Think of a dream job—one with a lot of power and prestige and a private jet, if that’s what you’d like. Now imagine that there was one little drawback: about a 15% chance you would die as the result of a violent assault sometime during your first few years on the job, and that in fact you could be shot dead within your first four months of work, as a previous holder of the position had been. Would that make you pause before submitting your résumé?
Gee, I would have thought Mafia dons had better security than that, you may be saying to yourself. What is this job? Well, being a Mafia prosecutor in Italy has been an even more dangerous job than the one I’m thinking of, but the job I have in mind is plenty dangerous, is only open to US citizens, and carries a lot more power and prestige; so much power and prestige, in fact, that despite the inherent danger, a goodly number of risk-taking people, both men and women, can’t resist seeking the job, even devoting months and millions trying to attain it. The job of which I write is, of course, the Presidency of the United States of America.
Starting with and including Abraham Lincoln, twenty-seven men have held the office of President of the United States, and four of them have been assassinated. So during that time, 14.8% of US Presidents have been killed on the job, all well before their first five years in office, one (Garfield) less than four months into his term. This is a dangerous job! Starting with Lincoln may seem unfair, but I would argue that the first successful assassination (coming at the end of a civil war) changed the game, and made it more likely that others would follow.
The toll could easily have been higher. Ronald Reagan survived a bullet fired into a lung, and a woman shot at President Ford but missed because a man in the crowd grabbed her arm at the last second. Our current President was lucky that a grenade thrown toward him during a foreign trip to Tbilisi, Georgia failed to explode. Harry Truman was the target of two Puerto Rican nationalists in 1950, but the gunmen were shot before they could get to him; one attacker and a White House guard died in the gun battle. In 1994, a man sprayed bullets in the direction of a group of men on the White House lawn, which he erroneously thought included President Clinton, who was inside. Franklin Roosevelt was a target of bullets shortly before his first inauguration, in an attack by a lone gunman which killed the mayor of Chicago and wounded four others; crowd intervention probably saved the President-elect as in the Ford case. Other plans and stalkings have been uncovered, while others have no doubt gone undetected.
You don’t even have to be elected to be a target, nor are you necessarily safe after leaving office. Three candidates for the presidency have also been shot. Candidate George Wallace was paralyzed as a result of a bullet wound, and Robert Kennedy was shot to death. Teddy Roosevelt survived a bullet to the chest after he had left office and while he was campaigning to return to the White House. Saddam Hussein plotted to kill the first President Bush a few months after he left office, but Kuwait security intercepted the would-be car bombers.
To put it in perspective, let’s compare the risk of being President of the US with some other hazardous jobs, first looking at some regular jobs. The overall job fatality rate due to accidents and assaults for all American workers is about four per 100,000 each year, for a 0.004% chance of being killed on the job. Starting with Lincoln’s first inauguration and counting up to the present, the annual fatality rate through assassination for US Presidents is 2.7%, which says that a President’s risk of being killed on the job is around 700 times that of today’s average US worker! The average US worker has about a 0.08% chance of being killed on the job in a twenty-year period.
For the years 2001-6 an average of 43% of on-the-job deaths resulted from transportation accidents. Driving is kind of dangerous, which we knew, but that is quite a high percentage and points out how relatively safe most jobs are. We think of mining as a dangerous profession, and it is about 6.5 times more dangerous than the average job, but the odds of being killed in mining are around 0.5% in a twenty-year-period. Being President is over a hundred times more likely to get you killed than mining in an average year.
For the general population, 10% of on-the-job deaths are due to violent assaults, which seems strikingly high. But since there have been no accidental deaths of Presidents in office, for them the rate is 100%. Put together, driving accidents and assaults account for over half of the on-the-job deaths in the US.
