Hey, hey LBJ, how many death threats did you get today?
Well, that’s not precisely the slogan anti-war protesters chanted in the 1960s, but author Mel Ayton says the answer to the question is quite possibly more than any president in modern American history.
“Generally speaking, the level of threats each post-war president has faced has remained stable,” Ayton told The Daily Caller in an interview about his new book, “Hunting the President: Threats, Plots and Assassination Attempts — From FDR to Obama.”
“However, from my research, I would hazard a guess that the most -threatened president in American history has to be Lyndon Johnson, mainly because of the Vietnam War,” he continued. “He is possibly the only president who confined his public speaking events to ‘safe’ venues like military bases. The apex of demonstrations against the war during his presidency occurred in 1968 and the Secret Service persuaded Johnson that the level of hatred directed towards him would make it more likely than not fanatical anti-war militant groups or individuals would make an attempt on his life.”
Of course, unlike his predecessor John F. Kennedy, none of the plots against Johnson were successful.
Ayton also reveals in his book that before killing 77 people in 2011, including 69 at a summer camp, Norwegian mass killer Anders Behring Breivik plotted to attack President Barack Obama when he was in the country to accept the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.
“Following his arrest for the mass murder, he told Norwegian police he planned to drive a car packed with explosives onto the square next to Oslo City Hall, and detonate it while the Nobel ceremony was taking place,” Ayton explained. “He said the Obama attack would have been largely symbolic, as the security surrounding the visit would have prevented him bringing the vehicle sufficiently close to the ceremony. But, with hundreds of millions watching on television, he believed it would have been a perfect way to promote his anti-Islamic message. He scrapped the plan because security would have been too tight to get close enough to the president. Clearly, the nature of his mass murder plot suggests he could have been a serious threat to Obama’s life.”
See TheDC’s full interview with Ayton on his new book below:
Why did you decide to write the book?
As I researched the assassinations of JFK, RFK and Martin Luther King some years ago, I was intrigued that there was a possibility that many more serious threats to assassinate American leaders may have existed. For example, before Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated JFK, there had been reports that the Secret Service had foiled a number of assassination plots in Tampa, Chicago and Nashville.
I wanted to write something new and original, but I was also aware that the U.S. Secret Service tries to limit publicity about presidential threats and is not disposed to share its secrets. My research therefore had to center around the memoirs of former agents, newspaper archives, public-record U.S. government agency reports, court records and oral histories in presidential libraries. They turned out to be a goldmine of information about the work of the Secret Service and the numerous threats presidents have faced.
Who has been the most-threatened president in American history?
It is impossible to assess which American president has been the “most-threatened,” as Secret Service files have, by and large, remained closed. There is no way of knowing how many plots or planned attacks have been made against American presidents that have been foiled by the Secret Service or other law enforcement officers, or how many would-be assassins changed their minds at the last minute due to protective measures.
Nicholas Trotter, who worked in the Secret Service’s Office of Protective Operations, said in 2009, “There’s been so many [threats to kill the president]…ones we don’t know about because they were not successful. How many [assassins] have been stopped or have seen a police officer, have seen a magnetometer?” According to former agent Robert L. DeProspero, “People say if someone wants to do something to the president they could do that – but I would not agree with that. I think the best thing anybody could realize is there are many situations where people are stalking the president, planning some course of action, but because of all the measures the Secret Service has taken, they’re thwarted.”
Accordingly, as the Secret Service has investigated literally thousands of assassination threats and plots, my book can only provide a snapshot of the variety of threats, either real or fancied, the president has had to face.
Generally speaking, the level of threats each post-war president has faced has remained stable. However, from my research, I would hazard a guess that the most-threatened president in American history has to be Lyndon Johnson mainly, because of the Vietnam War. He is possibly the only president who confined his public speaking events to “safe” venues like military bases. The apex of demonstrations against the war during his presidency occurred in 1968 and the Secret Service persuaded Johnson that the level of hatred directed towards him would make it more likely than not fanatical anti-war militant groups or individuals would make an attempt on his life.
Is there evidence that Barack Obama’s race has caused an increased threat against him?
Barack Obama was the first African American ever to be elected president. During his candidacy, and also during his first term in office, numerous public celebrities went on record predicting his assassination, including Nobel winner Doris Lessing (2008), former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura (2008), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (2008), Oscar winner Samuel L. Jackson (2008), Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi (2008 and 2009), KKK head Ray Larson (2009), TV personality Glenn Beck (2010), and first lady Michelle Obama (2011).
At the beginning of Barack Obama’s term as president, threats became so disturbing the FBI established a Presidential Threat Task Force to gather, track and evaluate assassination threats that might be related to domestic or international terrorism.
Following Obama’s election victory in November 2008, anti-Obama comments on Internet forums continued to rise, especially on white supremacist websites. As the election results announced America’s first African American president, Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke said it was a “night of tragedy and sadness… Obama has a long history of antagonizing white people. We, as European Americans have to rally for our survival.”
However, by December 2009, Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan said the level of threats had stabilized and that no more threats were made against President Obama than there were made against former Presidents George W. Bush or Bill Clinton. At a congressional hearing in December 2009, Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan said “the threats right now… that we are seeing is the same level as it has been for the previous two presidents at this point.” Sullivan rejected author Ronald Kessler’s allegations that the threat to Obama had increased 400 percent since the president took office.
One really interesting, bizarre and alarming detail in this book is that the Norwegian mass-killer Anders Behring Breivik plotted to assassinate President Obama.
Following his arrest for the mass murder, he told Norwegian police he planned to drive a car packed with explosives onto the square next to Oslo City Hall, and detonate it while the Nobel ceremony was taking place. He said the Obama attack would have been largely symbolic, as the security surrounding the visit would have prevented him bringing the vehicle sufficiently close to the ceremony. But, with hundreds of millions watching on television, he believed it would have been a perfect way to promote his anti-Islamic message. He scrapped the plan because security would have been too tight to get close enough to the president. Clearly, the nature of his mass murder plot suggests he could have been a serious threat to Obama’s life.
Have the would-be and successful presidential assassins come mostly from a particularly ideology? Or has it widely differed?
Singling out political fanatics is problematic. Contrary to popular belief, most American assassins and would-be assassins are not necessarily motivated by deep political convictions. Despite the growing problem of Islamic and domestic militia-type terrorism and the threat it poses to the president, the majority of the assassins, would-be assassins or threateners examined in my book were engaged in psychodrama rather than political drama or acts of terrorism. They valued the act more than the victim. Their feelings towards the target were, in fact, irrelevant.
Robert T. M. Phillips, a consulting psychiatrist for the Protective Intelligence Division of the United States Secret Service, organized the motives of would-be assassins into five categories: Resentful, Pathologically Obsessed, Infamy Seeking, Intimacy Seeking, and Nuisance or Attention Seeking
Professor James W. Clarke’s study grouped assassins and would-be assassins into “types.” Type 1 operated out of deeply held political conviction. Type 2 had aggressive egocentric needs for recognition and status. Type 3 assassins are psychopaths (or sociopaths) who believe that the condition of their lives is so intolerably meaningless and without purpose that destruction of society and themselves is desirable for its own sake. Types 4 were genuinely psychotic and held delusional ideas.
Accordingly, the motives of would-be assassins and presidential threateners vary. During the Johnson years, the Secret Service commissioned Dr. Edwin A. Weinstein to study 137 male subjects who, over the period 1945 – 1965, had made threats or gestures of assassination serious enough to lead to arrest and/or psychiatric evaluation. The 1969 study concluded that the would-be assassins were generally social misfits and loners unconsciously trying to gate-crash into immortality. The major conclusion of the report stated that individuals most dangerous to the safety of the president were those socially isolated, and who adapted to stress by symbolizing their problems in a political idiom, and who identified with the president in terms of violence and death. In the context of such identification, the act became institutionalized and perceived as a stroke of national policy or patriotic heroism.
According to one unnamed researcher hired for a recent Secret Service study of would-be assassins, longing for fame turned out to be a more important factor than a particular ideology: “It was very, very rare for the primary motive to be political, though there were a number of attackers who appeared to clothe their motives with some political rhetoric,” he said.
What is the most interesting anecdote you discovered while researching the book?
There are two stories I found particularly fascinating and they both involve attempts to assassinate President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt.
In 1943, the most serious threat to Roosevelt’s life occurred shortly before the president set sail for the Tehran-Cairo war conference with the Allied leaders. The incident has been overlooked by historians for the past 70 years.
In early November 1943, Walter Harold Best, armed with a loaded .38 caliber revolver and ten additional rounds of ammunition, waited for FDR for 10 days in Lafayette Park across the street from the White House for his chance to shoot him. He was only prevented from continuing with his plans when he was arrested for jaywalking during the period when his wife was warning the authorities about her husband’s plans. When I researched Roosevelt’s itinerary for November 1943 at the FDR presidential Library, I discovered Best’s descriptions of the president’s “comings and goings” at the White House were correct.
Also, that same year, Christopher Clarence Cull, a bomb expert in possession of nitro-glycerine, made plans to become America’s first presidential suicide bomber. When Cull was eventually arrested, he confessed. Secret Service agents found a black suitcase containing two bottles of nitro-glycerine and a bottle of nitric acid in his hotel room. Cull signed a statement admitting his plans to assassinate Roosevelt by preparing three nitro-glycerine bombs, strapping them about his waist, wearing an Army uniform to get close to Roosevelt’s car as the president exited the White House and, “blow myself and the… president to bits and also kill any goddamn Secret Service agents or other people who were nearby.”