AMERICAN ASSASSINS: The Darker Side of Politics by James W. Clarke

AMERICAN ASSASSINS: The Darker Side of Politics

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On the basis that ""No group of political actors is more poorly understood than American assassins,"" political scientist Clarke (U. of Arizona) undertakes to study--with mixed results--""sixteen complicated people"" who tried to assassinate a prominent American political figure. He covers the years from 1835--when Richard Lawrence failed to kill President Andrew Jackson (the shot fell out of his pistol in his pocket)--to 1975, when, only two weeks after Lynette Fromme pulled a gun on President Gerald Ford, Sara Moore, ex-housewife turned double agent, took a halfhearted shot at that ""nebbish."" (Hinckley's attack on Reagan, too recent for full analysis, is briefly mentioned.) Past studies, Clarke asserts, have mistakenly pushed the pathological reading of assassins: ""the act of assassination is presumed to be evidence of the pathology that is subsequently verified by the highly selective and questionable presentation of other so-called symptoms of mental illness."" Clarke, instead, ambitiously tries to ""reconstruct. . . the objective reality of the times and the subjective reality of the subject""--and finds that Leon Czolgosz's ""delusion"" that McKinley was no friend of the working man had substantial basis in fact, while Sirhan Sirhan's Arab nationalism impelled him more clearly than any supposed ""unresolved oedipal conflict."" In short, there may be political reasons for political assassinations. But not always; and in reconstructing ""subjective reality,"" Clarke sometimes dives into the same speculative puddle as the psycho-historians he criticizes. (Was Sam Byck, who planned to kill Nixon by divebombing a hijacked airliner into the White House, really motivated by displaced anger at the Small Business Administration?) And though the life-stories of the assassins are interesting, Clarke's complicated effort to pigeonhole his ""complicated"" subjects as assassins of Type I, II, III, or IV is not. (Conveniently, there are three or four of each type, and two others who won't fit anywhere.) In conclusion, Clarke recommends controlling handguns, the weapon used in 14 of the 16 attacks. As for closer domestic surveillance, five of the last seven attackers (including Oswald and Hinckley) were already known to the FBI. Clarke's text is appallingly ungrammatical (a casebook on the dangling modifier as blooper) and uneven (his touted ""primary sources"" often turn out to be secondary after all)--but the book is a worthwhile go at understanding political assassination in social and political terms.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1982
Publisher: Princeton Univ. Press