The figures vary a bit from year to year, but the three professions that are regularly in the top three for death rates on the job are fishing, logging, and flying (which includes small planes like cropdusters), each having an annual job fatality rate of roughly 0.1%. Thus the Presidential annual fatality average is twenty-seven times that for he most hazardous normal jobs. Over a twenty year career, a fisherman’s chance of dying from an accident or drowning on the job is about 2%. This is high, but, perhaps surprisingly, nothing compared to the historical risk a President of the US faces while in office for only a few years.
What about the hazards of serving in the US military in Iraq? It goes without saying that some in the military are much more exposed to danger than others, depending on their respective roles. So keep in mind that the figure used here is an average over all military personnel without considering what percentage of them are in relatively safe areas and not regularly involved in combat patrols and assaults. Even remembering that, it still seems counterintuitive that, on average a President is at substantially greater risk of being killed than the average serviceman in Iraq.
Consider the following. In a relatively “hot” period in Iraq (when appreciably more casualties were being sustained than now) from September 18, 2006 to February 4, 2007, the calculated annual death rate for American troops was 7.5 per 1,000 (Bird and Fairweather, 2007, abstract online). Thus a high estimate for the likelihood of dying on the job in Iraq (including non-combat accidents) within a year was 0.75%; which, from the fatality standpoint, is about 7.5 times more dangerous than logging. But the military fatality rate is only 28% of the Presidential one.
Roughly 80% of the military deaths in Iraq have been due to hostile action, with the rest being comparable to “normal” deaths on the job, such as helicopter crashes not due to enemy fire, etc. Take away the hostile action, and serving in Iraq is still about 50% more likely to kill you than logging or fishing in the USA. Over a sustained five-year-period the likelihood of being killed in combat in Iraq for the average serviceman would be something like 3%, while a President has a 15% chance of being killed by hostile action while in office.
However, the odds of suffering a non-fatal wound are over seven times as great as being killed for a soldier in Iraq, while Presidents have been more likely to be killed than wounded. Only Reagan was wounded and survived while in office. The risk of bodily harm, including non-fatal wounds, is then greater for the average serviceman in Iraq than for the President.
None of this comparing of averages over time is meant to suggest that the stress level and hardships of living in a foreign land with many hostile locals, while far from loved ones, eating army rations, possibly being shot at every day, seeing others around you being killed and wounded, and perhaps suffering horrible but non-fatal wounds yourself, are at all comparable to the daily life of luxury in the perceived security of twenty-four-hour Secret Service protection in the White House.
To put that average fatality rate for US servicemen in better perspective, let’s consider the battle of Fallujah in November 2004, which saw very intense house-to-house combat against well-prepared insurgents by US Marines and Army units. Some 6,000 assault troops lost about 50 killed in the ten days of heaviest fighting in Operation al-Fajr. Projecting that brief intensity of combat to an annual rate, would give a fatality rate forty times higher than the figure we have used for the average. More realistically, a Marine that went through the equivalent of a dozen Fallujah’s would be at a 10% risk of being killed.
Considered as occupations, US serviceman in Iraq and US President differ in a crucial way: the President’s uniqueness. A substantial portion of the military personnel are not regularly exposed to the same level of risk as troops venturing into enemy-held areas; and, even for the soldiers most at risk, an individual soldier is just one in the crowd, and chance will play a major role in whether he or someone next to him or fifty miles away from him is the one that dies from an IED explosion or sniper’s bullet, while the President is unique and a target himself just by virtue of his office. Other wars have of course had much higher military fatality rates, and future ones may as well, but the fact remains that the Commander-in-Chief is, by reasonable estimates, at substantially greater risk of being killed than the average serviceman or servicewoman in Iraq, though the risk to the President at any given time is even more invisible and unknowable.
