As presidents go, Gerald R. Ford might not be very memorable. If he’s remembered at all, it’s usually for pardoning Richard Nixon.
But Ford was unique in a few ways. For one, he’s the only president who was never elected, not even as a vice president. In late 1973, Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, pled no contest on tax evasion charges and resigned his office. So Nixon, using the 25th Amendment, named Ford — a popular Michigan representative and minority leader in the House — as his new vice president. After an FBI background check and confirmation by the House and Senate, Ford was sworn in Dec. 3, 1973.
But Ford wouldn’t hold that office long. On Aug. 8, 1974, Nixon announced his resignation rather than face an impeachment trial. At noon the next day, Ford was sworn in as the 38th president of the United States.
After his swearing in, he spoke to the nation, saying “our long national nightmare is over” and urged the nation to join together to “bind the wounds” of the Watergate scandal. A month later, he issued the controversial blanket pardon for Nixon, stating that it was in the nation’s best interest to “put an end” to the tragedy of the years-long Watergate scandal.
Which was wishful thinking on his part. Aside from the Watergate scandal proving Nixon was, indeed, a crook, Ford’s pardoning of Nixon was wildly unpopular. Many thought he’d made some kind of corrupt deal with Nixon, and the fact that Ford hadn’t been elected to his position made it even harder for many people to accept.
In addition, the nation was suffering through an economic recession and an oil shortage resulting in rationing and long lines at gas pumps.
And the social upheavals of the 1960s weren’t over: the Black Power, American Indian, Gay Liberation, and Women’s Liberation movements were still going strong in 1974.
It was in this combustible atmosphere that Ford, normally a popular moderate, found himself.
In the fall of 1975, Ford went on the campaign trail, hoping to secure the Republican nomination. As part of his campaign, he went on a tour through California.
On the morning of Sept. 5, Ford was in Sacramento, on his way to the California statehouse to meet with then-Gov. Jerry Brown and speak to the state congress on, ironically, crime control.
There were crowds of people lining the street, and Ford gladly greeted them and shook their hands.
Suddenly a small woman, dressed head to toe in red and only an arm’s length from the president, reached into her flowing robe and pulled out an antique Colt .45 semi-automatic pistol. She brought the pistol up and aimed it at the president.
Bystanders heard a metallic “click,” followed by the woman yelling, “It didn’t go off!”
In that second, Special Agent Larry Buendorf grabbed the gun out of her hand and wrestled her to the ground. As the other Secret Service agents rushed Ford to safety, the would-be assassin kept yelling, “It didn’t go off! It didn’t go off!”
Indeed, officers found the pistol’s magazine full of ammunition, but there wasn’t a round in the chamber — probably since the would-be assassin didn’t know she had to pull back the slide to load a round in the chamber.
Once things had calmed down and the woman in red was in custody, reporters — and many bystanders — recognized the tiny woman: she was Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, one of Charles Manson’s most devoted followers and the first woman ever to attempt to assassinate a US president.
While she hadn’t been involved with the “Helter Skelter” murders six years earlier, she had been arrested in connection with another Manson-family-related homicide in 1972 — but was released due to lack of evidence.
During Manson’s trial, Fromme maintained a vigil on the street outside the courthouse for months, and even carved an X into her forehead in solidarity with him.
After the assassination attempt, she would later explain that she had been worried about the environmental effects of smog in California. She said she wanted to bring awareness to the dire situation and to instill fear in the government by killing its symbol, the president.
Fromme’s trial began Nov. 4, 1975. Three days earlier, Ford recorded a videotaped testimony for the court — the first time a president had ever testified at a criminal trial.
During her trial, she followed the same playbook as her beloved Manson. Fromme tried to serve as her own attorney, refused to participate in her own defense, often had to be carried into the courtroom, and even threw an apple at one of the prosecutors, hitting him in the head. She was so disruptive, she had to watch most of the proceedings on TV from her jail cell.
On Nov. 19, 1975, she was convicted of trying to assassinate the president and sentenced to life in prison. But that is not the end of her story.
In late 1987, while incarcerated in the Alderson State Prison in West Virginia, Fromme managed to escape after faking illness. Only two days later, she was found in the rugged, mountainous terrain, and was arrested without incident. The escape attempt added several years to her sentence.
