There was about the incident a sense of chilling deja vu; only this time the President was not riding in a limousine. Instead, Gerald Ford was walking through a group of several hundred admirers in a pleasant, sunlit park in front of the California state capitol at Sacramento, shaking hands with people in his amiable, relaxed way. He was as pleased with his reception as John F. Kennedy had been with the crowds that had come out to meet him that day in Dallas in 1963. Once again, precisely at 9:57 a.m. on Friday, the threat suddenly materialized out of nowhere. A movement in the crowd, a raising of a hand, and to his astonishment, Ford found himself looking down the barrel of a loaded .45 Colt automatic pistol scarcely 2 ft. away. There was a brief flurry, and then the Secret Service subdued a social misfit, a psychological cripple, who might have easily assassinated the President of the U.S.
Her name was Lynette Alice Fromme, and she was the first woman ever to attempt to kill a President of the U.S. Her manner was gentle, and while she was pretty in a freckle-faced, redhaired, little-girl sort of way, she would turn few heads on the street. But the 27-year-old woman behind this innocent facade was anything but normal. In her way, Lynette Fromme was as much a social aberration−an amoral freak−as Lee Harvey Oswald, the killer of John F. Kennedy, or Sirhan Sirhan, who shot to death Robert F. Kennedy, or Arthur Bremer, who crippled Alabama Governor George Wallace. She had been−and still was−an ardent follower of Charles Manson, the psychopathic killer who is now serving a sentence of life imprisonment for committing seven murders, including the vicious slaughters in 1969 of Film Actress Sharon Tate and Leno LaBianca, wealthy owner of a grocery chain. Because her voice was so tiny and high-pitched, Manson had nicknamed her "Squeaky" (see box page 10).
Disturbing Paradox. Squeaky Fromme's mad act in a Sacramento park with a .45 in her small hand had an immediate, sobering effect on the 1976 presidential election campaign. All too clearly, every candidate could visualize a similar attack being a similar attack being launched against himself. The incident was also a vivid and sickening reminder of one of the most disturbing paradoxes of America: the fact that such a liberal and free society should somehow generate a sprinkling of warped souls who for dark reasons of their own seek to work out their frustrations by destroying political leaders. The free society has discovered no effective way of identifying and controlling its demons.
Despite the vigilance of the Secret Service, American Presidents traditionally make themselves easy targets for would-be assassins. They love to get out among the people−"to press the flesh," in Lyndon Johnson's homey phrase−to show that they are just plain Americans after all (see The Presidency, page 18). No one could reach the White House while campaigning from behind a bulletproof glass. Just hours after his near escape, Gerald Ford was emphatically and calmly telling newsmen that "this incident under no circumstances will prevent me or preclude me from contacting the American people as I travel from one state to another and from one community to another."