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Bookshelf: Terrorists in Washington

by Alon­zo L. Ham­by

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

AMERICAN GUNFIGHT
By Stephen Hunter and John Bain­bridge Jr.
(Simon & Schus­ter, 368 pages, $26.95)

Forty-two years lat­er, Amer­i­cans remain trans­fixed by the assas­si­na­tion of John F. Kennedy, an event that has spawned a cot­tage indus­try of arti­cles, books, movies and film doc­u­men­taries. Killers who rob a nation of a pop­u­lar pres­i­dent leave names remem­bered in infamy. Their suc­cess gen­er­ates a thou­sand expla­na­tions.

Fail­ure, on the oth­er hand, is an orphan. In “Amer­i­can Gun­fight,” Stephen Hunter, a nov­el­ist and film crit­ic, and John Bain­bridge Jr., an attor­ney and legal jour­nal­ist, exam­ine the near­ly for­got­ten attempt of two Puer­to Rican Nation­al Par­ty adher­ents, Grise­lio Tor­reso­la and Oscar Col­la­zo, to kill Pres­i­dent Har­ry Tru­man in Novem­ber 1950.

Tru­man was tem­porar­i­ly liv­ing in Blair House at the time. Tor­reso­la and Col­la­zo, guns blaz­ing, attempt­ed to storm the res­i­dence but nev­er made it inside. The episode occurred two days after the Nation­al Par­ty had attempt­ed to assas­si­nate Puer­to Rican Gov. Luis Munoz Marin and seize con­trol of Puer­to Rico. In some way, Tor­reso­la and Col­la­zo imag­ined, Tru­man’s death would fur­ther the cause of Puer­to Rican inde­pen­dence.

Aside from learn­ing of this rarely remem­bered event, read­ers can enjoy “Amer­i­can Gun­fight” sim­ply as a fast-paced thriller, with minor char­ac­ters play­ing impor­tant parts. Tru­man’s pro­tec­tors come across as ordi­nary Amer­i­cans who lived pre­dictable and hon­or­able lives, earned a liv­ing for their fam­i­lies, showed up for work every day and went about their quo­tid­i­an duties with a ded­i­cat­ed pro­fes­sion­al­ism. Most mem­o­rable is Leslie Cof­felt, the White House police­man who took three suck­er-punch bul­lets at point-blank range from Tor­reso­la, then some­how man­aged to stave off death long enough to kill his assailant with one per­fect­ly aimed shot. We learn about him, his com­rades, their wives and their fam­i­lies.

In small but telling ways, Messrs. Hunter and Bain­bridge alter the gen­er­al­ly held under­stand­ing of the event. They demon­strate that Tor­reso­la, although 10 years younger than Col­la­zo, was the leader of the mis­sion, almost cer­tain­ly act­ing under orders from Don Pedro Albizu Cam­pos, the charis­mat­ic head of the Nation­al Par­ty. But the authors also give us asser­tions of less than sol­id prove­nance. One cen­tral to their nar­ra­tive, ground­ing the book’s sequence of events, is that the gun­fight last­ed 38.5 sec­onds — or cer­tain­ly some­where between 36 and 40 sec­onds. No stop­watch­es were in use that day, and such pre­ci­sion is sim­ply impos­si­ble to ver­i­fy. They also claim that Tor­reso­la saw Tru­man at the win­dow of his sec­ond-floor Blair House bed­room and might have killed him had Tor­reso­la not been reload­ing just before Cof­felt rose from the near-dead to put a bul­let into his brain. It is an inter­est­ing the­o­ry, but only that.

