05.29.09

The Woman Who Tried to Kill Me

Should the woman who shot at President Ford be welcomed on the Today show? Former Ford photographer David Hume Kennerly—who narrowly missed the gunshot—tells Lloyd Grove why he's outraged.

Would-be presidential assassin Sara Jane Moore—who on Sept. 22, 1975, fired a .38-caliber bullet at President Gerald R. Ford—sat down for a convivial interview Thursday with Today show host Matt Lauer.

Ford’s White House photographer, David Hume Kennerly—who, like the president, narrowly missed getting killed or wounded that day as Ford departed an event at San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel—was outraged by the spectacle.

“Watching it, I got pissed off,” Kennerly says. “She’s on there, laughing and joking and really not taking responsibility for what she did.”

“That was the woman with the gun, who was in the crowd in 1975—and now she’s talking on TV like she’s discussing a knitting contest or something ludicrous like that,” Kennerly told me last night. “I thought it was bizarre. I would like to say she shouldn’t be on TV at all. The only reason she was on there is because she’s an 80-year-old woman who, when she was 45, tried to kill the president.”

Kennerly, who had been a prize-winning combat photographer in Vietnam and other war zones before going to work for the White House, managed to get a few quick images of the president wincing and being shoved by the Secret Service into his limousine, along with White House Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld, as the single shot rang out and a bystander grabbed Moore’s Smith & Wesson and slammed her to the pavement a mere 40 feet away. The stray bullet passed within three feet of Kennerly and ricocheted off a wall, slightly injuring a bystander.

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Photos Courtesy of David Hume Kennerly

“I find it, honestly, hard to blame NBC or the Today show for what was obviously good television,” Kennerly said. “This is the world we are living in now, where news judgment and values have deteriorated. But watching it, I got pissed off. She’s on there, laughing and joking and really not taking responsibility for what she did.”

Kennerly said he was especially struck by how NBC teased the interview—first showing Moore in darkened silhouette before bringing up the lights to reveal a sweet, gray-haired old lady, as though she were a game-show contestant. “It reminded me of What’s My Line?” Kennerly said. “Except in this case, her line was ‘would-be presidential assassin.’”

The 80-year-old Moore, who was released on parole in 2007 after 32 years in prison and has been living quietly for the past two years in an unidentified town, was dressed in a white blouse and smartly tailored black suit. She was perfectly composed, occasionally flashing a wry smile and speaking in thoughtful, well-turned phrases.

“Oh I think it was wrong,” she conceded under Lauer’s gentle questioning. “Of course, I think it was understandably wrong, but that’s my ego talking. Horrific? I don’t know. Those are words I don’t use… I was misled. I think I was mistaken. I think I made a serious error.”

That was the closest to a heartfelt mea culpa that Lauer managed to get out of Moore—a 45-year-old bookkeeper and five-times-divorced mother of four when she tried to kill the president—who punctuated her 12-minute television appearance with grandmotherly giggles. Indeed, during the interview, she repeatedly characterized herself as an unwitting victim—and the evil act she committed as a natural symptom—of the political turmoil of the 1970s.

“People don’t remember—we had a war… in this country,” Moore explained.

“You were swept up in this antiestablishment, left-wing movement,” Lauer echoed, adding, “You really thought at one point that if you didn’t try to kill Gerald Ford, someone else would.”

“Oh, I still think that,” Moore agreed. “I think if I hadn’t done it, someone else would’ve…That was the tenor of the time. There was more talk about it than people realize.”

The interview ended with Lauer telling his guest: “Thank you for being with us this morning. I appreciate it.”

“It’s been a pleasure,” Moore responded.

Kennerly said: “I don’t want to criticize Matt. I like the guy. I think he was trying to get her to say that what she did was ‘horrendous’ or ‘horrific.’ He was trying to put words in her mouth. He wanted her to make the big breakdown and cry, and say, ‘I’m really sorry that I tried to kill the president.’ But she wasn’t going there.”

NBC had no comment this morning concerning Kennerly’s observations, though a source suggested that the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer—who until December was under contract as an NBC News contributor—was suffering from sour grapes because the Today show recently passed on his coffeetable photography book commemorating President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

“Sour grapes aren't part of my personality,” Kennerly said, “unless, of course, they involve people who tried to kill a president—and me and my friends along with him—and then leave the obscurity they so richly deserve to chat publicly about it years later as if they were sitting there discussing the latest Zadie Smith book.”

Lloyd Grove is a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.