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Brothers Judd interview of Geri Spieler, author of Taking Aim at the President
In 1969, Man reached the Moon and the New York Miracle Mets won the World Series. In 1980, the United States Men's Hockey team beat the USSR and proceeded to win the Olympic gold medal. If it is one, it is only a slight exaggeration to say that nothing good happened in America in the intervening years. One result is that most of us have tried to forget that awful decade. So I confess that I thought both of the women who tried to assassinate Gerald Ford had been Manson girls. But in her excellent new account of Sara Jane Moore's attempt on the President's life-- Taking Aim at the President:The Remarkable Story of the Woman Who Shot Gerald Ford -- Geri Spieler presents an altogether more interesting and somehow more frightening would-be killer than just a fanatic adherent of Manson.
The Sara Jane Moore who is described here is, on the one hand, a suburban wife and mother with no history of violence and only a tangential connection to radical politics, but, on the other, had a long history of such odd behavior and such a bizarre affect that law enforcement officers who knew her specifically warned that she might try to kill President Ford on that very trip to California. The book is a real revelation. As Steve Weinberg of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote:
"Because I am 60 years old, I remember the assassination attempt well and figured decades ago that I knew enough vital information about the shooting and about Moore herself to move on to other topics. Spieler's book shows the error of my thinking." - Nonfiction review: Taking Aim at the President (Steve Weinberg, 1/30/09, SF Chronicle)
If, like me, you come to the book knowing next to nothing, you're in for an even greater education.
Ms Spieler was gracious enough to agree to an E-mail interview, which we conducted in April of 2009. The text of that interview follows:
Howdy, Ms Spieler. Congratulations on your fascinating book and thank you for taking time out from your busy schedule for this interview.
Q: To begin with, I take it that you know Sara Jane Moore and at least began the book with her knowledge, maybe even participation. How did you get to know her and what sort of relationship do you have and/or did you have?
A: I have known Sara Jane for 30 years. Our initial meeting came at her initiation. I responded to a personal note from her after she had shot at Gerald Ford and was being evaluated by the court psychiatrists.
I visited her where she was incarcerated: at Terminal Island, CA near San Pedro, CA.
I never planned to write about her. However, in 2003 she asked me to write her book and I finally agreed. As I began researching her, I didn't challenge anything she said. However, as I started creating interview lists and digging into things she said, I realized a lot of what she told me were lies.
Her idea of the book was basically using me as her scribe. I told her that would not work for me, so she should write her own book. I decided to go forward anyway, without her consent, which is not required as she is a convicted felon.
Q: It's been over thirty years since Ms Moore shot at Gerald Ford--why write the book now?
A: I believe the information, and the lessons that can be learned, from Sara Jane's attempt on President Ford have been buried far too long. It was convenient to dismiss her as unimportant because she missed when she shot at him. But that is dangerous thinking.
Even President Ford would tell you that the fact that she missed was just his--and our—good fortune. But, the effort was the same and the consequences should be the same despite her failure. She meant to assassinate the President of the United States. That fact that she missed was just a matter of circumstance.
The timing was interesting. I wrote it once I realized how much was never known about what really happened. Especially since we were about to have a new president, it seemed to me that the fact that the Secret Service did not identify Sara Jane Moore as a possible threat was not a small thing. Police and security agencies all over the United States use the videotaped interview from her hearing with Gary Yauger, the Secret Service agent responsible for allowing her to go free after they had her in custody and she had admitted she had a gun (which was confiscated) and had made a threat against President Ford. It is important that people understand that Sara Jane was not shooting at Gerald Ford the man. She was trying to assassinate the President of the United States, whoever he happened to be at the time. There are so many lessons to be learned today and as I continued to research the book, more and more issues and events came to light thanks to the passage of 30 years. I was fortunate in that many of the FBI and SFPD people had recently retired, which meant they could talk to me, and they did.
Q: I have to confess that when it comes to the Ford assassination attempts I can easily recall the distinctive name of "Squeaky" Fromme but am as likely to think the other woman was Sara Jane Olson as Sara Jane Moore and I'd thought that both assassins were "Manson girls." Is there some sense in which Sara Jane Moore is kind of a forgotten assassin?
A. Your confusion about Sara Jane Moore and Squeaky Fromme is common. Fromme got more publicity because she was a Manson woman. Manson had a lot of notoriety. However, Fromme's gun was not loaded and she never aimed it at Ford. Her sole objective was to get arrested and get a platform for Charlie.
