It is almost exactly a year since I wrote a post speculating about the “assassination factor” in Obama’s candidacy. And while I may have been one of the first to weigh in on the issue, many since who have written about this potential cataclysm have highlighted aspects of the problem that never occurred to me.
For instance, this New York Times piece raises the question of whether black voters would be so worried about losing Obama that they wouldn’t vote for him:
Not long ago, his advisers worried that some black voters might not support his candidacy out of a fierce desire to protect him. It was a particular concern in South Carolina, but Mr. Obama said he believed the worry was also rooted in â€œa fear of failure.â€
Now that he has won a string of primaries and caucuses in all corners of the country, and built a coalition of black and white voters, failure would seem to be less of an issue. The fears, however, remain.
Having had their hopes raised time and time again only to see them dashed by an assassin’s bullet, black Americans have proven themselves to be resilient enough to embrace Obama while still harboring an unease that the rest of us feel about his safety.
Is that unease justified? Obama himself doesn’t think so:
â€œIâ€™ve got the best protection in the world,â€ Mr. Obama, of Illinois, said in an interview, reprising a line he tells supporters who raise the issue with him. â€œSo stop worrying.â€
â€œItâ€™s not something that Iâ€™m spending time thinking about day to day,â€ said Mr. Obama, who has been given the Secret Service nickname Renegade, a way for agents to quickly identify him. â€œI made a decision to get into this race. I think anybody who decides to run for president recognizes that there are some risks involved, just like there are risks in anything.â€
The Secret Service is probably one of the top three protection outfits in the world. Their strength is in taking pro-active steps to protect their charges. Their intelligence gathering and threat assessment departments are by far their strongest areas of protection.
It is the “face in the crowd” or the “lone nut with a gun” that could turn an Obama candidacy from a triumph of American society to an unspeakable tragedy. And as the last line of defense, Obama’s personal protection teams are ready to lay down their own lives in defense of his. Agent Tim McCarthy proved that during the attempted assassination on Reagan in 1981 when he stood directly in the line of fire from John Hinkley’s gun, arms akimbo, and then took a bullet in the gut meant for the President. Obama knows this and is satisfied that the Service is doing all that it can.
Just recently in Dallas, there was some concern raised that the Secret Service had experienced a security lapse at an Obama rally when they reportedly failed to search for weapons among attendees. Indeed, reports from the arena where the rally was held (as well as other reports from other venues across the country) indicate that as the time approached for Obama to speak, the huge crowd still waiting out side to get in were allowed into the arena without going through the metal detector.
In a statement, the Secret Service does not deny this but insist that they were sticking with a plan for the candidate’s security:
There were no security lapses at that venue,” said Eric Zahren, a spokesman for the Secret Service in Washington. He added there was “no deviation” from the “comprehensive and layered” security plan, implemented in “very close cooperation with our law enforcement partners.”
Zahren rebutted suggestions by several Dallas police officers at the rally who thought the Secret Service ordered a halt to the time-consuming weapons check because long lines were moving slowly, and many seats remained empty as time neared for Obama to appear.
“It was never a part of the plan at this particular venue to have each and every person in the crowd pass through the Magnetometer,” said Zahren, referring to the device used to detect metal in clothing and bags.
He declined to give the reason for checking people for weapons at the front of the lines and letting those farther back go in without inspection.
“We would not want, by providing those details, to have people trying to derive ways in which they could defeat the security at any particular venue,” Zahren said.
I am not buying this explanation. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the campaign itself put pressure on the Secret Service to get the people moving into these venues. It would not be shocking if this were so simply because there is always this tension between the needs of the candidate/President and the needs of security. The next time Obama works a rope line, watch the 8-10 agents around him and not the candidate. Each is responsible for a particular portion of the crowd while the agents behind him are always prepared to yank him away and cover his body with theirs. If the Secret Service had their druthers, there would be no rope line at all. But the needs of the candidate to press the flesh outweigh the common sense needs of security.
And the reason they may not be checking the last several hundred people is because anyone wanting to take a shot at Obama will probably do so where he is most vulnerable – at the rope line. In order to get that close, an assassin would have to get their early enough to be one of the first one’s in. Someone several hundred feet away, unless they are a world class marksman with a pistol, would have little chance of hitting the candidate.
The Secret Service won’t say this for obvious reasons. But it is one of the tradeoffs made between security and democracy. And it makes the candidate or President that much more open for the plan of an assassin.
But perhaps we worry too much. As I point out in my post from a year ago, what has yet to occur in a likely assassination scenario is the atmosphere of hate that has been the hallmark of past tragedies:
[D]allas seemed to be the capitol city of the unhinged in America at that time. Birchers, Kluxers, radical anti-communists, race baiters, all made Dallas a place that worried many of Kennedyâ€™s close supporters, many of whom strongly urged him not to make the trip at all.
How much of that atmosphere rubbed off on Oswald? According to Ruth Paine, who put up Oswaldâ€™s wife Marina following several brutal beatings by her husband, Lee read the News everyday. And Oswald could hardly have been unaware of the Birchers since he took at shot at General Edwin Walker, a notorious extremist just months prior to his killing the President.
But it wasnâ€™t just the Kennedy assassination where we see this hatred explode into violence. Many have pointed to the atmosphere of hate in Memphis when Martin Luther King came to support the garbage workers in their strike for a decent wage and better working conditions. And in 1968, the recent Arab-Israeli conflict and the outrage in the Palestinian community that was felt as a consequence of American support for Israel apparently contributed to the rage of Sirhan Sirhan and his desire to strike back at America by killing Robert Kennedy.
Even John Hinckley, Ronald Reaganâ€™s would be assassin, may have been affected by the unhinged nature of much of the criticism being directed against the President for his budget and tax proposals and most especially for his stated desire to confront the Soviet Union. I distinctly remember commenting to friends at the time that at this rate, Reagan wouldnâ€™t survive; that some nut with a gun would get the idea they were doing the world a favor and kill the President.
So far, Obama’s candidacy has generated a lot of good feelings and none of the unhinged partisanship that marked the Clinton-Bush years. But this could change once the battle is joined during the general election. And it will almost certainly change if Obama is elected president and titanic struggles occur over Iraq, the War on Terror, and national health insurance.
Meanwhile, the candidate himself soldiers on:
That afternoon, Mr. Obamaâ€™s motorcade passed Dealey Plaza and the Texas Book Depository building, where the fatal shot was fired at President Kennedy in 1963. Several campaign aides looked out their windows, silently absorbing the scene.
Not so for Mr. Obama, who later said he had not realized he was passing the site. And no one in his car pointed it out.
â€œIâ€™ve got to admit, thatâ€™s not what I was thinking about,â€ he said. â€œI was thinking about how I was starting to get a head cold and needed to make sure that I cleared up my nose before I got to the arena.â€
If this studied indifference to danger is an act, it’s a good one.