In the early hours of Saturday 17 June 1972 five individuals broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate offices in Washington, DC. The purpose of this covert mission was to both tap the building’s phone lines and procure sensitive documents in the lead-up to the presidential election. But having been the target of a break-in just a few weeks earlier security was on high alert and before the intruders were able to make a successful escape they were apprehended by the authorities. It was soon revealed that the suspects all had government affiliations, with one member of the group a security coordinator for the Committee for the Re-Election of the President, an organisation often referred to by the press as CREEP. Using a wealth of inside knowledge from an FBI source known only as Deep Throat, two Washington Post reporters were determined to uncover the truth behind the espionage and in less than two years the scandal had implicated the highest levels of the government. Facing an impeachment and public trial, President Richard Nixon eventually resigned from office.
The Watergate scandal, as it would become known, shocked America to its foundations and with the country still in turmoil over the war in Vietnam, the revelation that their leader was embroiled in illegal activities cast a cloud of paranoia over the nation. ‘Mr. Nixon has never made an attempt to rebut charges involving each overt act of which he was accused,’ reported the New York Times on the day that Nixon resigned as commander-in-chief. ‘Mr. Nixon, however, reiterated that if the evidence was looked at in its entirety, rather than as isolated incriminating statements, it would show he made mistakes but had committed no impeachable offence. This was a theme that ran through his defence as the tapes of his conversations were made public.’ Nixon was succeeded by his Vice President Gerald Ford and retreated from the public eye, his entire presidency under scrutiny following his highly-publicised fall from grace. Despite receiving a pardon from Ford soon afterwards, Nixon will forever remain the epitome of political corruption and the name Watergate synonymous with scandal and government cover-ups.
Just after 9pm on Thursday 8 August 1974, sixty-one-year-old Nixon took his seat in the Oval Office to address the nation for the final time, a moment of melancholy for the president after months of accusations, newspaper speculations and a nation of confused and disillusioned voters who for a time had believed that their leader was rescuing them from the broken promises of the sixties. In a little over a decade the American people had witnessed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the murders of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, thousands of U.S. troops killed in Vietnam and a stock market crash that threatened to return the country to another Great Depression. Earlier in the year Samuel Byck, a disgruntled businessman, had hijacked a flight from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. with the intention of crashing into the White House, eventually killing the co-pilot and security guard before taking his own life. A nationwide fuel shortage and rising unemployment would cause further civil unrest and by the time Nixon appeared before the cameras to announce his resignation, the United States of America no longer felt so united.
I have always tried to do what was best for the nation
‘In all the decisions I have made in my public life I have always tried to do what was best for the nation,’ he would claim during his farewell speech which, in sixteen minutes, would attract a record-breaking hundred and fifty million viewers. ‘Throughout the long and difficult period of Watergate I have felt it was my duty to persevere, to make every possible effort to complete the term of office to which you elected me.’ Despite leaving the office in disgrace, in truth Richard Nixon had achieved more in his five-and-a-half-year presidency than many of his thirty-six predecessors. While Kennedy had been the one most responsible for America sending troops to Vietnam, it would be Nixon that had instigated the first withdrawal from the region while also entering into negotiations to free prisoners-of-war. A few months prior to Watergate he had visited China in an effort to improve relations between the two countries after decades of political tension. He had also signed the National Cancer Act of 1971, effectively leading the charge in researching both treatments and a cure against the deadly disease. But all this would seem inconsequential following the discovery that President Nixon had perverted the course of justice.
During his address to the nation on that summer evening, Nixon announced that his successor would be his Vice President, Gerald Ford. Just six months younger than Nixon, Ford had succeeded in the role after his predecessor Spiro Agnew had resigned ten months earlier following accusations of bribery and extortion. And now once again he was set to step into the shoes of a disgraced politician. With little aspirations of becoming president, in less than a year Ford had advanced from House Minority Leader to leader of the free world. ‘In the wake of Watergate and the withdrawal of American forces from the war of Vietnam, an ugly tide of recriminations swept over much of the land,’ Ford would recall five years later in his memoir A Time to Heal. ‘Charges were made, denied, then levelled again; some members of the Washington press corps seemed to operate on the premise that all government officials were liars unless and until they proved they were telling the truth. Two Washington Post reporters had been instrumental in toppling a president; other investigative journalists smelled blood in the water and the competition for scope began.’
Thirteen months into his presidency, Ford was scheduled to make a speech at the annual Host Breakfast in Sacramento, California before attending a meeting with the recently-elected governor Jerry Brown. Having become the country’s first unelected president due to the resignation of Nixon the previous year, Ford now faced an election the following November and so had travelled to the west coast in the hope of securing the California vote. With Brown having declined an invitation to talk at the breakfast its hosts, an assortment of powerful business and political figures, had decided instead to invite the president in his place, an action that they had intended as a statement against the thirty-seven-year-old governor. Leaving his suite at the Senator Hotel at approximately 10am on Friday 5 September 1975, Ford made his way up a walkway into Capitol Park where he was greeted by a crowd of enthusiastic voters, excited that the president had visited their city. Despite his initial intention of heading straight along the path to the State Capitol where he would meet with Brown, Ford decided to slow down and shake hands with some of the citizens that had been waiting.
As he moved along the line of rope that had been set in place to form a barrier he continued to exchange pleasantries with the crowd, but a figure a few rows back caught his eye, a young woman draped in red who seemed eager to make his acquaintance. While he had a schedule to keep he understood that securing the vote of the nation’s youth would help in the upcoming election and so took a moment to allow the girl to approach. She was in her mid-twenties, a redhead with a face adorned in freckles and something of an old-fashioned appearance. ‘My first impression was that she wanted to come closer and extend, I thought at the time, a hand to shake or to say something to me,’ he would later explain in a testimony given during the subsequent trial. ‘I noticed the lady in a brightly-coloured dress who wanted to apparently move closer toward me and I assumed to shake hands. So I hesitated, instead of keeping moving as I normally do and as I stopped I saw a hand come through the crowd in the front row. That was the only active gesture, but in the hand was a weapon.’
The mysterious girl came eye-to-eye with the president and as she raised her arm toward him she remained focused on his face, staring into the eyes of the man before her. Ford would only have a moment to process before realising that within her grasp was a .45-calibre pistol aimed directly at his centre of mass. The crowd would remain oblivious as his entire life flashed before his eyes, the girl maintaining eye contact before pulling the trigger. Gerald Ford had almost become the fifth American president to have been assassinated while in office but unlike Kennedy luck was on his side, as the would-be shooter was wrestled to the ground, reportedly screaming, ‘It wouldn’t go off’ as her target was taken away to safety. As she was surrounded and the weapon forcibly removed from her hand, Lynette Fromme lay limp, devastated that her well laid plan had failed. Within twenty-four hours it was revealed that the disturbed young woman was a devoted follower of convicted murderer Charles Manson and just a few years earlier had been a regular fixture of the America media through her protests against the government sentencing her beloved leader to life imprisonment. And in an ironic twist of fate, on 17 December Fromme would receive the same sentence.
But how could an all-American girl transform into a member of a cult and an intended assassin of the American president? The country had already suffered through so much tragedy over the previous decade that the public murder of the commander-in-chief, particularly following the Watergate scandal and the resignation of Nixon, could have destroyed the nation’s faith in its leaders once and for all. Fromme had long ago turned her back on the system and after embracing the hippie lifestyle in the late sixties had grown increasingly angry and political in the years since Manson’s incarceration. Having served as the unofficial leader of his Family, the name given to Manson’s group of followers, during his absence she had remained true to his beliefs but after the publication of Helter Skelter, the tell-all document of the trial by District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi, the truth surrounding their unorthodox lives and the brutal murder of Hollywood star Sharon Tate in 1969 had finally been revealed. While she had not been involved in the horror that had taken place six years earlier, she now faced the charge of attempting to assassinate the president, an act that would have no doubt made Manson proud.
