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Commentary: Assassination attempts show need for strong Secret Service

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Recently President Barack Obama appointed agent Julia Pierson to be the Secret Service’s first female director. I’m sure that Pierson, a 30-year veteran of the agency, is an excellent choice who will live up to the motto, “Worthy of Trust and Confidence.” I hope so, as this is an extremely important position.

Four times in American history the president of the United States has been assassinated. The first, of course was Abraham Lincoln who died on this day in 1865. Ironically, he ordered the creation of the Secret Service just hours before going to Ford’s Theater. The agency was originally created to investigate counterfeiting. Two more presidents, James Garfield and William McKinley, were assassinated before the Secret Service was assigned to give the president full-time security protection.

Today, protecting the president from an assassin’s bullet is one of the Secret Service’s most important responsibilities. And that is quite a challenge. Some of the pistol-wielding assassins in American history were politically motivated, as was the case with John Wilkes Booth and the anarchist who killed McKinley, plus the Puerto Rican pro-independence activists who attempted to shoot Harry Truman. I don’t think we will ever fully understand Lee Harvey Oswald’s motive. These assassins probably were a little nuts, too, whereas many of the other assassins in our history were clearly deranged.

That was the case with the first attack on a U.S. president, which occurred in 1835. Richard Lawrence, an unemployed house painter, attacked President Andrew Jackson, whom he blamed for his woes. Lawrence stepped in front of Jackson and fired a pistol at his chest. Fortunately the weapon misfired. But then Lawrence pulled out a second pistol and fired again. That one misfired also. The president and his friend Davy Crockett then subdued the assailant. Lawrence was later found not guilty by reason of insanity, and he spent the rest of his life in a mental institution.

Garfield, our 20th president, was also the victim of an attack by a crazed gunman. And he was killed. Garfield’s, Charles Guiteau, had failed at everything in life. As a young man he joined a free love community but even struck out there. The women wouldn’t go near him. They nicknamed him “Charles Gitout.” But in 1880 he toured the country giving strange speeches in support of Garfield, the Republican presidential candidate. Garfield won the election, and Guiteau believed his speeches were the reason. He believed he should be rewarded with a consul generalship to Paris. Garfield refused, and the disenchanted office seeker subsequently shot and killed him at a Washington train station.

After he was captured, Guiteau believed that Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman would send troops to free him. At the trial, it was clear that Guiteau was as mad as a hatter; but the country wanted to see him hanged. Those people got their wish the following year.

The next lunatic to attack a president was John Schank, a former New York saloon-keeper who shot Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. Roosevelt was a former Republican president who was then running for president as the Bull Moose Party candidate. Schank stalked Roosevelt with the intention of killing him. He had had a dream that the ghost of McKinley had told him to do this. Since McKinley was a staunch Republican, you’d think his ghost would have preferred that he shoot a Democrat.

The deranged Schank caught up with Roosevelt as he was leaving to deliver a speech in Milwaukee and fired a pistol at his chest. Fortunately the bullet ripped through his 50 page bifolded manuscript and his steel eye glass case, which were in the ex-president’s breast pocket, before lodging in his chest. The melodramatic Roosevelt, correctly sensing that the wound was not fatal, still gave the 90-minute speech. At one point he showed the audience his bloody shirt while proclaiming, “It takes more than that to kill a bull moose.” Roosevelt survived but lost the election.

As for Schank, he was incarcerated for life in a Wisconsin mental institution. Schank later bequeathed the bullet he used to shoot the former president to the New York Historical Society. But since he had already “given” it to Roosevelt (in whose chest it remained), it wasn’t Schank’s to give.

The next madman was Giuseppe Zangara, a bricklayer with severe abdominal pains, which presumably stemmed from an earlier operation. The physical woes made working difficult and may have led to his deteriorating mental condition. He blamed President Herbert Hoover for all of his problems including his bellyache. When Hoover was defeated by Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, Zangara transferred his hatred to Roosevelt.

In February 1933 in Miami, Roosevelt finished an impromptu talk, and Zangara fired at the president-elect. Because Zangara was only 5 feet tall, he had to stand on a rickety chair to shoot at Roosevelt over the crowd. After he got off the first shot, he lost his footing but got off four more wild shots before being subdued by the crowd. Roosevelt was not hit but Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak was killed. Zangara was found guilty of first-degree murder for the mayor’s death. He was sentenced to die the next month in the Florida State Penitentiary’s electric chair.

The final deranged would-be assassin was John Hinckley Jr. who tried to kill Ronald Reagan in March 1981. Hinckley was obsessed with actress Jodie Foster after watching her in the movie “Taxi Driver.” When she enrolled at Yale, the future assassin went to New Haven to be near her. He sent her letters and poems and slipped messages under her door -- very creepy. He even spoke to her on the telephone a couple of times but was unable to get her interested in him. So he came up with the idea of killing the president as a way to impress her.

The president he originally planned to kill was Jimmy Carter. But before he could act, Ronald Reagan was elected and Hinckley had to change targets (killing an ex-president presumably wouldn’t be noteworthy enough). So on March 30, 1981, as Reagan left the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C., Hinckley stepped forward and fired six shots, wounding the president and three others including a Secret Service agent. Not surprisingly, Foster wasn’t impressed.

The following year Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a mental hospital. Amazingly, Hinckley may not have been the most bizarre person in this story. Edward Richardson had also become obsessed with Jodie Foster after watching “Taxi Driver.” Richardson wrote Foster a letter saying that John Hinckley had come to him in a dream and told him that Reagan had to die and “sadly though, your death is also required.” He wrote that he was going to finish what Hinckley had started. Luckily Richardson was captured before he could board a train for Washington. He was armed with a loaded .32 -caliber revolver. I doubt Foster was impressed with him either.

So as Julia Pierson takes over at the Secret Service, we should say a prayer for her and thank the Secret Service for the job they perform. There are a lot of crazy people in this world … and a lot of guns.

John C. Wade, Wildwood, is a chief financial officer, amateur historian and self-proclaimed expert on the U.S. presidents. Wade is on a number of not-for-profit boards in St Louis including the World Affairs Council and Meds & Foods for Kids. He is a Churchill Fellow and on the board of governors of the National Churchill Museum.