Reportage

Saving the President

The attempts to kill President Gerald Ford….

1975 was not a good year for American president Gerald Ford. As he dealt with the severe embarrassment of the final days of the Vietnam War and the shambolic exit from Saigon he faced two assassination attempts within seventeen days of each other.

The first, from Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme, a drug-riddled straggler from the notorious Charles Manson cult and the second from Sarah Jane Moore, a former FBI informant beset with mental health issues who had become politically radicalised.

September 22nd 1975 and the president is leaving the St Francis Hotel in San Francisco, some three thousand onlookers are there to catch a glimpse of him. One man, Oliver Sipple, a former US Marine and veteran of the Vietnam War saw Sarah Jane Moore raise a pistol at the president who, by then, was forty feet away from the pair. Sipple instinctively grabbed Moore by her arm, a single shot was fired which ricocheted and hit a passer-by. Ford was saved once again and Sipple declared a hero. Of sorts.

Sipple’s ‘problem’ was that he was a gay man who had kept his sexuality from his family and employer. As news broke of his heroics he asked the press to respect his right to privacy and not publish the fact he was homosexual. Within two days Sipple would go from all-American hero to being besieged by the press about his sexuality. ‘Outed’ by two local gay activists who saw his actions as a way to change the stereotypical view of gay men as child molesters and frequenters of public toilets, their actions would rip Sipple’s family apart and lead him to file a law suit against the San Francisco Chronicle.

Given this revelation about his sexuality, the White House’s response to his heroics was at best, guarded, at worst pathetic. Ford’s wrote to Sipple: ‘I want you to know how much I appreciated your selfless actions last Monday. The events were a shock to us all, but you acted quickly and without fear for your own safety. By doing so, you helped to avert danger to me and to others in the crowd. You have my heartfelt appreciation’ A simple note, no invitation to the White House, nothing.

His parents disowned him, he was banned from his mother’s funeral and his legal quest for compensation would go on until 1984 when the state court of appeal found in his favour. But his mental and physical health had badly deteriorated, alcohol abuse and the diagnosis of schizophrenia would bring his life to an early end. At the age of forty seven he was found dead in his apartment ten days after he died, a bottle of whisky by his side, the television still on.

As for Moore, she served thirty two years of a life sentence having attempted to escape in 1979 before being released in 2007 at the age of seventy seven.

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