Once again, all too unbelievably soon, the anguished national soul-searching. Is U.S. society too violence-prone, gun loving, trigger-happy to let its leaders mingle openly with its people? Is it so sick that it spawns and encourages the lethal fantasies of its alienated mental misfits? Once again, the indignant demands. Presidents must stop proving their manhood by barging into crowds of strangers or strolling within gunshot range of waiting spectators. The press must cease providing crazies with a podium for instant notoriety. Better ways must be found to protect the President. Somebody, if not all Americans, must bear the blame.
The U.S. has plunged into such recriminations before. John Kennedy. Martin Luther King. Robert Kennedy. George Wallace. But the nation could only be jolted anew by last week's latest grim reminder that assassination is an ever present menace to the rational conduct of politics in the world's most open democracy.
In the scant period of just 17 days, two self-pitying women had called dramatic attention to themselves and their unhinged values by pointing pistols at President Gerald Ford. The events took place a mere 80 miles apart in California; in the interim Patty Hearst was also found there, and the Hearsts turned out to have been a part of the second assailant's recent life. It seemed slightly surreal, an overlap of sensations in too narrow a space and time.
The bungled shooting attempt, from only 2 ft. away, by Lynette ("Squeaky") Fromme on Sept. 5 in Sacramento, and last week's shot in San Francisco by Sara Jane ("Sally") Moore, who missed Ford by only 5 ft., were only the eighth and ninth attempts to kill a U.S. President. Four succeeded.
But the rapidity with which the second attack on Ford followed the first raised the specter of a contagious spread of the assassin's disease. These attempts were particularly irrational, since they were aimed at one of the nation's least provocative and most amiable Presidents. Indeed, beyond the usual run of crank letters and threatening calls against any President, more serious attempts did seem to be proliferating.
A man carrying a .45-cal. pistol was sighted on a catwalk in St. Louis' Kiel Auditorium just an hour before President Ford was to speak there on Sept. 12. He eluded police. About four hours before Moore raised her gun outside San Francisco's St. Francis Hotel, Benedict Silcio, a 27-year-old stevedore, was arrested in that city's Union Square park for threatening Ford. He had handed a note to a cashier in the St. Francis that proclaimed, "The mission: To gun down President Ford. Need to have a room for three people." Then he fled into the park. In Florida, John Clayton Massey, an unemployed service station attendant, was charged with conspiracy to assassinate the President. He had walked into an FBI office in Ocala, Fla., claiming he was part of a plan to kill Ford and Senator Edward Kennedy. However unrealistic such voluntarily revealed plots may have been, the climate of violence could not be ignored.
Yet it was the actual firing at Ford by Moore—at 45 a garrulous, clearly unstable woman who almost literally cried out for someone to stop her from fulfilling her plan—that touched off a wave of national debate, examination and calls for action. These included: