Published last year as the prequel to 2014’s Hunting the President, Mr. Mel Ayton of Durham in the United Kingdom, has carved a niche in the genre of political assassination history. He has written extensively on the JFK, RFK, and MLK assassinations as well as other attempts to murder high profile figures. We focus here only on chapter 13 (“Harding, Coolidge, and the Secret Service”) of Plotting to Kill the President since we specialize on the life and legacy of Harding’s successor. Americans often have a rosy perception of the competence of those charged with protecting the lives of our leaders. It is part of the faith we entrust in the resiliency of our institutions, among which is the Presidency. We are proud to avoid whenever and wherever we can the trappings of palace guards, monarchical armies, and the accessories of royalty that have transitioned the Chief Executive from a simple first citizen (answering the White House door and phone personally, as in the days of Cleveland) to an emperor in all but name. Assassinations shatter that faith.
Our rosy perceptions are stricken when the veil is pulled back to reveal how close our Presidents live and work on the edge of mortal danger at times. Of course, there have always been cranks who seem to increase in occasions of greatest national turmoil. It is important to distinguish these relatively harmless personalities from the truly dangerous ones. It is the judgment to decipher one from the other along with the intelligence and ability to thwart tragic headlines that earns our respect. There remains a certain safeguard in keeping these routine and not so normal dangers out of the limelight and the natural human fascination for the dramatic and sensational. Headlines feed headlines. Plots encourage imitation. Copy must be found.
It is not too incredible to say that perhaps the decisions by various security officers through the years to downplay or even conceal threats (most of which turn out to be much ado about nothing) is not rooted in some widespread denial of truth or the obstruction of a public’s right to know. Rather, it comes from a well-grounded determination not to incentivize more insidious threats in the future.
Author Ayton has returned to many of those newspaper stories for the names and incidents he reports during the Twenties but he also consults the accounts of Secret Service men like Colonel Edmund W. Starling. It is commendable that he has a clear regard for Calvin Coolidge, an esteem he does not have for Warren Harding, helping to correct much of the unfounded and mistaken persona “Silent Cal” is assigned by many historians. He was no tool, no do-nothing or stand-pat but a highly underestimated, capable, and honest Chief Executive. Author Ayton presents us a Coolidge we should want to know, the best kind of person in the view of his friend and agent, Colonel Starling – “a good man,” and one who remains more substantial than what initially meets the eye. The Detail, led by SAIC Richard L. Jervis, admired him and his wife profoundly – and were consummate professionals. This is perhaps why no threats ever reached culmination during these years.
Still, there are some matters author Ayton could have handled without a heavy dash into the sensational. Foremost of these is the incident when First Lady Grace Coolidge and her agent Jim Haley, a young man devoted to his fiancee and wholly out of his element in the South Dakota countryside (being born and raised to life in the city), proved unable to navigate their way back to the Game Lodge at the appointed lunch hour. The President, angered by Haley’s failure, promptly reassigned him to another Washington office. It was one of those unfortunate occasions when Coolidge’s preeminent concern for his wife led to absurd speculation in the press – again looking for copy – to invent a complete fabrication of the same kind as the rumors that Grace was going to divorce the President. That was a myth Grace’s close friend and social secretary “Polly” Randolph flatly and emphatically denies in her accounts of service in Washington. The supposed threats to their son John’s life are another of these sensational stories given new life and a modicum of credibility by Mr. Ayton (Plotting 238), even though this necessitates ignoring the record left by Colonel Starling, who was the agent in the position to know: assigned to John by the President. Starling was assigned to John not because he somehow faced threats to his life (connected somehow to the Sacco & Vanzetti case then unfolding) but to ensure the boy focused on his studies at Amherst and learn what kind of Americans his son’s peers were (Starling of the White House 242-44). As for Coolidge taking most of his vacations in the Black Hills (Plotting 237), we agree it probably seems the President’s stay in South Dakota looms larger than the others in perception but we are forced to recall that he only stayed there one summer, spending his other vacations elsewhere.
