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Location: Kansas City, Missouri, United States

Doing my part to irritate Republicans, fundamentalists, bigots and other lower life forms.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The accidental president and the accidental hero

With the news today that Gerald Ford died last night, I find myself thinking back to what I can remember of the 38th president. Since I was in high school at the time of his presidency, mostly what I remember is his occasional stumble and the way Chevy Chase mercilessly lampooned Ford as a bumbler back in the days when Saturday Night Live was actually funny.

I can also remember the outrage many felt at his pardon of Richard Nixon, the man he followed into the presidency; his wife, Betty, who I always thought was classy for a Republican; those silly WIN (for "Whip Inflation Now") buttons; that he was given the title "the accidental president" because - named vice president when Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace and then Nixon resigned in the wake of the Watergate hearings - he became president without a single person voting him into office. I also remember he survived two attempts on his life as '60s idealism collided with '70s cynicism.

Seventeen days after an assassination attempt by a former follower of convicted mass murderer Charles Manson, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, as second attempt was made on Ford's life. That attempt, on Sept. 22, 1975, as Ford was leaving San Francisco's Saint Francis Hotel, was thwarted not by the Secret Service agents given the responsibility for protecting the president, but from a bystander who happened to notice the nondescript, middle-aged woman pull out a .38-calliber revolver and aim it at the president.

The would-be assassin, Sara Jane Moore, a one-time FBI informant who was obsessed with the Patty Hearst case, missed Ford from a distance of about 40 feet because the man standing next to her, a Vietnam veteran, grabbed her arm.

That man was Oliver Sipple, known as Billy to his friends. He had grown up in Detroit and signed up with the Marines. During a tour of duty in Vietnam in 1968, Sipple was wounded by shrapnel. He was in and out of veterans' hospitals in Michigan and in San Francisco where he later moved. Eventually he was listed as completely disabled on psychological grounds. Sipple could have faded into history as one of thousands of returning Vietnam vets who carried wounds on their psyches as well as on their bodies. More than likely that's what would have happened had he not stopped to see why a crowd had gathered outside the Saint Francis Hotel on that day.

In a single instant, the time it takes to grab an arm pointing a gun, Sipple's life changed. In saving the life of Ford, he was initially known as the Vietnam vet hero. But there was more. Sipple had a secret. He was gay.

It's hard to believe some three decades hence, but in 1975 there were no gay-straight alliance clubs for high school-aged kids dealing with coming out. Back then talk shows like Donahue still considered being gay shocking enough to be the subject of entire shows - unlike now where you'd have to be a gay Republican married to a person of the opposite sex who enjoys sex with various barnyard animals to raise the eyebrows of the typical talk show viewer. There were no shows like Will and Grace on TV that featured ongoing gay characters. Instead, if a show was brave enough to introduce a gay or lesbian character, you could expect that they'd never be mentioned again at best or, at worst, be killed off in some gruesome fashion by the end of the episode.

While Sipple was gay, he was also not out. At least not in the sense we understand it today. That's probably why he left his family behind in Detroit to move to San Francisco.

Once in San Francisco, Sipple volunteered for politicians, including Harvey Milk whose own assassination was still three years away. He also took jobs as bouncer in some of the city's gay bars.

After a day at the Vietnam vet hero, more stories began to leak out about Sipple and his connections to San Francisco's gay community. Gay activists - including Harvey Milk - saw an opportunity to show America that gays weren't the stereotypical sissies. They proclaimed that gays could be heroes, too, and pointed to Sipple as proof. Soon the story was picked up by the mainstream media and it wasn't long before Sipple's family back in Detroit was reading about Sipple's heroism and his homosexuality.

Sipple's mom, a deeply religious woman, would have no doubt been proud to have a hero in the family, but just not a homosexual one. She (and the rest of Sipple's family) cut off all communication with him. Sipple wasn't even contacted by family members when his mother died.

Angry about the effect his "outing" had on his life and family, Sipple filed a $15 million lawsuit against The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications who printed the story about the gay veteran who saved the president for invasion of privacy. Sipple's case was dismissed and, in 1984 the dismissal was upheld by the state court of appeals. The loss caused Sipple's attorney to wonder whether the next time an ordinary citizen had the chance to intervene in an assassination attempt he or she would hesitate, remembering what happened to Sipple.

Broke and embittered, Sipple spent the rest of his life slipping deeper into an alcoholic haze and depression. His health - physical and mental - deteriorated until early February 1989 when he was found dead in his bed. He was 47 when he died.

For saving the life of Gerald Ford, Sipple received a letter of thanks from the president. He also received life-long estrangement from his family, an uphill legal battle that he didn't win, and enough bitterness at the media and the gay activists who had used him to last the rest of his lifetime.