IT HAPPENED LAST TIME: Tragically and painfully, a certain percentage of people are mentally ill. (Translation: They strongly believe wide networks of things which are plainly absurd or untrue.) Tragically, James von Brunn was numbered among them. Yesterday, at age 89, he acted. As a result, a sane, decent person is dead.
Last week, Scott Roeder killed Dr. George Tiller. Result: Some are wondering if the rise of Obama is creating stress in the minds of some unbalanced people, stress which has led them to act. This is a thoroughly worthwhile discussion. And it’s worth remembering that the same damn thing pretty much happened the last time.
By “last time,” we mean the last time we had a Democrat president. As you may recall, that president was Bill Clinton—and crazy stories spread far and wide about his intolerable ways. The liberal world ran off and hid in the woods—and, to all intents and purposes, the “mainstream press corps” didn’t exist. And sure enough! By September 1994, a man name Frank Corder decided to act. This incident largely went down the memory hole, like most misconduct directed at Clinton. But in real time, Judy Keen reported the apparent attempt on the president’s life in USA Today.
“Crash exposes risks,” the headline said. “How tough is it to protect a president?” Even after 9/11, this event remained largely deep-sixed:
KEEN (9/13/94): Frank Corder's flight in his tiny red-and-white Cessna exposed one of the White House's main vulnerabilities—an attack from the air.
"It finally happened," says Marlin Fitzwater, press secretary to former presidents George Bush and Ronald Reagan. “Everybody has always speculated that someone could fly kamikaze-style into the White House. I don't think there's any way to prevent it.” If there is, Secret Service officials are hunting for it now.
President Clinton and his family were asleep at Blair House, across the street from the White House, when Corder flew over Washington's treetops under a sliver of moonlight, somehow evaded what's supposed to be the world's best security and crashed into an old magnolia tree two floors below the Clintons' empty bedrooms.
The worst damage: a cracked window.
But the "what ifs" surrounding the incident reignited ominous questions around the capital—questions that get to the heart of how tough it is to protect a president. What if the plane had been carrying explosives? What if terrorists had been piloting it instead of the inexperienced Corder?
The White House's occupants made light of the dramatic crash. "This has been quite an unusual day here at the White House," Hillary Rodham Clinton told guests.
Still, one fact loomed large: Monday's incident was the worst White House security breach in nearly two decades.
In fairness, the Clintons were murderers, drug-dealers, socialists. Perhaps for that reason (no one seemed to know), Corder had finally decided to act. He tried to crash his plane into the White House, hitting a large tree instead. Corder died in the incident.
It was “the worst White House security breach in nearly two decades,” Keen reported. And a few weeks later, it happened again. “Target: White House,” said the headline on Keen’s report. “Did bullets also bring a wake-up call?”
KEEN (10/31/94): Two weeks ago, President Clinton stood at a podium outside the White House's north entrance to welcome a U.S. delegation home from Haiti.
Saturday, that same north entrance was sprayed with a gunman's bullets.
If the motives for the shooting spree at the White House were murky Sunday, one thing seems increasingly clear: This president—who loves to mingle with crowds and chafes at being trapped in the Secret Service's protective bubble—is probably about to change his ways.
That may mean no more meandering across Lafayette Park on his way home from church, as he did a few weekends ago, with tourists flocking just feet away. And no more north entrance appearances.
The shooting was the second frightening White House security breach in six weeks. Last month, a Maryland man crashed a stolen plane onto the lawn, killing himself.
"These two incidents may save this president's life at some point, because he's had a wakeup call," says terrorism expert Neil Livingstone.
In this incident, a man named Francisco Duran “pulled a rifle from his coat, stuck it through the fence and started spraying rounds,” Keen reported. “It took Duran 10 seconds, the Secret Service estimates, to squeeze off 20 to 30 rounds” before “two passersby subdued him.”
Given the zeitgeist of the 1990s, memory of these incidents quickly disappeared. We recall them because, as a comedian, we did a few jokes about these events (and perhaps one other) for a brief time in early 1995. Our premise? The crazy attacks seemed to stop as soon as Newt Gingrich became House speaker. (In the wake of the November 1994 elections.) Our jokes got a few laughs in DC. (We were surprised.) We didn’t try them elsewhere.
Were unbalanced people driven to act by all the crazy talk about Clinton? Are unbalanced people being so moved by Obama’s rise today? By crazy and semi-crazy talk about him? Von Brunn, who killed a decent person, apparently believed Obama isn’t a citizen. But then, Corder and Duran may well have thought that Clinton kept murdering people. Not to mention his drug-dealing ways!
We think it’s worth remembering that this happened the last time too. Beyond that, we think it’s worth wondering why the attacks by Corder and Duran found their way down the memory hole to the extent that they did. Hint: This was very much the way of the 1990s. In its own more dignified manner, the mainstream press corps was also flying little planes into the White House at this time. (They have never tried to explain why.) Later, they spent two year flying planes into Campaign 2000. In that case, they finally got their way. Are we happy with how that turned out?