As­sas­sin’s creed

Many peo­ple have sought a place in his­tory by at­tempt­ing to kill an Amer­i­can pres­i­dent, and a few have suc­ceeded on both counts

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - WORDS BY DON­ALD CLARKE

Why do killers of US pres­i­dents haunt our imag­i­na­tions?

‘When I leave the stage I’ll be the most fa­mous man in Amer­ica,” John Wilkes Booth, one of the lesser lights in a 19th-cen­tury act­ing fam­ily, is al­leged to have said. It doesn’t mat­ter if Pres­i­dent Abra­ham Lin­coln’s as­sas­sin ac­tu­ally ut­tered these words. They still work as – to snatch a term from con­tem­po­rary PR – an ef­fec­tive tagline for the hud­dle of peo­ple who gained no­to­ri­ety by mur­der­ing or at­tempt­ing to mur­der a US pres­i­dent.

Few jobs can have such a high fa­tal­ity rate. Four out of the 45 pres­i­dents were as­sas­si­nated (that’s four times the num­ber who have re­signed). We’re not quite at the fa­tal­ity rates for a sec­ond World War bomber crew. But you’re cer­tainly more likely to sur­vive to re­tire­ment as a bull­fighter or a Mafia hit­man. This is all the more ter­ri­fy­ing when you con­sider that only one man served longer than eight years in the job.

Add in those who’ve come close to killing a pres­i­dent and a few who’ve mur­dered prom­i­nent can­di­dates and you end up with some­thing like a cross-gen­er­a­tional com­mu­nity. Psy­chol­o­gists seek to dis­cover a type. So­ci­ol­o­gists pon­der a char­ac­ter­is­tic po­si­tion in the so­cial hi­er­ar­chy. Prom­i­nent nov­el­ists such as Philip K Dick and Nor­man Mailer pluck mem­bers from the gang and weave them into fic­tions and quasi-fic­tions. Film-mak­ers such as Robert Red­ford and Oliver Stone spread them across gi­ant screens. All travel roads that lead to­wards or away from Lee Har­vey Oswald.

The key fac­tional text on this odd col­lec­tion of peo­ple ar­rived off-Broad­way in 1990. Though it is still less well-known than pop­u­lar be­he­moths such as Sweeney Todd or Into the Woods, Stephen Sond­heim’s As­sas­sins has steadily ac­cu­mu­lated a rep­u­ta­tion as a favourite among that com­poser’s most ar­dent afi­ciona­dos. Sond­heim him­self rates it as his great­est achieve­ment. This month Selina Cart­mell di­rects a new pro­duc­tion in The Gate Theatre with a cast in­clud­ing Dan Gor­don, Ger Kelly, Aoib­héann McCann and Mark O’Re­gan.

The show finds the pro­pri­etor of a shoot­ing gallery in­vei­gling var­i­ous as­sas­sins into ful­fill­ing their his­tor­i­cal des­tinies. Booth is there. Charles J Guiteau, the mid-western odd­ball who killed James Garfield in 1882, gets to sing his own ca­reer­ing bal­lad. Leon Czol­gosz, the an­ar­chist who mur­dered William McKin­ley in 1901, also has his say. In the mu­si­cal’s most bril­liant mo­ment, two char­ac­ters share a del­i­cate love song – sug­gest­ing high-end 1970s MOR – en­ti­tled Un­wor­thy of Your Love. The man war­bles: “I am noth­ing/You are wind and wa­ter and sky.” The woman re­sponds: “I am noth­ing/You are wind and devil and God.” The tune has the mak­ings of a Sond­heim cross­over such as Send in the Clowns, but pop­u­lar driv­e­time suc­cess is hin­dered by the in­tel­li­gence that the man is John Hinck­ley and the woman is “Squeaky” Fromme. Hinck­ley is ad­dress­ing Jodie Fos­ter be­fore mak­ing his at­tempt on Ron­ald Rea­gan’s life. Fromme is ser­e­nad­ing Charles Man­son be­fore tak­ing a shot at Ger­ald Ford.

The show ends (as we knew it must) with Lee Har­vey Oswald in the Texas Book De­posi­tary. As­sas­sins is rarely con­fused with No, No Nanette.

