Documenting perils of the presidency

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May 13, 2006|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN,SUN REPORTER

Douglas R. Price, who in his younger days was on the White House staff of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and today is a writer and semiretired Chestertown businessman, likes researching and writing about the executive mansion and its occupants.

He is an assiduous collector of presidential assassination plots, threats and attempts, as well as the sport of White House fence jumping, which seems to have been going on since the fence went up.

What prompted him to sit down and write an unpublished monograph on the subject were the actions of a March 22 fence jumper who tossed a bundle of papers onto the north lawn of the White House.

A few weeks later, on April 9, 2006, Brian Lee Patterson -- who has been caught three times before by the Secret Service on the grounds of the White House -- jumped the fence and raced across the north lawn screaming, "I am a victim of terrorism."

"Just wait. There'll be another in about a month, and we'll be reading again about another White House fence jumper," Price said in a telephone interview from his Chestertown home the other day. "The White House gets several a year."

Price knows something about fence jumpers and other potential security risks and dangers to the president from his years with Eisenhower, when one of his jobs was serving as White House liaison to the Secret Service.

As part of an advance party made up of White House officials, the U.S. ambassador and a Secret Service detail planning a presidential visit to Japan by Eisenhower in 1960, Price was a witness to the violence a crowd is capable generating.

After leaving Haneda Airport, the advance party ran smack into thousands of anti-American protesters on the route to Tokyo that the president's motorcade would travel.

"The angry mob attacked the lead motorcade vehicle, broke its windows, rocked the car back and forth, slashed the tires and held up the motorcade for over an hour," Price wrote in his monograph.

A Marine Corps helicopter arrived to rescue the besieged party.

"The advance party climbed aboard but the helicopter was overloaded and unable to climb higher than 12 feet. A Marine and Secret Service agent were off-loaded, and the helicopter was then able to evacuate the advance party," he wrote.

In the wake of the incident, and with the violence and anti-American demonstrations increasing, the Japanese government asked Ike to postpone his visit, which he agreed to do.

The assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy, and the near-assassinations of Presidents Ford (two attempts) and Reagan -- as well as presidential candidates Robert F. Kennedy and George C. Wallace -- are well-known events in the nation's history.

Probably lesser-known to Americans was the assassination attempt by Richard Lawrence when he fired twice at President Andrew Jackson on Jan. 30, 1835.

"Fortunately, the would-be assassin's gun misfired," Price writes.

While campaigning in Milwaukee on Oct. 13, 1912, during his Bull Moose campaign for the presidency, Theodore Roosevelt was shot with a bullet from a .38-caliber pistol handled by John Schrank.

His life was spared by a 50-page speech that he had folded in two and a steel eyeglass case that slowed the bullet before it lodged in the president's chest near the right nipple.

"The former president went on to give his speech and eventually recovered," Price said.

While visiting Miami on Feb. 15, 1933, before his inauguration, President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt was shaking hands with Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak when Guiseppe Sangria opened fire.

Sangria missed Roosevelt but mortally wounded the mayor, who died of his wounds March 6, two days after FDR was inaugurated as president.

"Not every assassin is a political or religious zealot or has a personal grudge against the president. Sangria's attempt against Roosevelt was motivated by his deep personal conviction that by killing Roosevelt his stomach pains would cease," Price writes. "Within 30 days after Sangria's assassination attack on Roosevelt, his stomach pains did in fact cease on the day he was executed for his crime."

On Nov. 1, 1950, while President Harry Truman rested at Blair House, two Puerto Rican nationalists, Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo, made an attempt on his life.

When the two nationalists opened fire, Leslie W. Coffelt, a White House police officer, was wounded, though he returned fire and killed Torresola instantly with a single shot to the head.

Coffelt later died in surgery.

"There was no known attempt to assassinate President Eisenhower during his two terms in the White House. However, during President-elect Eisenhower's visit to Korea on Dec. 2-5, 1952, the enemy captured the battlefront area only hours after he had visited and departed the area," reported Price.

Another bizarre event Price recalls was the Feb. 17, 1974 attempt by Army Pvt. Robert Preston, who stole an Army helicopter from Fort Meade and landed on the South Lawn of the White House.

"He lifted off and landed again in a blaze of shotgun and machine gun fire by White House police," wrote Price.

Preston was arrested. Five days later, Samuel Byck tried to hijack an airplane at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, hoping to crash it into the White House and kill President Richard M. Nixon.

Byck was wounded by police during the hijack attempt and then committed suicide.

Price also reported foiled attempts against the lives of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Continuous protection of the president did not begin until 1901 -- and was finally approved by Congress in 1906 -- and it would be nearly another 60 years before Congress authorized full-time Secret Service protection for former presidents and their wives, reported Price.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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