It was not until Sara Jane was released from prison on Dec. 31, 2007, that all of a sudden knew who she was. It was then that people recognized the relevance of my book. I had uncovered some very shocking facts about the FBI Counter Intelligence Program and the shocking things that were conducted in the name of national security.
These things are the very reason you confused Sara Jane with Squeaky and Sara Jane Olsen. You were supposed to forget about her and not know the facts of the event.
There was a lot going on in 1970's San Francisco and in the nation as well: withdrawal from Viet Nam, the Nixon resignation, the Symbionese Liberation Army, prison rights activity and lots of very angry people who wanted to change the government.
The Fed's did not want the public to know how close Ford came to being killed. As long as he survived, the entire event was buried.
Did you know Sara Jane Moore missed Pres. Ford's head by six inches only because she had a faulty gun she had never used before? Did you know had she used her own gun history would have been different? Did you know Oliver Sipple grabbed her arm AFTER she fired that first shot? Did you know that the protection agencies is using the mistake back then as major education now so as not to miss someone inside as well as outside the government as a potential threat assessment?
Probably not and you were not supposed to and you most likely would not have known had I not written this book.
Q: Ms Moore seems fundamentally unknowable. The way she shucked off parents, husbands, children, jobs, etc. and continually moved on to new phases of life suggests that she has/had little set persona and just kept adopting new roles. Did you find it difficult to discover a core personality underneath all these layers?
A: Very much so. Sara Jane is a brilliant and complex person. What is sad is that she could have contributed so much to our society, her children and family.
I visited her andexchanged calls and letters for 30 years. She told me of a few peopleshe communicated with as well. However, I only just learned of another woman she knew for the same 30 years who visited, wrote, etc., and who lived in Northern California, not far from where I lived! Sara Jane never said a word about her in all that time. For some reason unknown to me she did not want us to connect. And, she never, ever mentioned her name.
Her brothers and other surviving relatives say I know her better than anyone in the world. But, I think she is very complex and I would say I only know a side of her.
It was only after I realized she would constantly change the subject or ignore a question that I began to see there were things she never would talk about. It seems there are parts of her life she chooses to close out.
Q: Granted that neither of us is a psychologist, it seems obvious that Ms Moore has at least some degree of narcissistic disorder and maybe even tilts over towards being a psychopath in some ways. After all the research you've done, how would you describe her and her behavior?
A: What I can tell you is what the psychiatrists testified at her hearing. There were three psychiatrists and three psychologists and they all had a different diagnosis, which of course I go into in more depth in the book. The doctors had a very difficult time with her. She would never break or talk about herself. It was very frustrating to them. I think the testimony of one of the psychiatrists who saw her over one weekend and how he described her was fascinating. Basically the terms they used were "Hysterical Disorder," role-playing, and self-absorbed. No one said she was not a psychopath nor was she declared insane. She was perfectly sane and knew the consequences of her act.
Q: You describe a fairly typical up-bringing for the young Sara Jane. At worst her parents may have been somewhat strict and her mother in particular a bit of a religious authoritarian. But that doesn't seem like enough to create the damaged character of the grown Sara Jane and even as a young girl she was already alienated from other people and insistent on attention even at the cost of social ostracism. Did you find any clues or has Ms Moore ever explained the dynamics that produced her?
A. It is indeed curious as to why one child takes a very different road. Sara Jane had one older sister and three younger brothers. All seem to lead fairly normal lives in that none has serious relationship problems or violent behavior. I did try to find out if there had been any child abuse or child sexual abuse which would have explained some of her behavior, but found nothing.
I interviewed friends and family and I am convinced Ruth and Olaf were good, decent parents and did the best they could.
For whatever reason, Sara Jane seemed to have her own vision of the world which was locked up inside her own head. It was troubling to everyone around her. If anything did happen at some point – like when she disappeared for three days -- we don't know what it was, only she knows.
If you ask Sara Jane today about her family or background she will tell you: "I never talk about my past."
Q: How did Sara Jane Moore -- middle class white woman, suburban wife and mother, etc. -- come to be involved in the radical underground?
A. Sara Jane Moore was a Republican shortly before she flipped and became a San Francisco Radical. She was a strong supporter of Republican Senator George Murphy, an ultraconservative former song and dance man whose best-known accomplishment during his six years in Washington was having an always-full candy jar on his desk. Sara Jane had been involved in the actor-candidate’s first campaign, his election to the Senate in 1964.
It was during her five year-long divorce proceeding that Sara Jane discovered another side of the political spectrum.
