Thirty-five years ago today, President Gerald Ford’s life was saved by an ex-Marine named Oliver Sipple. As the debate over don’t-ask-don’t-tell rages on, his story is worth revisiting.
Oliver Sipple was born in 1941 in Detroit, Mich. He joined the Marines after high school and served in Vietnam. After being wounded in action in 1968, he was discharged to a VA hospital in Philadelphia, before relocating to San Francisco. Classified as 100% disabled on psychological grounds because of shell shock (before they called it PTSD), he was unemployed and lived on disability payments in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.
On September 22, 1975, Sipple had joined the crowds outside the St. Francis Hotel waiting to get a glimpse of the visiting President Gerald Ford. Also there was Sarah Jane Moore. By age 45, she’d been married four times, had abandoned three of her children, worked as an FBI informant and become embroiled in radical left-wing politics.
When Ford emerged from the hotel, Moore leveled a .38 pistol from a distance of 40 feet. Only 18 days previously, Manson family member Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme had pointed a firearm at the President. Fromme hadn’t pulled the trigger, but Moore did. Her bullet missed the President’s head by five inches. Oliver Sipple spotted the gun and grabbed Moore’s arm just as she was squeezing off a second round. The bullet hit a 42-year-old cab driven named John Ludwig. Ludwig survived the attack, and Sipple was hailed as a hero.
Problem was, Sipple didn’t fit the profile of the ideal American hero.
In the aftermath of the assassination attempt, as the press dug up info on everyone involved in the story, Sipple was privately terrified of all the attention and worried that it would lead to his parents back in Michigan discovering an aspect of himself he had been hiding for years – namely, that he was gay.
In San Francisco, he’d been friendly with Harvey Milk, who was then campaigning for city supervisor and would become the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California. Milk thought America should know about Sipple’s sexual orientation in order to show that homosexuals were capable of heroism, and believed it was too big a PR opportunity to miss, despite Sipple’s misgivings. Milk leaked the story to the San Francisco Chronicle.
They ran with the story, and it wasn’t long before the facts filtered back to Michigan. Sipple’s father and brothers were ridiculed by coworkers at the auto plant where they worked. His Baptist mother was hassled by neighbors. Sipple became estranged from his family.
Sipple filed a $15 million dollar suit naming 7 newspapers, accusing them of invading his privacy. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed. In saving Ford, Sipple had become newsworthy, which meant his private life was not off limits the way it would be for an everyday citizen. For his heroism, he was given a letter signed by President Ford, but no White House visit was extended, which some activists interpreted as a snub. Ford later said he had been unaware of Sipple’s homosexuality, and told the Detroit News, “I don't know where anyone got the crazy idea I was prejudiced and wanted to exclude gays.” Ford was praised by members of the LGBT community in 2001 for endorsing the extension of federal benefits to same-sex partners and joining the advisory board of the Republican Unity Coalition.
Sipple took to drinking heavily and his physical and mental health deteriorated. He eventually reconciled with his family, but sometimes expressed regrets about ever having intervened on that day back in 1975.
Oliver Sipple died of pneumonia on February 2, 1989. Gerald Ford died on December 26, 2006.