Tuesday, December 26, 2006
President Ford Finally Goes Quietly
Ford survived assassination attempt in San Francisco
- Edward Epstein, Chronicle Washington Bureau
(12-26) 21:26 PST Washington -- But for some quick action, Gerald R. Ford's presidency, and his life, could have ended amid gunshots outside San Francisco's St. Francis Hotel on the afternoon of Sept. 22, 1975.
As Ford emerged from the historic Union Square hotel's Post Street entrance at 3:30 p.m. after addressing a World Affairs Council audience, he paused before getting into his limousine to wave to the crowd across the street.
In a flash, two shots rang out. The first narrowly missed the 38th president of the United States and the second was deflected by a bystander who grabbed at the arm of the shooter, a 45-year-old middle class housewife, dabbler in extremist politics and FBI informant named Sara Jane Moore.
A young San Francisco police patrolman then subdued Moore before she could fire her .38 Smith and Wesson handgun again.
Secret Service agents pushed Ford into his limousine and in seconds had the presidential motorcade racing south toward San Francisco International Airport to get the president out of the city and back to the safety of Washington.
The Secret Service had good reason to feel it best to hustle Ford out of the state. After all, Moore's failed shooting was the second attempt on Ford's life in the state within about two weeks. On Sept. 5, 1975, Charles Manson groupie Lynette "Squeaky'' Fromme had tried to fire at Ford on the state Capitol grounds in Sacramento as he walked from the Senator Hotel across L Street to a meeting with then-Gov. Jerry Brown.
Fromme never got a shot off, even though her gun was loaded with four rounds, before a Secret Service agent wrestled her to the ground.
"Ford was puzzled by these shooting attempts,'' recalled presidential press secretary Ron Nessen, who witnessed both incidents. "But it was the '70s in San Francisco and California and there was lots of anti-Vietnam war activity and lots of anti-government activity.''
The big Bay Area news of the time was the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst by the radical Symbionese Liberation Army.
Nessen remembers both attacks like yesterday. "The president decided to walk through the Capitol park to meet Gov. Brown. He was on a path and we were parallel to him on the grass. Suddenly there was a flurry of activity. The Secret Service rushed the president into the Capitol and we ran into the Capitol too.
"He went ahead with his meeting with Brown,'' Nessen recalled.
Fromme, armed with a .45 Colt automatic, was tackled before she could remember to rack a round into the handgun's firing chamber.
Within three months, Fromme was convicted of trying to kill Ford, and sentenced to life in prison. She is now in a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas, and still pledges allegiance to Manson, the mastermind behind Los Angeles' notorious Tate-LaBianca murders of 1969.
For San Francisco Police Capt. Timothy Hettrich, the first law enforcement officer to reach Moore, the attempted shooting outside the St. Francis prompted an instant reaction.
"I grabbed the gun immediately,'' he said, "just two or three seconds after she fired it.''
Moore's gun hand had initially been deflected by another person in the crowd, Marine Vietnam veteran Oliver "Bill'' Sipple, who had come out to see Ford.
"It was a big crowd,'' remembered Hettrich, then a patrolman who is now a captain commanding the San Francisco police narcotics unit. "We were stationed 10 feet apart.
"You get the adrenalin going. I grabbed her, wrestled the gun from her hands. It was pointed at me and other people were jumping on her.''
Hettrich and others took Moore into the St. Francis, and he turned the gun over to the Secret Service.
Nessen recalls that as the shots rang out, he looked for a car in the waiting motorcade that already had its doors open. He jumped into a car with Donald Rumsfeld, who was then Ford's White House chief of staff.
After racing from downtown, the Ford motorcade drove onto the tarmac at the airport, and the presidential party hurried aboard Air Force One. Before it could leave, however, the plane had to wait for First Lady Betty Ford, who had carrying out her own schedule of events on the Peninsula.
Nessen, who now lives in suburban Maryland, said the First Lady had no idea that her husband had been attacked. "She said something like, 'How are you, dear? How did your day go?' ''
"I think it was Rumsfeld who finally told her that someone took a shot at the president. ... We took off and what had happened sunk in. I can tell you that quite a few martinis were consumed on the flight back,'' Nessen added.
Moore decided to plead guilty, avoiding a trial. After a sentencing hearing at which Hettrich was a main witness, she was sentenced to life in prison, just like Fromme. Moore, now 75, is at the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin in the East Bay.
For Sipple, his moment of heroism was also his undoing. On Sept. 24, 1975, The Chronicle ran a story saying that one reason the White House had yet to thank Sipple for his potentially lifesaving gesture was that he was a gay man.
It turned out that Sipple's family didn't know he was gay, and the disclosure resulted in him being alienated from his relatives. Sipple sued The Chronicle for damages, but his case was eventually dismissed.
He slid into alcoholism and died in 1989 in his Van Ness Avenue apartment, age 47. Among his prized possessions was the letter of thanks he eventually got from the White House.
Moore and Fromme share another distinction. They both escaped briefly from the women's federal prison in Alderson, W. Va.
Peninsula author Geri Spieler, who has written a yet to be published biography of Moore, has known her since 1976, and doubts Moore will ever be freed from prison.
She said that Moore, who was married five times and who is the mother of four, is still dangerous.
"She has personality disorders. She has no sense of the consequences of her actions.
"She's not totally a violent person unless you don't do what she wants you to do ... She's narcissistic and self-righteous and she will flip the minute you don't do what she wants,'' Spieler said.
In her long interviews with Spieler, Moore never expressed any remorse for shooting at Ford.
"She calls herself a political prisoner. This is Sarah Jane's version of the truth. She never looks back at the pain and suffering she has caused so many people,'' Spieler added.
As for Ford himself, the former president was dismissive of both of his would-be assassins.
"Squeaky Fromme certainly was off her mind. Sarah Jane Moore, the same way,'' he told CNN interviewer Larry King in 2004.
"People said to me, 'Why don't you stay in the White House and not go out to meet the public?' My answer to them was, a president has to be aggressive, has to meet the people, and therefore, I did,'' Ford added.
The White House never announced it, Nessen said, but after the St. Francis incident Ford always wore a thin bulletproof vest in public.