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