Novelist and Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter, who is the only movie critic since Roger Ebert in 1975 to win a Pulitzer for his movie reviews, sent me his new nonfiction book American Gunfight: The Plot to Kill Harry Truman--and the Shoot-out that Stopped It. I'm about 100 pages into it and it's a humdinger if you like guns, true crime, and Secret Service agents, and have a sneaking sympathy for the apparently lost cause of Puerto Rican independence. From the opening page:
On November 1, 1950, two Puerto Rican Nationalists named Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola pulled German automatic pistols and attempted to storm Blair House, at 1651 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., where the president of the United States, Harry S. Truman, was at that moment -- 2:20 P.M. on an abnormally hot Wednesday -- taking a nap in his underwear.
They were opposed by a Secret Service security detail ... In the brief exchange -- under forty seconds -- between twenty-nine and thirty-one shots were fired in an area about ninety feet by twenty feet, though the exchange broke into two actions at either end of the property, where the ranges were much shorter. When it was over one man was dead, another was dying, and two more were seriously injured.
The story was of course gigantic news -- for about a week. What's remarkable about it is not how big a story it was but how quickly it went away. Today, few Americans even remember it, or if they do, they have it mixed up with a later event. In 1954, four Puerto Rican Nationalists pulled guns and shot up Congress. Soon enough the two stories melded in the U.S. folk imagination under the rubric of stereotype: hot-tempered Latin revolutionaries, undisciplined, crazy even, pursuing a dream that made no sense at all, Puerto Rican independence.
Even those few North Americans who could distinguish between the two events couldn't prevent the actual thing itself from eroding, losing its detail and meaning and settling sooner rather than later into a kind of comforting folk narrative. For Americans, it always encompassed the following points:
The grievances Oscar and Griselio were expressing were fundamentally absurd: Puerto Rico had been given the gift of United States culture and political traditions and was rapidly becoming Americanized, as it should be. What was wrong with these two that they didn't understand how benevolently they had been treated?
Americans believed they were a little crazy. The evidence is clear: the assault was thrown together on the run by these two men of no consequence and no meaningful cause... They were upset by newspaper reports of what was going on in Puerto Rico, where an equally silly group of men were attempting a coup, like they do down there all the time, something equally stupid and futile.
The dumb one was an unemployed salesman, a ladies' man, an abject failure in life. Nothing at all is known about this fellow, but why should it be, since he is so predictable: like so many disgruntled would-be assassins, this was his chance to count in a world that had denied his existence. They had no plan and no understanding of tactics.
In the actual fight itself, the Secret Service and the White House policemen essentially brushed them aside.
The two never came close to getting into Blair House. And even if they had, it would have made no difference, as an agent with a tommy gun was waiting just inside the door.
Harry Truman was never in any mortal danger.
In the end, many Americans concluded, it was more a joke, a farce, an opera buffa, than anything else.
There is only one trouble with assigning these meanings to the 38.5 desperate, violent seconds of November 1, 1950.
Every single one of them is wrong.