The authors per­sua­sive­ly depict a com­pla­cent, unimag­i­na­tive Secret Ser­vice, equip­ping its police and agents with revolvers instead of auto­mat­ic pis­tols, train­ing them to shoot one-hand­ed at sta­tion­ary bul­l’s-eye tar­gets, fail­ing to bul­let­proof Blair House win­dows, lock­ing up Tom­my guns and shot­guns that would be need­ed only in sit­u­a­tions that demand­ed instant access. The Puer­to Ricans, armed with auto­mat­ic pis­tols and steel-jack­et­ed bul­lets, were stopped pri­mar­i­ly by Col­la­zo’s inex­pe­ri­enced fum­bling with his Walther P.38. Their orig­i­nal plan was for a five-man team. Had the three dropouts joined in the assault, Vice Pres­i­dent Alben Barkley might have been sworn in as pres­i­dent that day.

The authors are less suc­cess­ful at explain­ing the fanati­cism of the assailants. Tor­reso­la, a macho hot­head whose entire fam­i­ly was devot­ed to the Nation­al move­ment, left his preg­nant wife and rel­a­tive­ly com­fort­able life for an under­ground assign­ment in New York. Col­la­zo, a skilled work­er with a steady job, a fam­i­ly man esteemed by friends and col­leagues, embarked on a sui­cide mis­sion. Writ­ing of Col­la­zo’s child­hood in the moun­tain­ous cof­fee coun­try, Messrs. Hunter and Bain­bridge tell us: “Cof­fee cul­ture is a nat­ur­al breed­ing ground for rebels.” In the end, they can only use­ful­ly, if insuf­fi­cient­ly, cite the philoso­pher Eric Hof­fer on the char­ac­ter of the True Believ­er. They might equal­ly have ref­er­enced Han­nah Arendt on the banal­i­ty of evil.

The Nation­al Par­ty was a fas­cist orga­ni­za­tion with lit­tle pop­u­lar sup­port, led by a would-be Mus­soli­ni, sup­port­ed by a black-shirt­ed mili­tia. In “Amer­i­can Gun­fight,” its oper­a­tives are giv­en human iden­ti­ties; by con­trast, Gov. Munoz Marin, a wide­ly esteemed lib­er­al whose pro­grams improved the lives of Puer­to Ricans, is giv­en lit­tle sub­stance. His police­men come across in the book as mere thugs, card­board fig­ures.

In this respect, Messrs. Hunter and Bain­bridge inad­ver­tent­ly doc­u­ment the dif­fi­cul­ty that lib­er­al soci­eties have in com­ing to grips with total­i­tar­i­an ter­ror­ism. They are far from alone. Col­la­zo, tak­en alive, was found guilty of mur­der and sen­tenced to be exe­cut­ed. Tru­man com­mut­ed the sen­tence to life impris­on­ment, appar­ent­ly in an effort to appease Latin Amer­i­can anti-Yan­kee sen­ti­ment. He returned to Puer­to Rico, a hero to the Nation­al­ists. Pres­i­dent Jim­my Carter, per­haps think­ing him a mis­guid­ed ide­al­ist, par­doned Col­la­zo in 1979.

Gov. Munoz Mar­in’s gov­ern­ment, nev­er able to devel­op the evi­dence need­ed for a death sen­tence against Albizu Cam­pos, the head of the Nation­al­ist Par­ty, jailed him for less­er crimes, then par­doned him. The par­ty’s vio­lent agi­ta­tion con­tin­ued: In 1954, four Puer­to Rican nation­al­ists shot up the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. Albizu Cam­pos was impris­oned again for a few years, then released for rea­sons of health before his death in 1965.

Messrs. Hunter and Bain­bridge tell us that Albizu Cam­pos “is today cel­e­brat­ed by many in Puer­to Rico and his leg­end con­tin­ues to grow.” They describe his present-day par­ty as “more of a ral­ly­ing orga­ni­za­tion than a polit­i­cal force.” One takes what com­fort one can from this char­ac­ter­i­za­tion.

Mr. Ham­by’s lat­est book is “For the Sur­vival of Democ­ra­cy: Franklin Roo­sevelt and the World Cri­sis of the 1930s.”

(See relat­ed let­ter: “Let­ters to the Edi­tor: Tak­ing Aim at Tru­man” — WSJ Nov. 28, 2005)