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Academic Study of Political Assassinations

William Kelly

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Why Kill Politicians? A Rational Choice Analysis of Political Assassinations

By Bruno S. Frey, University of Zurich



In the course of history a large number of politicians has been

assassinated. A rational choice analysis is used to distinguish the

expected marginal benefits of killing, and the marginal cost of attacking a


The comparative analysis of various equilibria helps us to

gain insights into specific historical events.

The analysis suggests that ­ in addition to well-known security measures ­an extension of democracy, a rule by a committee of several politicians, more decentralization via the

division of power and federalism, and a strengthening of civil society

significantly reduce politicians¹ probability of being attacked and killed.

Keywords: Rational choice, democracy, dictatorship, assassination,


JEL: D01 D70 K14 K42 Z10

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PHILADELPHIA Becoming a symbolic protest site for demonstrators wasn't what they had in mind when they opened the Constitution Center at Independence Mall in Philadelphia, but that's what it's become for those protesting the violations of the Constitution by the CIA prison at Guantanamo.

When they opened the Center, and pulled on a string to unveil the backdrop to main stage, the frame and support beam collapsed and fell down on top of the assembled dignitaries, including Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Conner, Senator Arlen Specter and then Philadelphia Mayor Milton Street.

While Mayor Street claimed it was not an accident, but a conspiracy by the stage union to embarrass and discredit him, it was an in-auspicious opening of the National Constitution Center.

The duel purpose of the center - to educate the public and promote tourism in Philadelphia, is buttressed by the conservative Republican agenda that at first attempted to exclude the fact that the authors of the United States Constitution were slave owning hypocrites, at least as far as the slaves and their heirs are concerned.

While the very site of the center is now being recognized as once the home to slaves of the founding fathers, the primary problem with the Constitution, as opposed to the Center itself, is the way it has been continuously violated over the years, without redress.

Not only by the government holding prisoners without hearings or trials, the spirit of the Constitution has been broken and the democratic will of the people violated every time a president is assassinated. Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, McKinnley, Harding and Kennedy were all murdered while in office, and the detailed truths of their deaths are, at least in the case of Kennedy, still being withheld from the public.

Though technically unbroken, the Constitution only remains officially intact because of the provisions that allow for the Vice President to assume Presidential powers with the death of the President, a little-discussed, but significant trigger and legal loophole that has been successfully utilized to seize power.

While these provisions allow for the uninterrupted continuation of the functions of government, when the President is brutally murdered and the Vice President is suspiciously implicated in the crime, as we have seen with Lincoln, McKinley and Kennedy, it is, in essence, a coup d'etat.

Because the Constitution, as amended, requires the Vice President to automatically assume the position, authority and powers of the Presidency upon the death of the President, the new President also assumes control over the government's reaction to the murder, and the official investigations of it.

Staged photos of the swearing in of President Johnson aboard Air Force One, with the former first lady in her blood stained dress, were technically unnecessary, as LBJ automatically became President when JFK's head was blown open. But the law was enacted to ensure the public of the continuity of the government, the legality of Presidential succession and the security of the Constitution, while the photo psychologically demonstrated the same


The conspired and premeditated murder of John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States in 1963 was based and orchestrated on the earlier McKinley model, and in some respects to what happened to Garfield.

As Maxim Armbruster points out in The Presidents of the United States (Horizon Press, NY, 1960, 1973), "When Chester Alan Arthur was nominated for Vice President, he was considered a nonentity, while Garfield was considered a man of statesman caliber."

Then on July 2, 1881 Garfield was shot at a Washington D.C. railroad station "by a fanatic of the Stalwart group who shouted Arthur was now President." The Stalwarts, Republicans opposed to the "Half-Breeds" who supported Garfield, were the main force behind a third term for Grant.


Twenty years later, New York governor Teddy Roosevelt was nominated to be the Vice President candidate with William McKinley, a political move by his opponents to get Roosevelt out of the limelight. But that plan backfired when McKinley was assassinated on September 6, 1901 at the Pan Am Exposition in Buffalo, New York. McKinley was shot by a "glassy eyed anarchist" who was known to be a threat to the President, but not the Constitution, which remained intact with the elevation of Roosevelt to the Presidency.

McKinley had been the Spanish Civil War hero, and as Armbruster reports, "When, after McKinley's death, Roosevelt became President, he stated he would carry out McKinley's policies. Before long the country realized that the only policies he was interested in were Roosevelt policies."


When Warren Harding died suspiciously after becoming sick on a train ride to California from Alaska, some blamed food poisoning, while others said it was a heart attack, but it effectively removed the man, tainted from the Teapot Dome scandle, from power, and elevated Calvin Coolidge to the Presidency. The Constitution remained intact.


The shooting of John F. Kennedy in broad daylight in front of hundreds of witnesses and filmed for posterity was not so much a coup d'etat as it was the coup d'grace. The real coup took place in August, 1960 in a Los Angeles hotel during the Democratic national convention when Lyndon Baines Johnson was maneuvered into the VP slot, against the determined efforts of Robert F. Kennedy.

Despite taking a stature of lower power and esteem than the one he already had in Congress, LBJ himself was convinced to be the candidate for Vice President by Texas governor John Connolly and Phil Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post. Johnson knew he would be too old to run for President after serving eight years as Veep, and only agreed to take the position when told one self-explanatory statistic – 20% or one out of every five presidents have died in office. Johnson knew those odds could be improved to beyond a certainty.

John Kennedy's father Joe Kennedy convinced his son to offer the Vice Presidency to LBJ, a logical choice to help win the southern states, but an offer that Johnson was expected to refuse. It was a strategic move that backfired, just as it had on Garfield and McKinley.

As Vice President LBJ was given many new responsibilities (ie. NASA), though he was still considered out of the way and in a soft political position, until the President was suddenly and unceremoniously shot and murdered in Dallas.

Suddenly the Vice President is the most powerful person in the world, with all the executive powers of the government behind him, and as in the case of LBJ, all the powers of the Presidency in the hands of a mean, vile, vicious and power hungry man known to have had others killed.

LBJ's crimes, other than conspiracy and murder, also include perjury and treason, perjury committed while swearing an oath of office to uphold the Constitution of the United States.


I suspect the same model was used again during the Watergate era when Vice President Agnew was replaced by Rep. Gerald Ford, so Ford could be in place when Nixon was forced to resign. Then again in 1980, Vice President George Bush was ready to succeed Ronald Regan had the assassination attempt at the Washington Hinkley Hilton been successful.


The Constitution may have remained technically intact with the death of the President in office, but the spirit of its democratic foundations is lost when the President is violently and publicly executed and the legal and judicial system allows the perpetrators to go unidentified and unpursued.

No other reason is necessary to justify the release of all the relevant records and the legal pursuit of those responsible other than the constitutional imperative that our national security depends on it.

Edited by William Kelly
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