Release Patty Hearst, Arrest Gerald Ford
Seventeen days later on the morning of Monday 22 September a forty-five-year-old by the name of Sara Jane Moore stepped out of her home in the small town of Danville and made the thirty mile drive to San Francisco where she hoped to meet the president. While the recent attempt on his life had been well-documented in the media he had remained in good spirits and had continued with his scheduled commitments, having once again found himself in California. His purpose for the visit had been to give a speech to the World Affairs Council and with his obligation fulfilled he was making his way from the St. Francis Hotel in Union Square when Moore finally set her eyes on him. Despite the appearance of a housewife, what no one present that day could have suspected was that this innocent-looking middled-aged woman had purchased a handgun earlier that day. Just four days earlier Patty Hearst, the twenty-one-year-old daughter of a publishing tycoon, had been arrested following her involvement in numerous criminal activities committed by the Symbionese Liberation Army, initially as a hostage and later a participant. Outside of the hotel were numerous protest signs, one allegedly demanding, ‘Release Patty Hearst, Arrest Gerald Ford.’
By the mid-seventies the American people were finding it increasingly difficult to trust their government and with Hearst, who had been kidnapped by the terrorist group nineteen months earlier, now under arrest and facing a prison sentence the public were struggling to differentiate between the heroes and villains. While Ford was looked upon by many citizens as a second chance following the failure of Nixon, to others he was just another politician and one who could not be trusted. As a man stepped out of the hotel Moore reached for her gun but immediately realised that she had made a mistake, leaving her weapon concealed and allowing the president’s aide to continue with his duties unharmed. A few minutes later Gerald Ford emerged from the darkness of the hotel and, seeing the crowd before him, took a moment to acknowledge his fans. Moore cautiously made her way through the crowd, slowly removing a .38-calibre revolver from a purse and raising the weapon, taking aim at the president. A gunshot echoed across the neighbourhood but the bullet failed to hit its mark, prompting the shooter to aim a second time. But in the blink of an eye a former marine standing nearby in the crowd had become aware of the imminent threat and grabbed the gun, allowing Secret Service agents to take Moore safely into custody.
While the perpetrator of the first assassination attempt had easily been identified as a member of the infamous Manson Family, when the authorities attempted to uncover the truth behind the second shooter they would find this to be something of a challenge. ‘Sara Jane Moore, the matronly woman accused of attempting to assassinate President Ford here yesterday, has for years deliberately sought to obscure her background and identity,’ revealed a San Francisco correspondent for the New York Times. ‘Through a series of assumed names, misstatements and false documents Miss Moore, who will be sent to San Diego for a psychiatric examination, has left a murky transcontinental trail that investigators have just begun to discover. She startled the investigators with what seemed to be a confession of her intention to shoot the president when she told Secret Service that she would have hit President Ford, if the police had not confiscated a .44-calibre pistol from her the day before.’ One would-be assassin was a former hippie and cult member while the other would later be revealed as a political activist and FBI informant. And both wanted President Ford dead. But their reasons and the lives that brought them to this point would be worlds apart.
By all accounts Lynette Alice Fromme was born into a traditional American household. Her father had received a degree in engineering and had immediately obtained a career in this field, moving into a house in Santa Monica with his new wife and on 22 October 1948 their daughter was born. Lynette Fromme was of the baby boomer generation, the products of post-World War II passion and barely a year later she had a younger brother. Strong-minded and opinionated, Fromme would spend her childhood regularly arguing with her father and with both refusing to back down they were often far from being on speaking terms. While the children were never beaten and were well looked after, the relationship between father and daughter was a difficult one that would plague the young girl throughout her adolescence.
On 22 November 1963 John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the thirty-fifth president of the United States, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas while driving through the city in his motorcade. The tragedy sent the nation into mourning, with schools and businesses closing for the remainder of the day. ‘Outside the classroom my best friend and I bumped through gloms of other slightly hysterical teens until officials closed the school and sent us home,’ Fromme recalled in her autobiography Reflexion. ‘Her house was farther so we ended up on the piano bench at my house pounding out obnoxious duets and excess adrenaline, until my father rushed in from the back of the house roaring about our lack of respect. I didn’t know that he cared about President Kennedy or that he was even home. He ordered my friend out of our house and returned to his den. It was a sad and discombobulated time.’ Tensions between Fromme and her father would escalate over the next few years and in the summer of 1967, at the age of just eighteen, she was told to leave home. ‘My father and I, we argued one night and he said, ‘Get out and don’t ever come back,” she claimed in the 2019 documentary Manson Girls.