However, in 2009, two and a half years after Ford died of natural causes, Fromme was released on parole. She married another ex-con and settled in a rural area of upstate New York, where she still proclaims her love for Manson and expresses no remorse for trying to kill the president.
After the first assassination attempt, Ford continued to his planned meeting with the governor of California, not even mentioning the incident until the end of the meeting. He was reported to have said, “I thought I’d better get on with my day’s schedule.”
Nevertheless, the Secret Service would no longer let reporters or the public near the president after this.
Ford continued his West Coast campaign tour, and on Sept. 22, only 17 days after Fromme’s attempt on his life, Ford was back in California. This time, he was in San Francisco, just having addressed the World Affairs Council.
After his address, he left the venue, the St. Francis Hotel on Union Square. As he walked out the door to his limo, he waved at the crowd gathered across the street.
Suddenly a gunshot rang out. A bullet passed mere inches from Ford’s head, lodging in the doorway he’d just stepped out of.
As Secret Service agents — again — hustled the president to safety, a scuffle erupted in the crowd.
A passerby, former Marine Oliver Sipple, saw a woman pull out a .38-caliber revolver and shoot at the president. He instantly tackled her and grabbed the arm she held the gun in. She fired a second shot, but this one went high. It ricocheted and hit a man in the groin — though he survived.
Within seconds, San Francisco Police Capt. Timothy Hettrich also grabbed the shooter and wrestled the gun from her hand. Soon other officers piled on and subdued the shooter.
The shooter was instantly recognized by the Secret Service: Sara Jane Moore, a middle-aged single mom and now the second woman ever to attempt to take the life of a US president.
Most people who knew Moore described her as quiet, never giving anyone reason to believe she would commit violence. But as we now know all too well, even the most respectable people can become radicalized, under the right circumstances.
Years earlier, Moore had become involved in People In Need, a food-aid organization founded by the wealthy Hearst family in response to accusations made by the Symbionese Liberation Army, who had abducted their daughter Patty.
Moore volunteered her services as a bookkeeper for the organization, and became very close with the Hearst family. Some even described her as being obsessed with them.
However, she was also acting as an FBI informant, ratting out on the numerous leftist radicals she volunteered with.
Even if they didn’t know she was an informant, people began to suspect that she was not who she claimed to be. She was always making up fabulous stories about her past, like that she came from a wealthy family, was a former model, and had been married to Hollywood celebrities.
In truth, she was a five-times-divorced single mom whose children were estranged from her. And the Hearsts would soon discover that Moore had not been entirely honest with her bookkeeping, either. She was dismissed from the food bank and from the Hearsts’ lives in general, which seemed to upset her deeply.
Desperate to prove her credibility with the leftist radicals in the Bay Area (whom she had recently been informing on), she began hanging out with ever more criminal elements and believing even the wildest conspiracy theories. She purchased a .44-caliber revolver and ammunition because she feared the radicals would target her once they found out she’d been an informant.
Just prior to Ford’s visit to San Francisco, the Secret Service had questioned Moore — apparently the FBI had warned them about her unstable personality and sketchy associations. Though they deemed her not a threat, they confiscated her revolver.
Undeterred, she simply went to a gun store and bought another weapon, this time, a .38-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver, commonly called a “Saturday night special.” However, she didn’t have time to practice with the .38, or she would have known that the sight was slightly off.
On Dec. 12, she pled guilty to attempting to assassinate the president. She said she wanted to do it in order to spark a revolution. She also said that she wasn’t the only person who wanted to kill Ford: “Everyone was talking about it.” She said if she hadn’t shot him, someone else surely would have.
The following month, she was sentenced to life in prison. But, like her wannabe-assassin predecessor, she too escaped for a brief time. In February 1979, she and another inmate were able to scale the fence and escape from the minimum-security federal prison. However, they were quickly found walking along the road and returned to custody.
On Dec. 31, 2007, Moore was granted parole under a federal law mandating parole for inmates with life sentences who have served at least 30 years and maintained good behavior. She made a few media appearances in which she expressed remorse for her crime. She attributed her radicalization to being “blinded by her radical revolutionary politics,” and that she was “caught up in something, not listening to reason.”
In February 2019, she was arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York for violating her parole conditions. She had taken a trip to Israel without notifying her parole officer. It is unknown if she is still in custody.
Fromme and Moore remain the only two women ever to attempt to assassinate a US president. The facts that both attempts were made against the same president, and within days of each other, makes it all the more unique.