Finally, let’s consider astronauts. Being an astronaut is not a safe job, as we have seen in spectacular fashion a couple of times. So far the career fatality rate has been something under 4%, in the sense that about that percentage of space travelers have died. Some have made multiple trips into space (when the danger peaks, of course) and all have had to train for years before the first flight, but this number can serve as a rough estimate of the likelihood of dying on the job in a career that is measured in a relatively few years, which makes it a good comparison with that dream job I mentioned in the first paragraph. On average, the danger is comparable to serving in Iraq, and it is much safer to be an astronaut than a President. The difference is that the period of greatest risk is obvious for the astronaut, while the secret actions of a Lee Harvey Oswald remain hidden until the final bloody deed itself.
Of course, the assassination probabilities I’ve been using are subject to the objection that it is really impossible to judge the relative dangers for different eras in terms of the overall threat, the level of security, and the likelihood of surviving a gunshot wound. Reagan survived being shot. Would Garfield and McKinley have survived if they had had the same level of medical care? Perhaps one or both would have. But we are dealing with a small sample size, and a slight deviation in the path of the bullet that punctured Reagan’s lung could have proved fatal also.
What if we start counting with George Washington instead of Lincoln? That reduces the assassination rate for Presidents to just under 10%. Looking at only the last fifty years, also gives a fatality rate of 10%. These numbers, though below 15%, still show the Presidency to be a lot more dangerous than all of the other professions we’ve considered, military service in Iraq included.
The constant historical background is that there will always be a certain number of mentally unbalanced people that will contemplate killing the President, whoever he or she may be, and some will eventually act on their obsessions with some possibility of success in our open society. And from time to time an individual or small group will also seek to rise out of their obscurity by performing a mighty deed, supposedly in the service of a noble cause they identify with (Secession, Anarchy, Defense of Cuba, whatever). War and Peace readers, think of Pierre, “L’russe Besuhof.”
What’s new in our times is an organized movement, rooted in religious fanaticism, that glorifies martyrdom in the service of killing. This fact alone, without the prior US history of assassinations, would be enough to make us anxious, especially when we think of the recent killing of Benazar Bhutto. Given the number of attempts by the “usual suspects” on the lives of Presidents and Presidential candidates since the Kennedy assassination, it seems clear that our Presidents, and we as a nation, have been lucky that there has not been a Presidential assassination in over forty-five years.
Of course, security measures have been increased. You can’t drive by or fly over the White House anymore, for example. But, at the risk of sounding overly fatalistic, I’ll guess that the country will have to deal with a Presidential assassination again sometime within the lifetime of most of us.
It’s like the big earthquake that we know is going to hit California or the asteroid that’s going to slam into the Earth one of these centuries unless we’ve figured out how to deflect it by the time it comes. I think it’s more likely that we’ll be able to deflect an asteroid than foil every assassination attempt. All we can do is hope that a combination of enhanced security, dumb luck, or providential protection continues to keep our Presidents safe; and, if we are in a crowd near a President, be alert and ready to wrest the gun from a would-be killer, as others have done in the past.
Retired astronaut Rick Hauck candidly said in 2003, after the second Space Shuttle disaster, that if he had known how high the fatality risk of space flight was, he probably wouldn’t have chosen to be an astronaut. I wonder if the presidential aspirants actually do the calculations? Michelle Obama has reportedly voiced concern for her husband’s safety, supposing there to be an increased danger due the special historical circumstances of his candidacy, but all candidates and their spouses must take the danger into account. Some may feel they are the darlings of fortune—the temptation to think that would certainly be great for anyone close to becoming President—and never give it much thought, but it must still have some place in the back of their minds.
I wonder if thoughts of assassination haven’t influenced the decisions of reflective men like Mario Cuomo, who decided not to seek the Presidency that so many thought could be his. This is mere speculation and would not be a judgment against anyone of whom I knew it to be true. To run for President, one would have to decide whether one could live and function well with the knowledge that, not only might each day be one’s last, which we are all theoretically aware of, but that the end might be due to murder, which is much less likely for those of us who are not Presidents.
Without overlooking their sometimes grievous faults or the degree to which blind ambition may motivate them, let us give those who serve as President some gratitude and respect for the courage they show in seeking and holding the office, as we also pray for each President’s safety.