With no one to turn to and her future now uncertain, Fromme travelled to Venice Beach to mourn the argument with her father and to weigh up her options. With little in the way of possessions she had found herself homeless, hungry and unemployed and so had resigned herself to sitting on a bench and staring out to sea. An older man appeared and tried to make conversation but Fromme, hardly in the mood for small talk, remained defensive. ‘Animated, smiling, he was old – or young, I couldn’t tell,’ she recalled. ”My name’s Charlie,’ he said, looking directly in my eyes. ‘In San Francisco they call me the Gardener.’ Sensing my alarm he simply said, ‘It’s alright’ and I felt, within the tone of his voice, that it was. He moved with smooth confidence. He appeared both big and small. I was enchanted, yet flustered and mentally hiding and then he wasn’t there at all, until I sought him back in earnest and he was seated on the wall.’
The moment that Charles Manson walked into her life everything changed. Fromme may have rebelled against her parents but she was still no different than any other young woman in the sixties and yet within just two years she would be the most devoted follower of the most notorious murderer in America. But in the spring of 1967 Fromme was a lost and frightened teenager. ‘When I spoke it was with concern,’ Manson would later explain in the 1986 memoir Without Conscience. ”You look like you have problems,’ I said. ‘It isn’t anything I can’t handle.’ ‘Okay,’ I said, ‘if you’re sure I can’t help. I just thought you might need a friend.’ With that I got up and left. By the time I reached the corner she was right behind me saying, ‘Where are you going, can I come along?’ The girl’s name was Lynette Fromme, sometimes known as Squeaky…Lyn wasn’t the norm of the neglected or abused children who ran away from home. Her reasons for being on the streets alone were very similar to those that had caused my mother to leave her parents’ home.’
She mysteriously reappeared three days later
By the time that Fromme had first crossed paths with Manson, Sara Jane Moore was just a few months away from marrying for a fifth time. Born Sara Jane Kahn on 15 February 1931 in Charleston, West Virginia to Olaf and Ruth Kahn, their daughter started her academic achievements in 1944 when she attended Stonewall Jackson High School in her home town. But when she was sixteen-years-old Moore failed to arrive at school and was declared missing until she mysteriously reappeared three days later with no explanation given. Barely into her twenties Moore married a marine but this would prove to be short-lived and by the end of the year they had divorced, allowing her to find a new husband. When this marriage ended four years later she had two children and after a second attempt with the same husband, she would tie the knot two more times before finally splitting from a doctor in the early seventies.
When her fifth and final marriage fell apart Moore had begun to develop an interest in politics and more specifically those radical parties that protested the actions of the government. With civil rights marches and demonstrations from the Women’s Liberation Movement challenging racial and gender equality, the youth of America were free to express any ideology they wished and with the war in Vietnam continuing to dominate the news there was no shortage of causes to support. While many other citizens in their early forties were focusing on their careers or raising families Moore was instead fascinated with the possibility of promotion meaningful change in the country. While she had offered her services to the re-election campaign of actor-turned-politician George Murphy, who was determine to remain Governor of California, he was finally defeated and so Moore was forced to find a new venture that she could dedicate her life to.
Following her divorce from Dr. Willard Carmel in 1971 Moore finally had the freedom to become whatever person she desired. ‘Sara Jane’s suburban Republican years were over. Although she was too old to be a baby boomer and she had previously supported conservative Republican causes, her head and heart were now in perfect alignment with the radical youth politics of the time,’ detailed Moore’s biographer Geri Spieler in Taking Aim at the President. ‘As Sara Jane was no longer accountable to Willard, she spent more and more time driving back and forth to the larger Bay Area community. The new generation of people shouting, marching and taking to the streets, which Sara Jane had been watching on the news as she had been decorating her home, looked a lot more interesting than life in Danville. Sara Jane’s dissatisfaction with the government had grown significantly in response to the layers of transparent lies that unravelled in the early seventies. Sara Jane tended to live in rigid categories of black and white and so the Watergate scandal turned her strong distrust in Washington into an even more powerful antipathy.’
