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38.5 Seconds at Blair House

The shoot-out that almost claimed President Truman's life, excellently captured by Stephen Hunter.

By 3.9.06

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American Gunfight: The Plot to Kill Harry Truman and the Shoot-Out That Stopped It
by Stephen Hunter and John Bainbridge, Jr.
(Simon & Schuster, 384 pages, $26.95)

The firearms finikins at freerepublic.com, and they are legion, favor one writer above all others for gun lore and gun adventure. Stephen Hunter, author of novels including The Master Sniper (1980), The Day Before Midnight (1989), Point of Impact (1993), and Havana (2003), has been for more than two decades the film critic of what his freeper fans generally call "The Washington Compost," in which position he has won a Pulitzer Prize (and published Violent Screen, a collection of his reviews). See the unofficial Stephen Hunter website here here.

His theme might be described as "The American Gunfight," that interval when "there is no time, there is no clarity, there is no logical sequence of events. Things happen as they happen, and under massive stress men do what they will do. Physiological changes are incredible: IQs drop, fingers seem to balloon inefficiently, hearing shuts down, vision tunnels, peripheral perception vanishes."

Indeed, in his newest book, the non-fiction American Gunfight: The Plot to Kill Harry Truman and the Shoot-Out That Stopped It, Hunter (with co-author John Bainbridge, Jr.) repeats a near-identical version of that description at least five times. In this holy mystery does Hunter encapsulate the work of his life and reveal the American character.

Fans of his fiction would find it difficult to urge his former work on a wider audience than adventure and action readers. With American Gunfight, Hunter makes it clear what he's been up to all along, and under what stylistic rubric: He works in New Journalism, that splendid rich vein of American literature largely untapped since Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff in 1979. Until now, Hunter has confined this style to what appears to be fiction, but in a sense is really not, especially in those Balzacian intertwined novels of Earl Swagger, law man, and his son Bob Lee Swagger, Vietnam vet. Now it is clear that Hunter has been a historian all along.

GOOD HISTORY REQUIRES ADROIT FOCUS. One thinks of the incisively positioned The Reckoning and The Breaks of the Game, by David Halberstam. American Gunfight shares that focused success; subject chosen, half the writer's battle is over. Who remembers an assassination attempt on Harry Truman? On November 1, 1950, at 2:20 p.m. on a very hot Washington day, while the President napped in an upstairs front bedroom at Blair House (the White House, across the street, was being remodeled), two Puerto Rican nationalists armed with German semiautomatic pistols attacked the residence intending to kill Truman. The Secret Service detail posted at Blair House responded, and a firefight of an estimated 38.5 seconds took place. About 30 shots were exchanged in two distinct fights -- one at one end of the house frontage, one at the other. A White House policeman and one of the would-be assassins were killed -- the assailant, ironically, by a head shot fired by that very policeman at virtually the moment of his own death, an unbelievable act of heroism. Three men were wounded, including the other assassin.

Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola came very close to succeeding. Here comes to the fore Hunter's knowledge of guns. Armed as they were with a Walther P-38 and a Luger, firing two-handed, Collazo and Torresola substantially outgunned the much larger force of White House protectors, who carried revolvers and who had learned to fire them one-handed, at stationary bull's-eye targets, single action. The inexperienced Collazo flubbed his first shot. Had he fired it successfully, the entire outer protective force would have been down. Halfway through the fight, the President woke up and looked out a window in his underwear. Torresola, having downed the guards at the other end of Blair, was reloading near the front steps. All he had to do was look up. The moment passed.

THEY WERE NOT THE ARCHETYPAL LONE NUTS. Hunter and Bainbridge call Torresola a "melancholy warrior." Collazo, a scholar, was a reluctant last-minute draftee. But they were genuine revolutionaries, determined to bring "Don Pedro's war" to the United States. That "war" goes back more than a hundred years in Puerto Rican history. "Don Pedro" was Don Pedro Albizu Campos, Maximum Leader of the nationalist revolution, a lost cause if there ever was a lost cause, but one that made Albizu Campos a Puerto Rican folk hero for all that. This review cannot go into more depth; it would simply take too long.

But Hunter and Bainbridge do, and it is one of the book's strengths that it brings to life the sorrow-soaked irredentist romance of the sunny island. Never commanding more than a tiny section of votes in conventional politics, Albizu Campos and his followers turned to armed insurrection with a kind of relief -- now we can finally do what we have always intended to do. Albizu Campos himself, a "star," as the authors describe him, could have been an early Alberto Gonzales, he was that talented. (A Harvard law grad against unbelievable odds, he was reportedly offered a Supreme Court clerkship; instead he ended up in the Atlanta federal slammer.) The attempt on Truman in fact formed only a part of what was intended to be a general uprising against the entire island government. Only everything -- everything -- went wrong.

A good thing, too. The authors intriguingly suggest that Torresola and Collazo were in fact a last-minute desperate stand-in force. Five assassins might have been supposed to reconnoiter in New York, then go to D.C. Five men armed with automatic pistols would have created the Alben Barkley administration.

HOW THIS BOOK DOES SHINE. I mentioned "New Journalism." Dig this, as Hunter (this is Hunter) describes the Puerto Ricans' emigration from "splendor to squalor," from the verdant green of their homeland to the Big Apple:

The New York, New York that's a hell of a town, where the Bronx was up and the Battery down, eluded them, except via the bitter low rungs of the service economy. The town where Fred and Ginger tripped the light fantastic: they swept up the garbage after the shoot. The Algonquin Circle, where wits and wags threw pearls of polished venom at each other: no Puerto Ricans invited, except for the busboy who policed the martini glasses with Dorothy Parker's smeared-lipstick cigarette butts in them. The New York Athletic Club, where the old Irish Catholic politicos who ran the city took their steam baths: the Puerto Ricans gathered the sweat-soaked towels.

There is more, a whole book full of more, of personal sketches of the assassins and the officers they confronted, of the President in his band-box neat clothing taking his morning walks and a tot of bourbon to start the day, of an Edenic village called Jayuya in a Puerto Rican mountain valley where the nationalist revolution was born, most of all of the way things were one hot day in 1950 on a Washington, D.C. street when pistol shots crackled and men bled and fought and died, and one more American President came within an eyelash of being cut down, too.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.