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Assassination: As American as Apple Pie?



In every campaign [it has been determined] that there have been people—for lack of a better word—stalking candidates with ill intent.

                                                                                                        Eljay B. Bowron
                                                                                                        Director, Secret Service, 1993-1997



By Mel Ayton


    There have been notorious, as well as unknown, assassination attempts, plots, and threats against incumbent US presidents throughout American history, from George Washington to Barack Obama.

    Much less well known is that there have been numerous assassination attempts, threats and plots against men and women running for the presidency, as well as holders of and candidates for the office of vice president. Many of these plotters, fortunately, changed their mind at the last second when confronted by tight security. But some would-be assassins nearly succeeded.

    The Secret Service investigates literally hundreds of assassination threats against candidates during presidential election cycles, and also threats to assassinate vice presidential candidates. Since the agency steadfastly refuses to discuss protective intelligence and methods, no one will ever know for sure though how many plots have been thwarted. One presidential candidate, John Schmitz, once likened the Secret Service to a lighthouse: “you don’t count the ships they save.” Former agent Joseph Petro has opined about the “many times” an attacker was waiting to strike but then aborted his or her mission because of the heavy bodyguard protection around a candidate.[1]

    Many potential assassins have possessed the “means, motive and opportunity” to carry out their act but their plans have been foiled before they could gain any proximity to the candidate. Other armed threateners have gained proximity to their targets and have been in a position to attack. An “attempted assassination,” therefore, can be defined as an armed individual who has approached a presidential candidate with ill intent or waited for an opportunity to kill a candidate even if they have been foiled at the last minute by stringent security or other circumstances. Many would-be assassins who fall under this category are well-known and include the men who shot presidential candidates Robert Kennedy and George Wallace. However, little-known to the general public are the attempts to kill vice presidents, and presidential candidates such as Barry Goldwater, Ted Kennedy, John Lindsay, Eugene McCarthy, George H.W. Bush and Gary Hart.

Vice Presidents

    A general assumption exists that no one has ever attempted to assassinate a sitting vice president, on the grounds that the holder of this office has no real political power and a low profile. An assassin would preferably go after the person with the real power: the president.

    Yet at least two attempts to assassinate a vice president have been documented. One involved Abraham Lincoln’s vice president, Andrew Johnson (in concert with a simultaneous attack on the president). The other was on Woodrow Wilson’s running mate, Thomas Marshall.

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