Since 1776, when the newly-minted United States of America decided to abandon the comfort blanket of the British Empire, four of its presidents have been assassinated (and a few unsuccessful attempts have been made on some others along the way). At not far short of ten percent of the total, and given the levels of security one would hope is afforded to the country’s leader, that’s not a bad score for the assassins.
The two well-known ones, of course, are Abraham Lincoln and JFK; for the other two, as someone raised in Europe not the US, I confess I had check. They were James Garfield and William McKinley, in 1881 and 1901 respectively. As far as is known - but remember: the Kennedy papers are just being released! - the killers of all four were individuals acting alone. Motives are difficult to see clearly. Probably John Wilkes Booth - killer of Lincoln - is the easiest to grasp; he is reported to have been a Confederate sympathiser acting against the President who had overseen the destruction of the Confederacy in the Civil War which had ended only days earlier. Otherwise, Guiteau (Garfield) apparently heard voices telling him to do it (his family had unsuccessfully tried to commit him to a mental institution), Czolgosz (McKinley) was an anarchist with a grudge against American capitalist society and Lee Harvey Oswald - well, who knows? And then there is the Jack Ruby issue to pile on that one.
What there doesn’t appear to have been, however, is a structured conspiracy to rid the world of a President. That, though, is exactly what is postulated in a fascinating recently-published thriller called “To Kill the President”, by Sam Bourne, aka British journalist Jonathan Freedland. I know a little about the speed with which books can be published, so either Bourne/Freedland writes incredibly quickly, or he has a crystal ball, because this book was published on 4th July this year; but the White House he describes is one that we can recognise as only existing from January of this year.
The first thing to say is that this an excellent read - atmosphere just right, tone picked exactly to make us imagine the current occupant of the White House. I’m not going to give away the plot here - read it, you'll enjoy it - but it has sufficient realism, beginning with a nuclear stand-off with North Korea, to be uncomfortably close to what we guess may be the truth.
What’s intriguing, though, are the two questions implicitly posed. First, if you believe the leader of the free world is on a course to cause nuclear destruction, is it legitimate to plot to dispose of him - frankly, to assassinate him? And secondly, if you become aware of such a plot, is there an implied obligation on the citizen of a free, democratic country to attempt to thwart it, even given that you personally would delight in seeing the President in question gone? In these febrile political times, these are questions worth asking. I don’t think the book entirely answers either, but then surely the point is that we’re talking of personal morality, so there probably is no definitive solution. The picture drawn, though, is one where power is able to trump reality, using the “fake news” meme we are becoming depressingly familiar with. (Incidentally, fake news is a ridiculous phrase, used to disguise that these are nothing more than lies; much better to use the proper word.)
One of the characters in the book - a powerful White House operator - kind of sums up what the real picture behind the story is when he says: “Haven’t you realised yet? People will believe anything. Just so long as two conditions are met. First, they have to want to believe it. And second, it’s got to be on Facebook.” That’s a sad reflection of our times, where politicians are interested in no more than the splash headline offering free stuff - after all, that’s what the gullible want, even though the politician making the offer must be aware that it is no more than a lie; still, the gullible won’t know until it’s too late, so why should he care? Power is what he wants.
This book is worth reading; it poses serious questions, but at the same time, it’s a fast-paced, entertaining thriller.
And how did he know how it was going to be? I wish I could be that prescient, or write that quickly……..
“To Kill the President”, by Sam Bourne, is published by Harper Collins.