The Spirit of 1976

Miriam Carey, RIPWriting in The Nation, Rick Perlstein

Miriam Carey, the unarmed woman who was shot
by police
this week after an altercation at the White House
gate, with Chester Plummer, the man shot when he scaled the
president’s fence in 1976. Carey has received much more attention
than Plummer did, not just from the press but from the police,
about a hundred of whom descended on her apartment to search it
after Carey died. “What the hell?” Perlstein writes. “She’s
dead. She suffered from mad delusions. She had a 1-year-old child
in tow. What did they think they were going to find, evidence of
credible plans for a coup d’état?”

It’s another sign, Perlstein suggests, of “our culture of fear,
and how much more frantically we respond to scary stuff than we did
in decades past.”

Ah, you say, but times have changed. Clearly
they have, but not necessarily in the ways you thought. The thing
that’s gotten crazier in America is the way people react to

There’s terrorism now, they say. But there was
terrorism then, nearly every month—eighty-nine bombings attributed
by the FBI to terrorism in 1975, culminating in that awful
LaGuardia bomb; and a veritable wave in the winter and spring 1976,
much of it around the trial of Patty Hearst: of an FBI office in
Berkeley, Standard Oil of California headquarters in San Francisco.
Americans didn’t freak out, or shut down, or exhibit symptoms of
PTSD. They had a massive outdoor national 200th birthday

My bulletproof vest is chafing me.There’s the threat of presidential
assassinations, they say. Of course there is: then, too. In
September of 1975 President Ford weathered two attempts on his life
in two weeks—the first from a madwoman who claimed her
International Tribunal now marked 3,000 people for execution, “if
they didn’t stop harming the environment and projecting distorted
sex images into the media”—though their wives would be “hacked to
death” first. Prior to the second one, Ford had taken off his
bulletproof vest because he found it too confining. How did he
respond to the attempts? He chose to go out in public more. On the
second day of Ronald Reagan’s campaign to replace him, that
November, a 20-year-old from Pompano Beach who had already
threatened the lives of the president and the vice-president pulled
out what turned to be a toy .45 caliber pistol and was wrestled to
the ground by three Secret Service agents.

The following spring the Associated Press reported that the FBI and
Secret Service were investigating the testimony of an undercover
informant that a “commando-style assassination team” from the San
Francisco Bay area was planning attempts on candidate Ronald Reagan
and Gerald Ford’s lives at the Republican convention in Kansas
City, “designed to throw the convention into complete chaos.” The
Chicago Tribune’s report contributed the detail, “From the
intelligence we have been able to gather, the terror groups want to
move their emphasis from bombings to other violent acts in the
urban guerrilla handbook, like assassinations and kidnappings.” And
yet the two party conventions came and went without any particular
extra security.

Dammit: My ’70s nostalgia is kicking in again.