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Pondering the unthinkable, with good reason

Modern American history is replete, unfortunately, with examples of presidential death and near death.
President John F. Kennedy's Dallas motorcade

President John F. Kennedy's Dallas motorcade Library of Congress

We observe, next month, the 45th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. For my generation — and for Sen. John McCain's — that event is our 9/11, and we can recall where we were when it happened.

I don't know where McCain was, but I was in an unusually silent newsroom, where a bunch of cynical reporters weren't cynical any longer. Shortly after, our editor and publisher, a former Republican governor and United Nations alternate delegate, came in with his daily front-page column and there were tears in his eyes.

As we approach the date, Nov. 22, both McCain and I are old enough to recall the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, when we were in grade school and, in a pre-Internet age, heard the news read aloud by our teacher. Who was this Harry S. Truman? We had no idea. We learned he was a seasoned and respected senator and a man of great common sense. America escaped the consequences of a bad choice for vice president.

McCain and I have also lived through close calls or worse since then:

  • Truman himself was targeted in 1950 by two Puerto Rican independence activists who stormed Blair House while the president was living there (the White House was being remodeled). Vice President Alben Barkley had been Senate majority leader.

  • When Kennedy was killed, the experienced and respected Lyndon Johnson, like Barkley a former majority leader, stepped into an office for which he was well prepared.

    Neither Truman nor Johnson had a vice president, from 1945 until 1949 and from 1963 to 1965, respectively; the Constitution was amended (the 25th) in 1967 to allow for filling a vacancy in the office.

  • President Richard Nixon resigned to avoid an impeachment trial, and Vice President Gerald Ford, former House Republican leader, took an office for which he was well prepared. Fortunately, Nixon's earlier vice president, Spiro Agnew, had resigned to avoid criminal prosecution and the 25th Amendment allowed the appointment of Ford (we dodged a bullet there).

  • President Ford twice escaped death in 1975, when he was targeted by separate would-be assassins in California. His vice president was the veteran and well-prepared Nelson Rockefeller, former governor of New York and presidential candidate.

  • President Ronald Reagan, only 69 days in office, was shot and critically wounded on a Washington street. He survived, but knowing that the seasoned George H.W. Bush was a heartbeat away reassured many Americans.

All told, since 1945, Americans have had at least seven close calls or appointments with destiny — two deaths in office including an assassination, one resignation, and four attempted assassinations. In choosing running mates, both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush seemed to have read that history. As did Barack Obama. Sen. McCain's reading list seems to be more inclined to Jack London's The Call of the Wild.

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades. Recipient of a DuPont-Columbia Broadcast Award for documentaries, and a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, he is also a historian and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. He resides in Bellingham and can be reached at floydmckay@comcast.net.


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