While Moore fought to bring balance to the American government a little over three hundred and fifty miles south in Los Angeles, Fromme had started a journey which she felt was destined to conclude with the end of the world as she knew it. None of the restless youths that had joined Manson’s Family during the late sixties had expected it to lead to murder. Yet one summer evening in 1969 three of his followers entered the house of an acclaimed filmmaker in the Benedict Canyon neighbourhood close to Beverly Hills and proceeded to butcher his pregnant wife and several of her close friends. Frustrated at what he had perceived as a failure the following evening Manson personally escorted another group of his loyal subjects to another area of the city and mutilated a middle-aged couple. The Helter Skelter, as he had dubbed it, had begun. But it wouldn’t take long before Manson and those responsible had been apprehended and their faces immortalised on newspaper and magazine covers across the country. But as fate would have it Fromme was nowhere to be seen at the time of the murders, having been charged with violating vehicular laws following a raid on their camp and spending several weeks behind bars.
With Manson facing the death penalty alongside the other guilty parties, Fromme would keep the spirit of the Family alive, staging vigils outside of the courthouse and publicly pledging allegiance to their leader. The summer after his arrest, several of the girls within the group made a dramatic statement. ‘Charlie had arrived one morning and brought gasps from many spectators. He had carved a bloody X in his forehead,’ said Susan Atkins, one of those responsible for the death of Tate, in her memoir Child of Satan, Child of God. ‘Outside, our colleagues distributed a typewritten statement from Charlie. ‘I have X’d myself from your world,’ it declared.’ As District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi would elaborate in his own book Helter Skelter, ‘Over the weekend Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten lit matches, heated bobby pins red-hot, then burned X-marks on their foreheads, after which they ripped open the burnt flesh with needles to create more prominent scars…A day or so later, Sandy (Good), Squeaky, Gypsy (Catherine Share) and most of the other Family members did the same thing.’
Fromme would remain outside the courthouse throughout the trial while also being instrumental in bringing Manson’s music to the masses with the underwhelming release of his debut album in the spring of 1970. When he was transferred from San Quentin to Folsom Prison she too relocated in an attempt to feel closer, moving into a house in Sacramento with Good. She had already expressed interest in writing a book on the Family, purely as a way to disprove Bugliosi’s bestseller, which she had dismissed as fantasy, yet it was a slow process and would remain unfinished for over forty years. While her housemate enrolled at university, Fromme would indulge in conspiracy theories with her new friends but finally decided to follow in the footsteps of Good and return to academic life, enrolling at Sacramento City College. It would be during this time that she would strike up another important relationship when she made the acquaintance of a sixty-something retired draftsman called Harold Boro. Referred to in the press as a ‘sugar daddy,’ Boro would be the one responsible for Fromme obtaining a gun, a gun that would fail to fire.
Fromme’s behaviour had grown increasingly erratic
In the twelve months leading up to the day that she would come face-to-face with President Ford, Fromme’s behaviour had grown increasingly erratic. In one of her more outlandish escapades she had become pen-pals with an admirer, a former mental patient called Edward Vandervort who, several years older, resided in Pennsylvania with his mother. Desperate to win her affection he was willing to make a bold statement in her name but when Fromme requested that he murder the president of the Kaiser Corporation, an industrial empire regularly accused of environmental violations, in a way that would pay tribute to the murder of Tate, Vandervort immediately severed all ties with the disturbed young woman. Feeling angry at his rejection, Fromme turned her attention back to raising funds for a legal defence in an effort to have Manson released from his sentence. Yet she remained frustrated by the government’s lack of action with regards to reducing pollution and with Vandervort unwilling to carry out her request she felt there was only one choice left and that was to make a powerful statement, one that the government would be unable to ignore.
One decision later and all that stood between Lynette Fromme and President Gerald Ford was a pistol, time standing still as the young woman raised the weapon and pulled the trigger. A second would pass before either of them could process what had happened and in that moment she realised she had failed in her mission. ”This country is a mess. This man is not your president,’ the woman was reported to have yelled but I don’t hear it,’ recalled Ford in 1979, two years after being succeeded by Jimmy Carter. ‘I do remember seeing Secret Service Agent Larry Buendorf reach for the woman’s hand and wrestle her to the ground. Ernie Luzania and other agents grabbed me immediately and hustled me along the sidewalk to the Capitol. It was important, I thought, to avoid panic so when I saw that the danger had passed I told the agents to slow down. ‘Everything is alright,’ I said. Governor Brown was waiting for me in his office; members of our respective staff were there and we concluded our business without my mentioning the incident, which he learned about after I left.’