Other overly dramatized descriptions find new life in author Ayton’s account, including the baseless comment that the national manhunt of Norman Klein in 1925 was “specially ordered by the president” (Plotting 242). The search that found anarchist Norman Klein in Tampa that July was not some spontaneous unilateral decree from the White House Executive Office but came from requirements under statute passed by Congress in 1917. The Treasury Department Appropriations Act of that year not only assigned Secret Service protection to the immediate family of the President but also declared it a federal crime to threaten the President by mail or by any other manner. The protection of the President itself was still a relatively new responsibility (dating to 1902, and for President’s-elect, 1913), but manhunts in conjunction with local law enforcement were simply carrying out existing statutory law. The President did not nor could decree such efforts. The self-proclaimed rabbi F. M. B. Browne not only wrote the President and Mr. Stearns but also the First Lady, the latter producing for investigators one such letter demanding reimbursement for his campaign expenditures on behalf of Coolidge. Going to court, leaders of local Jewish groups testified that not only was Browne’s organization fraudulent but so was his standing as an orthodox rabbi. The law, as in the case of Klein, applied to “rabbi” Browne as well. Traffic violations – like entering the crosswalk before clear of pedestrians (including, on one occasion, some of the President’s staff) earned Nathan Smith a $35 fine.
These and others author Ayton includes belong not in the category of real threats to the President but as filler, too often echoing the sensationalism of contemporary press reports. The letter warning then former President Coolidge of a gunman coming west to kill him was handed over to local (Los Angeles) police and clearly, like the bomb threat Cal had in 1917 — should he attend church on a given Sunday — proved bogus. Such were handled in a way by Coolidge to diffuse the fear not encourage it. He never changed plans in the face of threats and history shows no clear attempt went past the mere intention of targeting him.
In an account of the Klein search, one contemporary paper does help clarify the whole matter of threats against the President, placing them in perspective. For many years agents assessed threats on a case-by-case basis, the agent whose jurisdiction it was employing the discretion to process the threat as it seemed best. As the report said, “hundreds of letters of a more or less threatening nature, most of them from cranks, are received, and that those warranting investigation are turned over to district agents of the Secret Service. The arrest of Klein, it was said, probably resulted from a request for an investigation, the district agent being instructed to use his own judgment as to whether an arrest should be made.” There is no question the arrest was justified as a legitimate threat surfaced, especially with the discovery of Klein’s semi-organized ring of anarchists, but to claim any of these cases stemmed from Presidential orders is melodramatic marketing not serious history.
Last of all, we come to the presence in Havana just before the Pan-American Conference in 1928 of confirmed communist operatives and foreign nationals, Claudio Bouzan of Galicia (in Spain) and Nosko Yalob of Soviet Russia. Both had secured an apartment near the Presidential suite to be occupied ahead of Coolidge’s visit to Cuba for the Conference that January. The Cuban authorities found them and, as came out in the 1934 trial of the six officers charged with their murder, an arm and some clothing identified as belonging to Bouzan were retrieved from the body of a large shark off the coast one day before the President’s arrival in Havana’s harbor. It was assumed the soviet agent met a similar fate. This seems to be the most credible threat as the assassins admitted not only to their intentions but also to their methods: to take a shot from an upper floor window at the Presidential palace into the room Coolidge was to stay.
Mr. Ayton has certainly excavated an interesting number of the incidents and occasions involving Coolidge through public and private life. Having done this for Cal’s predecessors too is no small task. We appreciate that the author shares our interest in correcting the undeserved reputation “Silent Cal” has wrongly acquired through the decades. He renders a valuable service in this regard. But, by sensationalizing the Haley incident and Starling’s assignment to John, Mr. Ayton undermines the strength of his research. Plotting to Kill the President suffers from the same weakness many do when infusing “untold stories” with additional dramatic flair and imputed sinister overtones. He overstates the scope and nature of the threats at times. History certainly has its drama and Coolidge’s life had its share of surprising, even dangerous, moments but by trusting too readily in sensationalism to carry the narrative, Mr. Ayton’s very readable Plotting to Kill the President is a book to be read with caution.