The Plot to Kill Harry Truman --
and the Shoot-Out That Stopped It
By Stephen Hunter and John Bainbridge Jr.
Simon & Schuster. 368 pp. $26.95
One of the stranger news stories of a strange year was last spring's report that the authorities in Tbilisi had foiled an assassination bid against President Bush during his brief visit to Georgia. And yet our history is so littered with attacks on the commander in chief that we barely blink when we read the latest delusional plan to take out the world's most public person. It's a savage paradox at the heart of our democracy: We expect our presidents to embody both the power of the state and the accessibility of our democratic system. That contradiction has led to a spectacularly bad record at keeping our leaders alive over the past 216 years.
Since Andrew Jackson, there have been at least 12 attempts to murder the chief executive, four of which have been successful (Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy). One of the nearest misses was the attempt on Harry S. Truman's life as he lay napping in his underwear at Blair House, around 2:20 p.m. on Nov. 1, 1950. The two assailants were Puerto Rican nationalists, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, who tried to shoot their way into the president's temporary residence (the White House was being renovated). That they failed was due to extraordinary heroism on the part of the Secret Service and some good luck to boot. But still, the attack was lethal enough. Roughly 30 shots were fired in a brutal exchange that lasted about 38 seconds. One member of Truman's protective detail was gunned down, as was one of the would-be assassins. It was a horrifying way to begin a decade that we naively remember as a time of coonskin caps and hula hoops.
The definitive history of this attempted murder has now been written by Stephen Hunter and John Bainbridge Jr. True to their topic, theirs is an unlikely conspiracy: Hunter is a Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic for this newspaper and Bainbridge a journalist and former legal writer in Baltimore. It's a bit unclear what drew them to each other or to this topic, but they attack it with verve.
Truman's near-killing is a good subject for many reasons, including its disappearance into the black hole of our amnesia. The authors begin with a list of commonly held beliefs -- that the assassins were deranged, that the Secret Service fended them off with ease, that Truman was never in danger -- and then flatly state that "every single one of them is wrong." Hooked, the reader begins a journey that weaves a bit drunkenly across the lives of all of the protagonists, pulled by fate toward the bloody confrontation. The authors have clearly worked hard to get inside the minds of the shooters. There are extensive recreations of long-vanished domestic moments, idle conversations between spouses, thoughts about cars (Secret Service guys liked Buicks 84) and other quotidian insights that deepen our feeling for the obscure gunmen who fought out this battle at the high noon of the 20th century.
These scenes are endearing and bring back a distant Washington, just after the war, when young couples streamed into the capital for the chance to start a better life. Hunter and Bainbridge pay close attention to "blue-collar, hardworking Washington." In many ways, this is a local book, and it evokes nostalgia for the more open city that used to exist before episodes like this made it impossible for presidents to mingle with ordinary citizens. All of the men shooting at each other that day were from small towns, and the authors skillfully recreate each participant's trajectory toward Blair House, going back to innocent high school football games and whispered sweet nothings -- the kinds of encounters that change lives forever. Surprisingly, the would-be assassins grew up seemingly normal and happy on their island paradise, with very similar concerns.
The book is especially strong on the culture of the Secret Service -- the internal codes and rituals, the combination of action and tedium and some of the false assumptions that allowed two ordinary gunmen to get much closer to the president than they ever should have. (In retrospect, the house was too close to a busy road -- on Pennsylvania Avenue, just across from the White House; moreover, the agents were not all armed with the right weapons and were too easily surprised by a disorganized attack.)
It is more difficult to revivify the Puerto Rican assailants and their motives, but Hunter and Bainbridge make a strong effort. They forage deep into the anti-Americanism that festered in the decades following the Spanish-American War and the U.S. occupation of Puerto Rico, ultimately finding focus in Pedro Albizu Campos, a charismatic nationalist. Both Collazo and Torresola fell helplessly under his sway. The book's biggest piece of news -- that Albizu Campos almost certainly commanded the attempt on Truman's life -- is important but gets lost near the end.
The book interweaves chapters on the Puerto Ricans and the Americans, like a film cutting back and forth between competing story lines. But this montage becomes dizzying, and that points to another shortcoming. Throughout, a breathless potboiler tone prevails, adding a Raymond Chandleresque voice-over that is distracting and in many ways self-defeating. The assassination reenactment is a genre that begs exactitude -- and the imagined interior monologues of the book's actors often strain credulity. When the assassins meet on a bridge in New York, the authors imagine that one of them looked at the Empire State Building to "locate a symbol of his pain, in the form of the lights of a spire clawing to the sky." The account of the actual gun battle includes the stream of consciousness of agents getting into position: "Grrrrrr Donald the bear feels the heat as he's on the worst damn job on the shift standing there by the stairway in his hot uniform in this hot weather all by himself for an hour his legs hurt his feet hurt he's not young anymore and maybe CLICK the noise comes. . . ." Gertrude Stein might have liked this, but it's out of place in a story based, as this story must be, on the facts.
That said, American Gunfight is well worth reading for a journey into a Washington that no longer exists. The same stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue where the battle unfolded -- then barely defended -- must now be one of the most closely surveilled places on Earth, with cameras hanging like gargoyles off every roof. Hunter and Bainbridge are correct to bring back a day worth remembering. Still, their argument would have been stronger if the compelling facts had been allowed to speak for themselves. *
Ted Widmer is director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College.