From the moment that the American media reported on the incident the main focus was on Fromme’s affiliation with a convicted murderer, particularly one as infamous as Manson. With her bond set at $1m, Fromme was arraigned and relocated to the Sacramento Country jail where she would remain until sentencing. Despite the obvious concern that her involvement in the Family could give the jury a biased opinion before she had even stepped foot in court, Fromme would continually agonise the authorities, even throwing an apple at an attorney’s head after he had declared that her punishment should be severe. By the time the verdict had been read the country was once again obsessed with Charles Manson, believing that his followers had remained brainwashed to his every whim.
Yet despite her association with Manson, those close to Fromme would insist that he played no part in her actions towards the president. ‘Squeaky acted totally of her own volition,’ Good insisted in a statement given to reporters shortly after the assassination attempt. ‘Manson didn’t order her to do this. Squeaky is acting on the will of many people. I think she would have done it to someone killing the air, to some executive of big companies. The president happened to be right out here available and lying and lying and lying. You can only take so much lying. The people who are polluting the environment, who are killing the air and the water and wildlife, the trees; if they don’t stop, they’re gonna die.’
On 17 December 1975 Judge Thomas J. McBride handed down the sentence, one that he clearly felt was deserving for someone that President Ford once referred to as aberrant. ‘I am aware of the awesome responsibility with which I am now confronted. I have no guidance to go by in the pronouncement of a sentence in this kind of case, for obvious reasons that this is the first time that a person has been convicted of the attempted assassination of a president of the United States,’ he announced to the court. ‘I suggest that the most precious natural resource in the world is a human life and to casually and consciously take a life solely for the purpose of calling attention to a cause is to me the most reprehensible and despicable crime that a person can commit. Moreover, a murder such as the one you attempted in this case would have impoverished a nation and finally it would have done nothing to serve the cause you espouse.’
Two days before Fromme was bestowed with a life sentence, Sara Jane Moore had shocked the court when she announced her decision to change her plea from the initial not guilty to guilty, thus taking responsibility for her actions. Moore had, for some time before the shooting, been working as an informant for the FBI but following her attempt on President Ford’s life earlier in the year the agency had severed all ties. Having insisted that she had acted alone, on 16 January 1976 she too was given life imprisonment. Yet unlike Fromme, who even after fifty years still professed her dedication to Charles Manson, Moore eventually expressed regret for what she had done. ‘I definitely think it was wrong. I think I was misled,’ she would confess on NBC’s Today following her release. ‘It was a time that people don’t remember. We had a war, the Vietnam War, you became – I became immersed in it. We were saying the country needed to change. The only way it was going to change was a violent revolution. I genuinely thought that might trigger new revolution in this country.’
America desperately needed to change. Even as the country was reeling from the shocking revelation of Watergate, by the end of 1974 the government had once again been exposed as liars and criminals when the public discovered the horrific truth of Project MKUltra, an experimental programme run by the CIA based around psychological tests on students, mental patients and prisoners that ranged from sleep deprivation to the use of LSD. The actions undertaken by both Fromme and Moore in September 1975 may have been irrational and unwarranted but they represented the frustration and disillusionment that many American citizens were feeling during the mid-seventies, both confused and angry at a government that had repeatedly betrayed and let them down. And while most Americans would not have resorted to violence, perhaps it was no coincidence that two politically-minded women finally decided that change needed to come and so targeted the highest level of government.
Gerald Ford was never destined to be held in the same kind of regard as Kennedy or Theodore Roosevelt; he had inherited an impossible task. Richard Nixon had betrayed the trust of the American people and then resigned, leaving his Vice President to return the country from the brink. But with mass poverty and unemployment, the public were already disgruntled and resentful of their leaders when Ford reluctantly took office. ‘Soon our newspapers and magazines, our radio and TV shows were full of stories about how our intelligence agencies had opened Americans’ mail, listened in on their telephone calls, logged their comings and goings and even used them as guinea pigs for drug experiments,’ admitted Ford when looking back on the country he had been asked to lead. ‘The agency’s enemies on Capitol Hill had been waiting for the day when they could launch this kind of attack. Buoyed by their friends in the media, they latched onto and exaggerated incident after incident. Once the momentum got started it was impossible to stop.’