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Read Orrin's interview with Geri Spieler

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 an exaggeration, it is only a slight one to say that nothing good happened in the intervening years. Most of us have, therefore, tried to forget that the 1970's ever happened. That's generally not too difficult since the cinema, literature, television, etc. of the era is so dire and so few have any pleasant memories of the period that they'd want to share with us. So perhaps I'll be forgiven the admission that until I read this book I thought that both of the women who tried to shoot the accidental president, Gerald Ford, were Manson girls. Lynette "Squeaky" FRomme was, indeed, a member of the Manson Family, but Geri Spieler's fine short biography of Sara Jane Moore presents us with an, if possible, even odder second assassin--a middle class mother of five who was also an FBI operative, informing on her comrades in the California radical movement. It's a story that's so fascinating one actually regrets ignoring it for all these years.

In many ways, Ms Spieler has set herself an impossible task here because Sara Jane Moore is essentially unknowable. While her parents were strict and her mother in particular deeply religious, Ms Moore's West Virginia up-bringing does not appear to have been so difficult as to explain her aberrant personality. Yet as early as age 16 she disappeared for three days and never offered any explanation of where she'd been. She was a bright student but notoriously odd and had no friends. She insisted on being the center of attention even at the cost of alienating all those around her and naturally gravitated towards the Thespians, her high school's drama club. This last seems especially revealing as her life might be said to consist of nothing but role-playing. If we engage in a bit of pop psychology, she appears to have the sort of hollowness that characterizes psychopaths. And as Ms Spieler charts the course of Moore's next three decades--five marriages, children abandoned, debts unpaid, etc., etc., etc.--one consistent theme is the monstrous selfishness that characterizes narcissistic personalities. The portrait that emerges certainly makes sense, of a self-centered and impulsive woman leaving a trail of destruction in her wake, but it may be impossible to make sense of how she became such a person and what triggered her impulses. Her ultimate decision to try and kill the president may not be surprising, given what has come before, but it remains literally senseless.

Ms Spieler's story benefits greatly from the deeply dysfunctional social milieu in which Sara Jane Moore found herself in the Bay Area of the 70s. Things were so chaotic that she could not only wangle her way into a bookkeeping job for the food distribution organization that the Symbionese Liberation Army demanded William Randolph Hearst set-up, but could join up with radical organizations that interested her and then, when she'd become an informant for the FBI, infiltrate the ones they wanted information about. People recognized that she was unreliable but still she was able to navigate this world. More troubling, her handlers in law enforcement realized how unstable she was but continued to use her and failed to prevent her assassination attempt even though SFPD Inspector Jack O'Shea specifically warned that she might be planning such an attempt.

Here her already peculiar tale becomes downright surreal as the actual events just about start to parallel the The Parallax View. While law enforcement was able to exploit Moore's estrangement from radical groups to get her to spy on them, in doing so they were submerging her further into a subculture that already genuinely attracted her. Thus she was getting greater exposure to ideas like the notion that social change, even revolution, would follow from political violence. In particular, she aligned herself with a Maoist group called Tribal Thumb, that wanted to overthrow the government. (Apparently she thought that should Nelson Rockefeller become president people would be so upset that he was an unelected leader that they would rebel.) Unbelievably, she was also recruited by the ATF (Burueau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) for a sting on Mark Fernwood, a gun dealer who was also the head of the John Birch Society in Danville, CA. As events conspired, she would buy the gun she used to shoot at President Ford from Fernwood. You couldn't make it up.

If Ms Spieler can never quite wrap her arms around what Sara Jane Moore's motivations were, it's frustrating, but understandable. In the meantime, however, she provides what will likely be the authoritative account of the assassination and Moore's life. And if this window on the '70s reminds us of why we loathe them so, it also fills in some gaping holes in our historical knowledge. It's an altogether worthwhile read.


Grade: (B+)


See also:

True Crime
Geri Spieler Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: Geri Spieler
    -ARCHIVES: Geri Spieler (Huffington Post)
    -ESSAY: Protecting the President: Lessons Learned? (Geri Spieler, 1/04/09, Huffington Post)
    -INTERVIEW: Geri Spieler (Blockbuster Plots)
    -REVIEW: of Taking Aim at the President (Justin Berton, SF Gate) -REVIEW: of Taking Aim at the President (Steve Weinberg, SF Chronicle)

Book-related and General Links:

    -REVIEW: of Patty's Got a Gun: Patricia Hearst in 1970s America by William Graebner (Rick Perlstein)