Cart­mell, who be­came The Gate’s fourth-ever artis­tic direc­tor last year, directed a pro­duc­tion of Sweeney Todd at the theatre a decade ago and has long been a Sond­heim en­thu­si­ast. The cur­rent sea­son at The Gate is ded­i­cated to “The Out­sider” and few mu­si­cals

Sirhan Sirhan, who as­sas­si­nated Robert Kennedy in 1968, once ex­plained the logic with chill­ing pre­ci­sion. “They can gas me, but I am fa­mous. I have achieved in one day what it took Robert Kennedy all his life to do”

meet that re­mit so sat­is­fac­to­rily. She also feels that – we speak days af­ter the March for Our Lives – As­sas­sins is more rel­e­vant now than it was on its pre­miere.

“I was in Amer­ica when I pro­grammed this and it was Trump’s in­au­gu­ral week­end,” she says. “We had dis­cussed As­sas­sins in terms of what it means to­day. It says some­thing about the Amer­i­can dream. It says some­thing about a coun­try where ev­ery­body can pick up a gun. It talks about how cer­tain voices – par­tic­u­larly im­mi­grant voices – are heard to­day.”

Cart­mell’s point about the Amer­i­can dream is worth teas­ing out. The con­tin­u­ing in­ter­est in US pres­i­den­tial as­sas­sins and near-as­sas­sins is not just to do with their dis­turb­ing abun­dance. Pol­i­tics wind them­selves into these acts, but, as often as not, the mo­ti­va­tion springs from per­sonal dis­sat­is­fac­tions. Af­ter all, few vice-pres­i­dents are likely to of­fer the coun­try any rad­i­cal po­lit­i­cal de­par­tures from mur­dered run­ning mates. The psy­chol­ogy of the killers tells us some­thing un­set­tling about the Amer­i­can urge for ac­tu­al­i­sa­tion, about the need to “be­come some­body”.


In the decades af­ter Lee Har­vey Oswald – alone and with­out any as­sis­tance from the CIA, the Cubans or (we’ll get there) the New Or­leans gay com­mu­nity – as­sas­si­nated Pres­i­dent Kennedy, whole in­dus­tries have grown up to serve the con­spir­acy or­tho­doxy. Even the most distin­guished writ­ers get caught in the drift to­wards un­re­li­able com­pli­ca­tion. Don DeLillo’s bril­liant 1988 novel Libra con­structs a com­plex and bal­anced pic­ture of Oswald’s un­sta­ble per­son­al­ity. The book also in­vented col­lu­sion be­tween Oswald and the CIA aimed at fur­ther­ing war with Cuba. DeLillo doesn’t pre­tend that his so­lu­tion is the cor­rect one. But his book and most other fic­tions on Oswald im­ply that some so­lu­tion still needs to be found. None of these con­spir­a­cies is quite so un­set­tling as the idea that one man could pre­cip­i­tate such na­tional trauma on a whim. A con­spir­acy im­plies or­der in the uni­verse. A lone gun­man im­plies god­less chaos.

We need a “counter-myth”. That was the phrase used by Oliver Stone to jus­tify the gib­ber­ish that emerged from Kevin Cost­ner’s mouth in his well-made, pro­foundly stupid 1991 film JFK. “Back and to the left! Back and to the left!” Stone frames his con­spir­acy – which re­ally does im­pli­cate the New Or­leans gay com­mu­nity – as a sort of harm­less fable, but count­less fol­low­ers now state the film’s pseudo-ev­i­dence as fact. Six years later, I wrote a short film, sub­se­quently directed by Paul Duane, called My Din­ner with Oswald, in which a group of con­spir­acy the­o­rists re-en­act the Kennedy as­sas­si­na­tion at a Dublin din­ner party. This was the last time such a story could be told with­out ref­er­ence to the in­ter­net. Af­ter that, se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion of Oswald’s psy­choses be­came sec­ondary to the weav­ing of elab­o­rate, com­fort­ing, dig­i­tally gen­er­ated lies. At least nuts had to phys­i­cally self-pub­lish their rav­ings in the old days.