It actually happened when Patti Hearst was kidnapped and Sara Jane answered the plea of Randolph Hearst to help find her. She volunteered as an accountant at the food giveaway location, a large warehouse at China Basin on the edge of San Francisco's ship yards. Hanging out with the wide-range of people, from the extreme left to the conservative friends of Hearst, radicalized Sara Jane. It all gets more complicated from there.
Q: One of the fascinating aspects of the book is that Ms Moore managed to insinuate herself in so many unlikely situations--from doing the bookkeeping for the Hearts charity to becoming part of the Maoist group Tribal Thumb to informing for the FBI and working for the ATF, SFPD, and others. Is this just symptomatic of those confused times or was there something distinctive to her personality that enabled her to move through these seemingly disparate roles so fluidly?
A. I don't think most people could have pulled off those multiple roles the way Sara Jane Moore did. There are several reasons why she was able to "shape shift" so easily, as I mentioned above. It is her amazing intelligence, about a 140 IQ, and her ability to compartmentalize. She never gave any hints that she was anything but the self she presented to each group.
However, her duplicity eventually caught up with her and slowly people picked up on some inconsistencies as they talked to one another. Yet, she still managed to retain their confidence almost to the end, meaning when she joined the group Tribal Thumb.
I think the most important piece of the puzzle is that she always believed in what she was doing when she was doing it. So, today if I'm informing for the FBI, I know I'm doing something for my country. Then, when I'm helping the radical groups, I know I believe in the cause.
Q: You suggest that the work she did as a government informant at least exposed her to, and may have ended up pushing her into adopting, the radical ideas of the groups she was spying on. Did you find her initial involvement with such groups to be qualitatively different than her later interactions? Did she become more radical?
A. Absolutely. The more she became involved in the radical movement, the less enthralled she was with the federal government. And with good reason. The FBI really worked her over badly. Some of the things agents said to her make my skin crawl and I don't disagree with her response to them. I'm not defending her, nor do I agree with what she did, but I place a big part of the blame for her disaffection from the FBI and COINTLEPRO on their using a person to the point of her demise. They took no responsibility for the people they used to inform for them.
Q: When she ultimately decided to try and shoot President Ford did she have a coherent ideology that justified the act?
A. Her act was justified to her. She and her group wanted to change the government. There were many groups in San Francisco at the time that wanted to change the government. At that time, two of the nation's highest office holders where not elected. When Nixon resigned, Ford, who had been appointed rather than elected vice president, became president. Ford, in turn, appointed Nelson Rockefeller as his own vice present.
People like Sara Jane thought if Ford was out of office, the country would be so outraged to have someone as president who was as out of touch with the people as they thought Rockefeller was that they would revolt
Q: When your book gets to the events surrounding the shooting it contains a number of surprises. How close did she come to actually hitting the President with a shot? Why did she fail?
A. I'll go into more detail here:
On Saturday, September 20, 1975, Sara Jane called San Francisco Police Detective Jack O'Shea, who she knew and had done some informing for, and asked him for advice regarding President Ford's visit to the San Francisco Bay Area. It was her idea to drive to Palo Alto and test the Secret Service and police security of the president. Ford was scheduled to be in Palo Alto dedicating a new building for Stanford Law School on Sunday, Sept. 21, 1975.
O'Shea was alarmed. He asked Sara Jane if she had a gun. She said yes. She had purchased a Charter Arms .44 caliber revolver for self-protection. She said she had received death threats at the time that she had "outed" herself as an FBI informant to the radical groups she had been involved with.
O'Shea called people in his department and told them to confiscate Sara Jane's gun on Sunday and hold her for carrying a concealed weapon. However, early Sunday morning Sara Jane worked with what was then called the U.S. Treasury Department, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on a possible illegal gun-sales sting. She left her home early and drove downtown to the Federal Building on Golden Gate Ave. From there she drove to Danville to the home of suspected gun dealer Mark Fernwood with an agent who was posing as a friend.
The action didn't succeed and apparently the agent didn't make a purchase.
As soon as Sara Jane returned home, the SFPD confiscated her gun; she was held and then released.
Hours later the Secret Service brought her in for questioning, but they let her go too. I won't go any further here because it would give away the amazing thing that happened here and why she was in the hands of the Secret Service and then back out on the street the day before she shot at Ford.
Q: How close was she to being stopped before she ever got to try? How is it possible that SFPD Inspector Jack O'Shea could warn the FBI and the Secret Service that, "We may have another Squeaky Fromme on our hands" and yet she could still get within forty feet of a U.S. President?
