Saturday, September 5, 2015

Taking Aim at Jerry Ford

"In the job of selling himself to the voters, Ford embarked, shortly after Labor Day, on a routine two–day trip to the West Coast. Before it was over, the nation was treated to yet another bizarre illustration of the unpredictability of American presidential politics."

Jules Witcover, Marathon: The Pursuit of the Presidency 1972–1976

For just a moment or two, put yourself in Gerald Ford's position 40 years ago. The summer of 1975 was Ford's first full summer as president, having succeeded Richard Nixon in August 1974. To say that his first year in office had been challenging would be an understatement.

Most people who are old enough to remember Ford's presidency would tell you that he seemed like a nice guy, a decent guy, whether they agreed with him on most things or not. When Ford became president, the contrast between his easygoing disposition and the sullen Nixon was so stark that he enjoyed astonishing popularity from the start. He irretrievably lost a lot of the public's good will when he pardoned Nixon about a month after becoming president, but he didn't deserve to be targeted for assassination for it. I think even Ford's detractors would agree with that.

Yet it was 40 years ago today that Squeaky Fromme, one of the original members of the Manson Family, tried to assassinate Ford in Sacramento, Calif.

Now, to be fair, Squeaky's motive for shooting Ford apparently had nothing to do with the pardon of Nixon. It was just that, even then, the timing of the shooting seemed spooky to me — just a few days shy of the one–year anniversary of the pardon.

I suppose most people don't remember Squeaky's real name (Lynette). Doesn't really matter, I guess. "Squeaky" suited her.

Most of the first half of 1975 had not been particularly kind to Ford. He came under frequent criticism from hard–liners in his party over his choice of Nelson Rockefeller to be vice president. The economy had been a drain on his presidency; only a few months after taking office, he went on national television to encourage anti–inflation sentiment — since inflation was regarded as a greater threat to economic stability than rising unemployment (which, while high by the standards of the times, seems modest when compared to today's 5.1% rate). And the United States had suffered its greatest foreign policy humiliation — up to that time — when the North Vietnamese drove the Americans from South Vietnam. That led to rumblings of concern that Ford's national security team wasn't up to the job.

But in May 1975 Ford's luck began to change, thanks to an event half a world away, in the Gulf of Siam. Inexplicably, the Khmer Rouge seized the merchant ship Mayaguez and held its crew captive. The Ford administration freed the crew with a plan that was both daring and overkill, subjecting the Cambodian mainland to heavy air strikes. It was a shot in the arm for those who had worried about a loss of U.S. influence in the region, and it was leverage that Ford supporters used — unsuccessfully — in an effort to persuade Ronald Reagan and his supporters not to challenge Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976.

The Mayaguez incident was a real turning point for Ford. Economic news was getting better, too. The recession that had plagued the economy was bottoming out. Unemployment was still higher than most would like, but there were signs of a recovery, which was seen as good news for the administration, and Ford announced his candidacy for a full term in July.

Also that July, California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, would not commit to speak to the annual "Host Breakfast" in Sacramento — a gathering of the state's politically influential business leaders. They saw Brown's response as a snub and, in apparent retaliation, invited Ford, a Republican, to speak. Ford believed California was crucial to his hopes of winning a full term in 1976 and accepted the invitation.

Meanwhile, Fromme apparently had become active in environmental causes and believed (due, in part, to a study that had been released by the Environmental Protection Agency) that California's redwoods were endangered by smog. An article in the New York Times about the study observed that Ford had asked Congress to ease provisions of the 1963 Clean Air Act.

Fromme wanted to bring attention to this matter, and she wanted those in government to be fearful so she decided to kill the symbolic head of the government. On the morning of Sept. 5, she walked approximately half a mile from her apartment to the state capitol grounds — a short distance from the Senator Hotel, where Ford was staying — a Colt .45 concealed beneath her distinctive red robe.

Ford returned from the breakfast around 9:30 a.m., then left the hotel on foot at 10, his destination the governor's office — and an apparent photo opp with Jerry Brown. Along the way, he encountered Fromme, who drew the gun from beneath her robe and pulled the trigger. The weapon had ammunition — but no bullet in the chamber — so the gun didn't fire.

"It wouldn't go off!" Fromme shouted as Secret Service agents took the gun from her hands and wrestled her to the ground. "Can you believe it? It didn't go off."

Ford went on to the capitol and met with Brown for half an hour, only mentioning the assassination attempt in passing as he prepared to leave.

"I thought I'd better get on with my day's schedule," Ford later said.

Two months later, Fromme was convicted of attempting to assassinate the president and received a life sentence. She was paroled in August 2009, nearly three years after Ford's death.

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