Sond­heim’s As­sas­sins does of­fer po­lit­i­cal con­text. Booth mourned the con­fed­er­acy. Czol­gosz gets to point out that many Amer­i­cans “have”, while too many Amer­i­cans “have not”. But its ul­ti­mate con­clu­sion is that, more than any­thing else, these peo­ple are striv­ing for renown. Sirhan Sirhan, who as­sas­si­nated Robert Kennedy as he ran for the pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion in 1968, once ex­plained the logic with chill­ing pre­ci­sion. “They can gas me, but I am fa­mous. I have achieved in one day what it took Robert Kennedy all his life to do,” he said. (They didn’t gas him. He re­mains alive in a south­ern Cal­i­for­nian prison.)

To be fair to Stone, though al­lowed only few

lines, Gary Old­man com­mu­ni­cates Oswald’s sense of ag­grieved ob­scu­rity ef­fec­tively in JFK. You yearn for him to ap­pear in a film more con­cerned with char­ac­ter and less taken up with para­noid fan­tasy. Though much at home to the au­thor’s trade­mark wind­bag­gery, Nor­man Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale, over many hun­dreds of pages, makes gen­uine ef­forts to pull apart the Oswald mech­a­nism.

The most in­ter­est­ing cin­e­matic anal­y­sis of any char­ac­ter fea­tured in As­sas­sins may, how­ever, be Niels Mueller’s fas­ci­nat­ing, un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated The As­sas­si­na­tion of Richard Nixon from 2004. An im­pres­sively twitchy Sean Penn plays a ver­sion of Sa­muel Byck, the man who, in 1974, at­tempted to hi­jack a plane and fly it into the White House. Mueller planned the film be­fore 9/11 and al­most gave up on the idea af­ter those events, but he then re­alised that the story was more rel­e­vant than ever. Byck (spelled “Bicke” in the film) ex­hibits all the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the lone nut who plans to mur­der his way to in­famy. He has fouled up his re­la­tion­ship with his wife. Hopped-up on half-baked rad­i­cal­ism, he of­fers him­self as a white re­cruit to the Black Pan­thers. The real Byck shot him­self on the plane af­ter a stand-off with po­lice. Water­gate was al­ready up and run­ning. No­body was much in­ter­ested. It took Stephen Sond­heim and, to a lesser ex­tent, Niels Mueller to se­cure the failed as­sas­sin any sort of af­ter­life.

“It was ex­tra­or­di­nary,” Mueller told me at the time of the film’s re­lease. “I was in­ter­ested in writ­ing a script about a guy who makes an as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt to make the world pay at­ten­tion, but barely gets no­ticed. And this was ex­actly Byck’s story.” Not only did Byck fail to be­come a Lee Har­vey Oswald, he didn’t even achieve the sta­tus of a John Hinck­ley.


The as­sas­sins turn up in all kinds of odd places. One of the ear­li­est ex­am­ples of con­ti­nu­ity edit­ing ap­pears in Thomas Edi­son’s 1901 silent Ex­e­cu­tion of Czol­gosz with Panorama of Auburn Prison. Just a few months af­ter Czol­gosz’s con­vic­tion, he is shown ex­pir­ing quickly in the elec­tric chair when he would more prob­a­bly have died in a mass of flame and waste mat­ter.

Giuseppe Zan­gara, an Italian im­mi­grant who shot at pres­i­dent-elect Franklin D Roo­sevelt, but killed only Mayor An­ton Cer­mak of Chicago, is fea­tured promi­nently in As­sas­sins and has a sig­nif­i­cant back­ground role in Philip K Dick’s al­ter­na­tive his­tory The Man in the High Cas­tle. In that book, Zan­gara suc­ceeds and brings about a Nazi vic­tory in the com­ing war. The pro­tag­o­nist of Stephen King’s ex­cel­lent 11/22/63 at­tempts a com­ple­men­tary op­er­a­tion by trav­el­ling back in time and killing Oswald be­fore he does away with the pres­i­dent.