A. There is conflicting and disputed background about this situation. Someone is not telling the truth, or some are just trying to cover up bad conduct. What most people believe is that we had a typical "9-11" situation, where information did not get shared. Hence, Sara Jane fell through the cracks.
O'Shea said he offered the Secret Service photos of Sara Jane on Saturday, Sept. 20. The Secret Service said they would pick up the photos on Sunday morning, Sept. 21. O'Shea said the Secret Service never picked up the photos.
O'Shea also disputed that he ever had a conversation with the Secret Service in which he said that Sara Jane was not a problem. O'Shea insisted he told the FBI and the Secret Service that Sara Jane Moore could be another Squeaky Fromme. However, the Secret Service determined that the interview showed that Sara Jane Moore, “was not of sufficient protection interest to warrant surveillance.”
Q: On the morning of the assassination attempt--Monday, September 22, 1975—-Ms Moore tried calling contacts at the Secret Service, FBI and O'Shea at the SFPD--she'd also dropped none too subtle hints to O'Shea about her current politics, her dissatisfaction with law enforcement and so on. Do you have the sense that she was trying to get them to stop her? Or was she trying to explain the meaning of the coming action?
A: It is very curious, indeed, that she was trying to reach all her law enforcement contacts on the phone on that Monday morning, Sept. 22. She was also speeding in her car after she bought her gun. She has said that she was hoping to get stopped by the police, which would have certainly ended her attempt.
Everyone from the different agencies that she called was obviously very busy getting ready for the President of the United States to visit the Worlds Affairs Council at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco on Post and Powell Streets. No one answered her call. She ended up just leaving messages. It appeared like a call for help, in that she wanted someone to stop her, yet she went ahead. If I play an "amateur" psychologist, it was as though she was not in control of her actions. But all the experts said, "no," she was in control, because she didn't try hard enough to be stopped.
Q: What lessons did law enforcement take away from the Moore attempt on the President? From what you know have the problems it revealed been ameliorated?
A. This is probably the most important piece of this book: the single most critical point of a "Sara Jane Moore" attempting to assassinate an American President, no matter who he or she is. I can't stress enough that it is critical to understand that Sara Jane was not after Gerald Ford personally. She was after the officeholder, not the person.
The inability of the San Francisco Police Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States Secret Service to recognize and hold her as a potential threat generated much reflection. Following Sara Jane's assassination attempt there were extensive hearings in the Subcommittee on Criminal Laws and Procedures, which is part of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The entire time Sara Jane was incarcerated, the Secret Service made yearly visits to see her and to try to get a handle on identifying a threat assessment that is not immediately obvious.
Since September 22, 1975, the Secret Service has recognized that they had to change its previous Threat Assessment stereotype of a white male, between 20 and 40 years old, foreign-born and a loner. Prior to that day, they were not looking for a 45 year old middle class lady and mother. How could such a woman possibly be a threat?
In short, there are three common myths about potential assassins that Sara Jane contradicted:
Myth 1: There is a standard profile of "the assassin."
Thus, the use of a prospective assassin profile derived from previous incidents would have failed to identify Sara Jane Moore prior to her attempt on President Ford in San Francisco in 1975.
Myth 2: Assassination is a product of mental illness or derangement.
In most cases, however, mental illness did not appear to be a primary cause of the assassin's behavior and does not appear to have caused Sara Jane's attempt.
Myth 3: Explicit threateners are the persons most likely to carry out attacks.
But few assassins and would-be assassins communicate a direct threat to their targets or to law enforcement, as Sara Jane only communicated a vague idea of what she planned to Inspector O'Shea, with whom she already had a professional relationship.
Q: Ms Moore was paroled from prison on December 31, 2007. Even though she's in her late 70s now, do you feel comfortable with the idea that this woman--who you likely know as well as anyone can--is free?
A: If I were concerned about my safety, I never would have written the book, whether she was released or not. I don't underestimate her even though she is 79 years old. Possibly her health is not good. I don't know because I have not seen her nor heard from her directly since she was released.
Last a few personal/procedural questions:
Q: I take it you were a journalist when the shooting occurred and when you first came into contact with Ms Moore? Did you always see the potential for a book in this story?
A: I was working part-time as a reporter for a small Los Angeles publication. I was a young mother with a small son, hence the emotional connection with Sara Jane’s son, Frederic.
But even after I met Sara Jane, I had no plans or interest in writing it. I had no interest in being an author and I was very busy raising my family. I had other interests. Writing books was not one of them. There had been several publishers who contacted Sara Jane, yet they all disappeared.
