What Presidential Assassins Have In Common

The Fifth Assassin

By Brad Meltzer

The bullet was inches from my face. This wasn’t just any bullet. This was the actual bullet that killed Abraham Lincoln. It’s a silver slag of metal that looks like a wobbly lead gumball. And yes, the US government still has it. Even better, after I examined it, they took me in one of the back rooms and let me hold the bones of Lincoln’s killer, John Wilkes Booth.

Why was I surrounded by so much Presidential death? That’s my job. I write thrillers for a living and have a TV show that deals with conspiracies. As a result, no oneand I mean no onegets crazier email than me. At one book signing, someone brought me what he claimed was the actual Holy Grail. I know. So I was hesitant when a longtime reader said to me: “Brad, I work at a museum in Washington, DC that almost no one knows about. You need to come see what we have here.”

Like I said, I was doubtful. I wasn’t going anywhere unless it was good.

“We have pieces of Abraham Lincoln’s skull,” he told me. “Plus the bones of John Wilkes Booth, and even the bullet that killed Abraham Lincoln. You want to see it?”

You better believe I wanted to see it. The museum is run by the Armyit’s called the National Museum of Health and Medicine. And they don’t just have the bones of Lincoln and Booth. They have items from nearly every presidential assassination: the bones of President Garfield, plus the bones – and even the brain! – of Charles Guiteau, the assassin who killed him. They have autopsy scalpels, old guns, even the actual trigger finger of one of the assassins. Throughout history, people have been obsessed with the men who have killed our Presidents. They’d steal pieces of their clothing, cut the lining from their coffins, anything to own a piece of history.
No question, this room of death was the perfect starting point for my latest novel, a thriller that asks the question: what if all the presidential assassins from John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald were working for the same secret cause? I write fiction. I made that part up. But for two years now, I’ve studied the four men who have successfully killed a President. And what amazes me is how much they’re alike.

Here’s what all four assassins have in common: None of them did drugs. Most weren’t drinkers. All four were surprisingly…and outrageously…neat. And none of themexcept for that moment when they pulled the triggerwas ever identified as a troublemaker. Most interesting to me: three out of the four of them were in their twenties.

Beyond that, they each planned the murder for weeks. And of course, they were all blessed with patience. But when you lined them all up, the one thing they had most in common was simply this: All four were men with a cause.

But when it comes to assassins, they can be divided into two categories: howlers and hunters. The howlers threaten us by sending scary notes and calling in bomb threats, but the good news is, they rarely follow through. They just want attention, so for them, howling and making noise is enough. It’s different with hunters. Hunters act on it. They research, prepare, plot – and follow that path to a goal. Howlers aren’t interested in hunting. And hunters aren’t interested in howling. Needless to say, from John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald, all four assassins were hunters.

It was that last detail that caught my eye when I heard the news about the shootings in Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut. So many of us reacted by saying, “What has the world come to?” But as I looked at it, I couldn’t help but see something sickingly familiar – an animal that’s sadly become part of the American experience. Yes, there’s a huge difference between killing innocent children and shooting a sitting President. But quiet, young, twenty-year-old sociopaths who keep to themselves…and are almost delusional in their self-importance and need to prove their cause through violence? That recurring profile has been haunting us for well over a century.

So the real question is: What do we do about it? If we don’t want to live in fear, how do we get around it? For some expert advice, I turned to President George HW Bush, who has helped me research a few of my novels. When I asked him whether there were any moments where he was scared by the thought of a potential assassin, he couldn’t think of one. Not one. And it was in that response that I realized this: Sure, the four assassins have a great deal in common. But so do our Presidents.

In one week, President Obama will be sworn in for his second term. Look around at how divided our country is. Look at just the movies we’re watching: From Argo, to Lincoln, to Zero Dark Thirty, it’s profound how badly we want to see our government be great. Now think about how many hunters are out there. Should the President be afraid of being shot? Whatever you think of the man, know one thing: Whether it’s Reagan, Bush, Clinton, or even Obama, for U.S. Presidents, fear isn’t part of the job description.

Originally published in the New York Daily News.

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