Dick and King are con­cerned with the his­tor­i­cal im­pact of an as­sas­si­na­tion. Such things mat­ter. But the com­mon fac­tor be­tween the char­ac­ters in fic­tional ac­counts – and most his­tor­i­cal records – re­mains their de­sire to be no­ticed. The post­mod­ern in­ter­sec­tion of fan­tasy and re­al­ity so beloved of Thomas Pyn­chon prop­erly set in when Hinck­ley be­came hooked on Martin Scors­ese’s Taxi Driver. The film is about a de­ranged loser who seeks to make his mark by as­sas­si­nat­ing a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date. Hinck­ley, emo­tion­ally en­twined with Jodie Fos­ter’s char­ac­ter in the film and then with Fos­ter her­self, set out to kill an ac­tual pres­i­dent. A hu­man mod­els him­self on a satir­i­cally height­ened ver­sion of a psy­cho­pathic trope and be­comes even more pro­foundly dis­as­so­ci­ated from re­al­ity than his fic­tional in­spi­ra­tion. Even Pyn­chon didn’t imag­ine that.


“Where’s my prize?” the char­ac­ters re­peat­edly chant to­wards the end of As­sas­sins. The US pres­i­dent of­fers a very sig­nif­i­cant prize. Un­usu­ally for a democ­racy, he (it’s yet to be she) is both the head of state and the head of the gov­ern­ment. He is both monarch and prime min­is­ter. He rep­re­sents the na­tion state. He also man­i­fests cur­rent po­lit­i­cal pol­icy. There is, thus, eye-wa­ter­ing sym­bolic value to a pres­i­den­tial as­sas­si­na­tion. We are liv­ing at a time when broad­cast­ers are prop­erly ad­vised to be care­ful about mak­ing celebri­ties of school shoot­ers. How can one avoid mak­ing a celebrity of a Bru­tus, a Gavrilo Prin­cip or a Lee Har­vey Oswald?

The prospect of such el­e­va­tion must, in the eyes of a dis­turbed loner, be that bit more tempt­ing in a so­ci­ety built upon dreams of pos­si­bil­ity. Any­body can be­come pres­i­dent? Well, maybe. Any­body can kill the pres­i­dent? Maybe not. But, to a mid­dle-aged loser with no wife, no job and no pub­lic voice, the lat­ter seems a lot more achiev­able than the for­mer.

Mel Ay­ton, au­thor of Plot­ting to Kill the Pres­i­dent, sees that urge for recog­ni­tion as the prime force in such as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempts. “While some had been treated for men­tal ill­ness, an even more pre­dom­i­nant char­ac­ter­is­tic is that many of them were dis­il­lu­sioned with and re­sent­ful of Amer­i­can so­ci­ety af­ter a life­time of fail­ure,” he wrote. “And most of them also had a burn­ing de­sire for no­to­ri­ety. Killing an Amer­i­can pres­i­dent, most would-be as­sas­sins be­lieved, would win them a place in his­tory, mak­ing a ‘some­body’ out of a ‘no­body.’”

The ter­ri­ble truth is that the plan often comes close to work­ing. Lee Har­vey Oswald is more fa­mous than most Amer­i­can pres­i­dents. John Hinck­ley didn’t even kill any­body, but more peo­ple know his name than those of Mil­lard Fil­more or Ben­jamin Har­ri­son.

“We’re the other na­tional an­them, folks,” the as­sas­sins sing at the close of Sond­heim’s show. “The ones that can’t get in to the ball park.” As­sas­sins is at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, from April12th

Po­lice and Se­cret Ser­vice agents div­ing to pro­tect Ron­ald Rea­gan amid a pan­icked crowd dur­ing the as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt by John Hinck­ley Jr in 1981. Be­low: Dan Gor­don from the up­com­ing Gate pro­duc­tion of Stephen Sond­heim’s As­sas­sins. PHO­TO­GRAPH: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IM­AGES; AGATA STOINSKA

Above: A paint­ing by Ed­ward De­bell de­pict­ing the as­sas­si­na­tion of Abra­ham Lin­coln by John Wilkes Booth on April 11, 1865; Pres­i­dent Ger­ald Ford’s would-be as­sas­sin and Man­son Fam­ily mem­ber Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. Left: Lee Har­vey Oswald is im­mor­talised by LIFE Mag­a­zine in Fe­bru­ary 1964. Be­low: il­lus­tra­tion of Leon Czol­gosz, as­sas­sin of US pres­i­dent William McKin­ley, be­fore his ex­e­cu­tion in 1901. PHO­TO­GRAPHS: ED VEBELL/ TIME LIFE PIC­TURES/GETTY IM­AGES

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