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The Gay Man Who Saved Ford’s Life

 

ON SEPTEMBER 22, 1975, Sara Jane Moore tried to kill Gerald Ford. It was not Ford’s life that changed that day; he would go on, only a few minutes off schedule, back to Washington. It was the man standing next to Moore, Oliver Sipple, an overweight, 33-year-old gay man, who would be changed forever by the assassination attempt.

Three thousand people milled around San Francisco’s Union Square for hours waiting for Ford to exit a meeting of the World Economic Council. That morning, Sipple didn’t even know the President was coming to town. Sipple was unemployed and in the habit of taking long walks around San Francisco. A Vietnam veteran and a former Marine, he had lank, greasy blond hair and was called Billy. Sipple left his apartment on the 700 block of Van Ness and planned to walk up to the Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood that day. As he walked down Post Street toward the Taylor intersection, he noticed a huge crowd. He asked someone why so many people were in the park. “What’s the matter with you, stupid?” someone said. They were waiting for President Ford.

This was exciting. Sipple began to edge his way up through the group, chain smoking all the while. By one o’clock, he was pretty much at the front, or as close as he was going to get. At 3:30 Ford left the St. Francis Hotel, where he had been meeting, and waved to the crowd. Sipple looked at the president. Out of the corner of his right eye he saw a flash of metal: the woman standing in front of him had a gun. Sipple reacted quickly. “Gun,” he shouted. “She’s got a fucking gun!” He reached out and grabbed Moore’s arm.

The investigators at first saw Sipple as a suspect, and the questions they posed were hostile ones. Sipple quivered as he tried to answer, lighting one cigarette off of another. He didn’t have clear answers: he was unemployed and he was in Union Square because that’s where he wandered that afternoon. If something else had caught his eye, he might have ended up at Queen Mary’s Pub, a gay bar two miles away. But he took a right turn and found himself standing next to a woman aiming a .38 at the leader of the free world.

 

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