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Book Review: Plotting to Kill the President

By (February 13, 2017) No Comment

Plotting to Kill the President:

Assassination Attempts from Washington to Hoover

by Mel Ayton

Potomac Books, 2017

“At the founding of the United States,” writes Mel Ayton at the beginning of his new book Plotting to Kill the President: Assassination Attempts from Washington to Hoover, “Americans were proud that their chief executive was not surrounded by an armed guard or the presence of regal trappings.” The specter haunting the visual was of course European: the social memory of feeble and fearful monarchs going from palace to palace surrounded by phalanxes of praetorian guards. In the wild new country of America, the hope, the pride was that such things would no longer be necessary: “Americans believed in the exceptional nature of their government, and to accept protection for the president would be to acknowledge that America was no different from the despotic regimes in Europe.”

It’s a hopeful note on which to open a study of this kind, but Ayton, the author of an excellent study of Sirhan Sirhan, has a barrage of facts to bury it, a larger and more carefully-arrayed barrage of such facts than any previous similar study has ever amassed. Ayton has trawled vast caches of obscure newspaper archives and out-of-print Washington memoirs for red-flag incidents in which the protection of the President came directly into the spotlight. Ayton spreads his study from the era of George Washington to the Great Depression and Herbert Hoover, and he concentrates not on the successful assassinations – of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley – but rather on the surprisingly frequent unsuccessful attempts on every President in the country’s history. Ayton quotes Theodore Roosevelt writing to his friend Henry Cabot Lodge:

“[The Secret Service detail is] a very small but very necessary thorn in the flesh … They would not be the least use preventing any assault [but it is] only the Secret Service men who render life endurable, as you would realize if you saw the procession of carriages that pass through [Roosevelt’s summer home on Long Island’s Oyster Bay], the procession of people on foot who try to get into the place, not to speak of the multitude of cranks and others who are stopped in the village.”

That word, that unruly crowd – the cranks – turns up throughout Ayton’s book. Their persistence grows right alongside the power and visibility of their target, to the point where the US government in the wake of the Civil War finally began to codify a distinct arm of protection rather than leave it to local police chiefs and state marshals. As Ayton points out, the composition of that protection was a hotly-debated issue, with Congress worrying that a proposal for the US Army to undertake the task might “become a pretext for creating a police state with the army at the helm.”

The task eventually fell to the Secret Service, funded out of the Treasury Department, and by the time Ayton’s narrative has moved forward to the young 20th century, the relationship between protectors and protected has begun to take its modern shape. Time and again in Ayton’s account, those early-modern presidents complain about being hovered over, wisecrack about excessive protection – and evade that protection as often as they can. We’re told stories of presidents slipping out back doors in order to take strolls in the park; we’re told about President Taft evading his protection detail in order to do some impromptu Christmas shopping along Pennsylvania Avenue (Ayton incorrectly writes that Taft embarked on this adventure “alone,” but the point is well-taken anyway); we hear of President Harding playing games with his Secret Service men out of a strong ambivalence about their necessity:

President Harding did not like being guarded and said he felt like a prisoner. He particularly disliked having agents present when he was playing golf with his friends. On one occasion, during a golf game in Florida, he deliberately made wild shots so his agents would have to retrieve the balls in the mosquito-infested undergrowth. He would also sneak away to take a walk or visit with friends. His agents always found him. However, although Harding resented the intrusive nature of the work of the Secret Service, he did not resent their “constant attention,” agent Edmund Starling said. “He was just sorry it had to be that way.”

At many points in this comprehensive study, former Secret Service men and long-retired White House officials like President McKinley’s secretary George Cortelyou express the same sentiment: that the general public has no idea how many times the “cranks” came a whisker away from upgrading to assassins. And as Ayton points out, this has always been quite pointedly intentional: for its first century of official existence, the Secret Service methodically hid the efforts of the “cranks” from the American press and public … and often from the President himself. When questioned on this tactic, the Agency’s response has always been the same: silencing the reports dampens the incentive. Ayton correctly concludes the historical record will never know the full extent of what the “cranks” have attempted in the past – or are still attempting.