I didn't understand that at the time. It seemed a publisher would have jumped at the chance to tell this story.
I learned why they gave up when I finally agreed to work with her: Sara Jane wanted to tell only her own story and only from her point of view. When she would not talk about her past, as she called it, the publishers walked away.
Q: What finally made you start writing a book about Ms Moore?
A. I started the book when I did for two reasons: One--she asked me personally. Two--I finally had the time.
Her cooperation though was very short lived. The first red flag went up on my first visit after we decided to write her book. When I asked her about growing up in West Virginia, she snapped that I could not know that she grew up there because she hadn't told me. In other words, if she didn't tell me something, I could not possibly know it. It was all a matter of control.
Then she began canceling our visits with phony excuses. Next came her temper tantrum when I began to call people to interview. She called me at home and screamed at me over the phone that I had no right to call anyone she didn't approve and that she wanted total control over content, interview approval etc. She was not cooperative and there are years missing from her biography because she is the only person in the world who knows what happened during those years.
However, after I got into the book, I became fascinated with what I was learning. The more I dug, the more I learned, the more I was amazed. It was then that I realized I was uncovering all new information that had been buried since 1975.
The book is no longer just about Sara Jane Moore; it is about a history that we need to know.
Q: What was the research process like? After reading about Ms Moore it seems plausible that the folks you'd have been asking about her would have been just as curious to pick your brain.
A. The research was the best part of the book. I loved and love research. It is always fascinating and always a thrill.
What I have learned is that what I think I will find often may not be the case at all. I learn that one person provides a connection to another and on and on it goes. Being open, honest and curious usually helps me find new and unexpected information.
Did people pick my brain? Some, yes. Many were curious as to why I was calling about her? Some were still afraid of her although she was in prison. That surprised me.
I don't think I found anyone who liked her or respected her, not even her family. My biggest frustration is that important people were dead. And, of course, some people wouldn't talk to me. However, I was surprised at the people who would talk.
The good thing is that 30 years is a magic number in terms of releasing information that was confidential. That is how I found out about the truth concerning the gun and the cover-up.
No one understood her but everyone had an opinion. Some thought she was just inconsequential and had no agenda. Many found her very dangerous and conniving. Others knew who she was involved with and would talk but insisted on anonymity as they are still afraid for their safety, even 30 years later.
I have a huge advantage in that I had a decades-long relationship with Sara Jane which was casual, with no agenda and somewhat friendly. Also, I have the honor of her remaining family confiding in me. They had never talked about Sara Jane previously, even when she shot at Ford. It was because of her brothers and children that I learned all about Sara Jane's childhood, intimate details of her family and found her schoolmates.
Q: Brian Lamb always used to ask a question on C-SPAN's Booknotes that I found interesting: how do you go about the actual process of writing?
A. Great question. As you know all writers are different. I begin by reading as much as I can about a topic. I like to see what has been done and check my premises against it. Just because something has been covered will not dictate what I do, but I want to see someone else's approach.
If I'm looking for people to interview, I may cull names to include with my primary sources. I can't create a schedule until I have a notion of what I'm doing and where I'm going with it. But I must have a schedule or I'll never get anything done. This doesn’t mean I'll always meet my schedule. However, as a journalist I'm used to schedules and deadlines. I think working in the news industry that required tight deadlines really helps. People used to say they could write when they "felt" like it. Well, as a reporter, you better "feel" like it every day.
In terms of organizing, and this book was huge, I had some major challenges, which is why I had to be extraordinarily organized. Among the challenges:
It was not easy. However, I eventually managed to talk to 200 people.
I would say in order to take on a huge, historic project with a very unpopular person you need to be driven, see it as a great challenge and have a very thick skin.
Q: And, finally, are you working on any other projects now?
I'm working on a major article about the security agencies and how they are using the "Lessons Learned" to create new approaches for protecting our elected officials. By lessons learned I mean specifically the incident with Sara Jane, which is by far the one that stands out the most. I have made some significant connections in the various protection services in our country, so I’m very excited about it. People are more concerned about the safety of our elected officials today and want to know what is being done improve the process.
I write for the Huffington Post twice a month about a wider range of topics beyond Security and prisons.
In terms of another book, I have not settled on one topic just yet. Most likely it will Not be about an assassin or someone in prison. It will be non-fiction, though.
OJ: Thank you again for your time and consideration and all the best with the book. We look forward to reading more of your work.