PLOTTING TO KILL THE PRESIDENT BOOK REVIEWS
Book Review: Plotting to Kill the President
By Steve Donoghue (February 13, 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.
Book preview: Spring cleaning may be worth months of reading
Terri Schlichenmeyer, Correspondent ET April 12, 2017
As a fan of history, you know there’s always a dark side, and “Plotting to Kill the President” by Mel Ayton tells a bit of it. This is a book that steps back to the nation’s first days but, surprisingly, only goes up to early 20th century assassination attempts. That means you won’t find JFK in there, nor Ronald Reagan – but you will find an interesting bit of American history. Also take a look at “Rivals Unto Death: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr” by Rick Beyer. Written by an author who’s delved into quirky history, this book is also a bit of biography.
As a fan
Understanding America’s Past
New books on crime, war and the meaning of citizenship
Jun. 19, 2017
Plotting to Kill the President: Assassination Attempts from Washington to Hoover (Potomac Books), by Mel Ayton
In the early years of the republic, U.S. presidents often walked unguarded through the streets; in some administrations, the White House admitted visitors without appointments for an audience with the nation’s chief magistrate. But as Mel Ayton shows in Plotting to Kill the President, threats were hurled at America’s leaders from the onset. Some of the stories will be bizarre to contemporary ears: James Monroe was physically threatened in the White House by his treasury secretary. Abraham Lincoln was the first to fall to an assassin, but Andrew Jackson was menaced by Julius Booth, whose son fired the bullet that killed Lincoln. Ayton ends his chronicle with Herbert Hoover, threatened by the usual cast of the unbalanced and the disgruntled.
Anna Faktorovich, PhD
Mel Ayton. Plotting to Kill the President: Assassination Attempts from Washington to Hoover. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press: Potomac Books, February 1, 2017. ISBN: 978-1-61234-856-8. $32.95. 376pp. 6X9”. 30 illustrations
While this book raises some unanswered questions, these appear because so much new information is offered that I have never read about before. Thus, this is a very well informed study through difficult to find sources of the varieties, methods and circumstances surrounding these assassinations and attempts. Each of the stories is told in a novelistic style and engages the reader’s attention, so that it is easy to slip into this book, and difficult to put it down.