .38-caliber bullet was slowed by 50 pages of a speech folded in half and tucked into Roosevelt’s breast pocket along with his metal glasses case. With his shirt bloodied and the bullet lodged between his ribs – doctors would later decide against removing it – Roosevelt insisted on delivering his 90-minute speech before receiving treatment. Shrank – like many other would-be assassins – would later be judged insane. He spent the remainder of his life in an institution.
At one point during his speech, Roosevelt showed the crowd his bloody shirt.
“It takes more than that to kill a bull moose,” he said.
Please click the book cover to read more about Robert B. Lowe’s novel, Project Moses.