Thursday, May 15, 2008

Change Is Best Served By Ballot, Not Bullet

We live in turbulent times, but -- so far, at least -- we're changing our leadership in the civilized way that a democracy makes such changes.

With ballots, not bullets.

Anyone who is under 35 doesn't really appreciate how different things are today.

But, for people of my generation -- in fact, for people of my parents' generation -- it was almost unheard of for a president to be assassinated.

For awhile.

But it didn't stay that way.

Over about a 40-year period, three presidents were assassinated -- Abraham Lincoln in 1865, James Garfield in 1881 and William McKinley in 1901.

Then we went through about six decades without a presidential assassination. A couple of presidents died, but their deaths were due to natural causes, not assassin's bullets.

But then, things changed. And when I was growing up, assassinations seemed to be a fact of life.

I was about to turn 4 years old when President Kennedy was assassinated. I didn't know or understand what was happening in the world. "The world," as far as I was concerned, was my home and my yard.

At the time, my family didn't own a TV set, but our neighbors did.

So we spent most of the next four days at the neighbors' house -- which was fine with me because our neighbors had a son who was only a few months older than I was. He was my playmate -- and, as far as I was concerned, he had the coolest toys to play with.

I didn't know why we were spending so much time at the neighbors' house. But if it meant I could ride my friend's new tricycle or play with some of his other toys, I wasn't going to rock the boat.

The mental images I have of Kennedy's funeral are from films I've seen. My actual memories of that period are the spotty impressions of a 3-year-old.

It was different four years later, when assassins were killing Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. And I was more aware of what was happening in the world around me.

I remember news reports of the riots that swept across the nation when King was killed. I remember the national convulsion of mourning when Bobby Kennedy was killed. I remember the general feeling of helplessness that came with both murders.

When I was growing up in the 1960s, two words seemed to imply that death was inevitable -- "cancer" and "assassination." When someone mentioned either of those words, that feeling of helplessness returned.

("Assassination attempts" didn't always succeed, as I learned from a series of experiences in the 1970s. But, although some of its strength has diminished, "cancer," regrettably, has retained most of its power. When John Dean told the senators who were investigating the Watergate scandal that there was "a cancer growing on the presidency," the implication was that Nixon's presidency was doomed. As, indeed, it was.)

But as I grew older, things changed for the better.

As an adult, I've seen people I care about survive a diagnosis of cancer. I've seen some who haven't, but the survival rate has improved and, for that, I am grateful.

And I've seen famous people who were targeted for assassination but survived.

Certainly, there were some who didn't survive. John Lennon was killed by a fan in front of his New York building in 1980.

But Ronald Reagan lived through an assassination attempt in 1981. So did Pope John Paul II. And Gerald Ford survived two attempts on his life a few weeks apart in 1975.

And the closest thing I've seen to the public paroxysm of pain that followed the King and Kennedy assassinations in 1968 was the global response to the apparently accidental death of Princess Diana nearly 11 years ago.

The era of unsuccessful assassination attempts really began, I guess, on this date 36 years ago, when George Wallace was shot after speaking at a campaign rally in Laurel, Md.

Wallace was famous for his segregationist politics (those who are old enough will remember his stand in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama, pictured at left) -- but the man who shot him, Arthur Bremer, claimed that his only motivation in attempting to kill Wallace was to become famous.

Oddly enough, Bremer's story was the inspiration for the main character (played by Robert De Niro) in the 1976 movie "Taxi Driver," co-starring Jodie Foster.

Foster's performance in the film in turn motivated John Hinckley to attempt his assassination of Reagan in 1981. Hinckley claimed he wanted to impress Foster.

One of life's ironies.

Bremer was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 63 years in prison. His sentence was later reduced to 53 years on appeal.

Wallace died in 1998. Although paralyzed by the shooting, he lived another quarter of a century and was nearly 80 years old when he died. Bremer's act was something Wallace had to live with, but it doesn't appear to have shortened his life.

Last year, nearly a decade after Wallace's death, Bremer was released from prison at the age of 57. He will be on probation for the next 17 years.

Famous people continue to be stalked. Some have been attacked, and some have died. But we can all be grateful that political assassinations have been prevented in America for the last 40 years. Let's hope it stays that way.

We don't need people making decisions for the rest of us with guns.

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