"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 12 February 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Putting the Ass Back in Assassin

The Devil You Know

It seems that none of the bright boys in the technology press caught the implicit doublethink of "Microsoft doesn't get the Web" and "Microsoft is going to take over the Web."
Five years ago today in Suck.

Years from now, you will almost certainly not remember where you were the morning of February 7, 2001, when Robert Pickett, a 47-year-old tax accountant from Evansville, Indiana, broke onto the White House grounds brandishing a gun, fired some errant shots in the general direction of the residence, threatened to take his own life and was brought down by Secret Service agents, who, in the final insult, were evidently not even shooting to kill.

People tend to talk about presidential assassination as if it's a bad thing. But it's not too much of a stretch to suggest that an assassination attempt is a perverse sign of legitimacy; it is the strongest sign possible that someone in the electorate still cares. Jimmy Carter and George Bush the First must take major razzing at those ex-president photo ops because they never made their bones. Still, the presidency gets the assassins it deserves, and Dubya is just the latest in a line of recent chief execs whom history has chosen to salute with a pop gun. (You may be wondering why Pickett even qualifies as an assassin. We'll get to that.)

Say what you will about American assassins of the past: they were at least generally capable of hitting a large building painted bright white at relatively close range. Martin Amis posited the Theory of Increasing Humiliation — that as civilization wears on, people choose more humble and risible figures for leaders and heroes — and the theory, it turns out, also appears to apply to the people who would whack those leaders and heroes: we've gone from Brutus to Butt-Head.

There used to be certain things you could assume about presidential assassins, successful or not. For starters, that they intended to kill the president. Or that they did so for a discernable reason that had something to do with their target's job — if not a political agenda, at least a vendetta. Hollywood still can't get its mind around the new, apolitical, murkily motivated assassin. In the Line of Fire had a superassassin named for John Wilkes Booth; The West Wing writer-creator Aaron Sorkin, perhaps the last remaining adherent to the great-man theory of the presidency, gave us a coordinated 21-gun salute by a troop of white supremacists.

In fact it's been decades since we've seen this kind of American assassin anywhere but on a screen. The last of the great ideological assailants was not Lee Harvey Oswald — for our purposes, we're assuming he did it — but the undersung Sara Jane Moore, a San Francisco radical with ties to the Symbionese Liberation Army, who flubbed a shot at Gerald Ford in Union Square and said, "I did it to create chaos." (Last year, the septuagenarian prison activist won a lawsuit allowing women prisoners in her Alameda County facility to have keys to lock themselves into their own cells at night.)

Moore was the last 20th-century presidential assailant to act for clearly political reasons, in the tradition of the anarchist McKinleycide Leon Czolgosz or Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, the Puerto Rican separatists who forced their way into Harry Truman's temporary residence at Blair House but were stopped in a three-minute, 27-shot gun battle. Oswald may have been political, after all, but his motives died with him; and while Squeaky Fromme, who took a similarly botched shot at Ford a few days before Moore, was a member of the Manson Family, she was clearly not the sharpest tool on the Spahn Ranch (there were no bullets in the firing chamber when she pulled the trigger).

Since Moore, assassinations have become narcissistic, even self-immolating acts that resemble performance art more than revolutionary statements. During Bill Clinton's first term, scaling the White House fence became a bigger Washington tourist attraction than the Smithsonian IMAX. In October 1994, a man fired 15 semiautomatic rounds at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue from the street; a month earlier, a coke-and-booze-addled pilot tried to crash a Cessna into the White House. Neither assailant appeared to have even had the courtesy to be politically motivated.

To assassinate a head of state for political ends, after all, requires a rather quaint faith in the office, an old-fashioned belief in a rational and ordered political system in which the snake actually has a functional head that can be effectively cut off. Outside Iraq and the Congo, this is an increasingly untenable postion. Your contemporary extremist — to say nothing of business leaders and voters — tends to see power as not even a hydra but an amoeba, and the president as just another jelly-filled pseudopod.

Thus the half-assed, insulting attacks against Clinton: abstract, desultory attempts not even against the man himself but against his house. (In this sense, West Wing auteur Sorkin got at least one thing right: His shooters were trying to kill not the president but the black aide dating his daughter.) If you think the Federal Reserve and/or the Jews in Hollywood call the shots anyway, why waste your ammo on Dubya? Today, you send your message elsewhere, by USPS or Ryder. If Leon Czolgosz were around today, would he go to Buffalo or Davos?

So the burden of keeping Secret Service agents on their toes falls to a different breed of scourge. And the salient difference is not so much that they're nuts but that they're egotistical. Some shmendrick takes a shot at one actor to impress another. Another steals a plane to go out in a blaze of glory in the president's living room. The president, even the presidency, is beside the point in their own private psychodramas. Sic semper tyrannis, my ass: To today's assassin, it's all about me, me, me.

Assassins follow trends like the arts do. Oswald bridged modernism and postmodernism like early Pynchon (or DeLillo, who wrote the book on him): postmodernist because of the murky web of conspiracy theories that survived him, modernist because he worked in the context of big all-explaining worldviews. Czolgosz was straight-up social realist; Booth was as histrionic and big-R Romantic as Richard Wagner. And lately, assassination attempts have been a regular Whitney Biennial, full of personal angst and self-promotion, bizarre, symbolic stunts that call into question the definition of the phrase "assassination attempt."

Pickett's Charge was, you might say, the ultimate assassination attempt for a confessional, postideological and PR-focused era. A distraught man decides to make a showy mess on the White House lawn. Maybe he means to shoot the president, maybe not. Like as not, he's winging it. But by choosing the White House as his stage, he is, as near as we can tell, trying to hit Bush where it hurts most. Right in his image.

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courtesy of Joe Shlabotnik

pictures Terry Colon