Gerald Rudolph Ford Jr. became vice president when then-VP Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace on Oct. 10, 1973 following a bribery scandal. Ford became president less than a year later when Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace following a number of scandals on Aug. 9, 1974.
Ford's unlikely presidency is best remembered for the time he fell down the Air Force One stairs during a diplomatic visit to Austria. In the early days of Saturday Night Live, Chevy's Chase's impression of Ford consisted of nothing more than a series of pratfalls before emerging from the stage floor with the familiar, “Live from New York…”
Ford was hardly the kind of divisive figure to inspire one potential assassin, let alone two of them. But in September 1975, Ford survived two different assassination attempts in as many weeks.
[jump] On Sept. 5, 1975, President Ford walked across the lawn of the California State Capitol grounds on his way to meet once and future Gov. Jerry Brown. A crowd gathered to see the accidental leader of the free world. No one in Ford's security detail noticed a petite redhead in a kind of nun's habit standing only two feet from the president until she pulled a Colt .45 automatic from an ankle holster underneath her crimson robe.
“I saw a hand coming up from behind several others in the front row, and obviously there was a gun in that hand,” Ford recalled.
Secret Service agent Larry Bruendorf grabbed the woman and disarmed her before she before she could fire off a shot. Fortunately for the president, she had forgot to cock the gun.
“Why are you protecting him?” The woman screamed as Bruendorf spun her to the ground. “He's not even a public servant!”
Ford soldiered on, and addressed the California Legislature as planned. The topic of his speech was crime in the streets.
The would-be assassin was Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme, a woman described by Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi as the “undisputed leader” of the Manson Family outside of prison in his bestseller Helter Skelter. She still believed in Charlie and reportedly wrote to him almost every day.
Manson found Fromme crying on a bench in Venice Beach in 1967 after a fight with her domineering father. Manson charmed her with talk of prison, the Haight, and fate bringing them together.
“The way out of a room is not through the door,” Manson told Fromme. “Just don't want out, and you're free.”
Fromme followed Manson back to San Francisco where she became just the second member of what would later be known as the Family.
She returned to Los Angeles with Manson after things got too violent in the Haight even for them. She lived in squalor out on Spahn Ranch with the rest of the burgeoning cult. Like the other women of the Family, Charlie yanked out her hair if he felt she wasn't giving him her total attention.
When Manson was on trial for the Tate-LaBianca murders in 1970, Fromme worked the outside. She ran errands for Manson's defense attorney, and clogged the sidewalks outside of the LA County courthouse, posing for pictures and telling passersby that “Charlie is all about love.” She was so pleasant to be around that no one paid any attention to the X she had carved in her forehead to match Manson's.
Fromme was arrested with several others in Stockton in 1972 after the body of James Willett was found buried near a fire trail in Guerneville. Willett and his wife, Lauren Willett, had been living with Fromme and an odd mingling of Family and Aryan Brotherhood members. Fromme was released for insufficient evidence. Lauren Willett was later killed in what was claimed to be a demonstration of Russian roulette.
Fromme was sentenced to 15-years to life for trying to kill the president in 1975. She was released on parole in 2009.
Investigators determined that Fromme's attempt to shoot Ford, a one-time member of the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of JFK, wasn't part of any greater conspiracy. Letters from Manson seized from Fromme's apartment made no mention of the president. Fromme acted alone just like Lee Harvey Oswald before her (at least in Ford's mind).
The next attempt on Ford's life, however, would take us to a whole other level of 1960s conspiracy theories.
To be continued next week.