Friday, July 29, 2016

Hippies vs. Punks: Taxi Driver (1976), Pt. 1, Arthur Bremer's An Assassin's Diary

Why are we here at Taxi Driver? It started last month by discovering a used copy of Devo's last big album, Oh, No! It's Devo (1982). One song, "I Desire," is written by John Hinkley, Jr. I had forgotten about John Hinkley, Jr. He was a forlorn figure that personified the first years of the 1980s. Hinkley attempted to murder Ronald Reagan because Hinckley was living out his obsession with Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. Hinckley imagined himself as Robert De Niro's character in the film, Travis Bickle, a disturbed ex-Marine and presidential-candidate stalker who, in a bloody shootout, rescues Jody Foster's character, Iris, from a life of street prostitution.

Wednesday it was announced (Gardiner Harris, "John Hinckley, Who Tried to Kill Reagan, Will Be Released") that Hinckley will be released after 35 years in confinement:
Mr. Hinckley was once psychotic and depressed. After seeing the 1976 film “Taxi Driver,” in which a disturbed man plots to assassinate a presidential candidate, he became fixated on Jodie Foster, who played a child prostitute in the film.
Mr. Hinckley began to identify with the main character in the film, Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro.
After Ms. Foster entered Yale University, Mr. Hinckley moved to New Haven to be close to her and left notes, letters and poems at her dormitory. Failing to win her affections, Mr. Hinckley stalked President Jimmy Carter and was eventually arrested on firearms charges. After the 1980 election, Mr. Hinckley stalked the newly elected President Reagan in an attempt to impress Ms. Foster.
On March 30, 1981, after more unsuccessful trips to New Haven, Mr. Hinckley wrote a letter to Ms. Foster describing his plan to kill Reagan. He waited outside the Washington Hilton Hotel for Reagan to arrive and waved at the president as he went inside to deliver a speech.
Forty minutes later, when Reagan emerged from the hotel, Mr. Hinckley crouched down and fired six shots, hitting four men: Reagan; James S. Brady, the White House press secretary; Timothy J. McCarthy, a Secret Service agent; and Thomas K. Delahanty, a Washington police officer. Mr. Brady sustained permanent brain damage and eventually died from his injuries in 2014.
A jury found Mr. Hinckley not guilty by reason of insanity, a decision that shocked the public and lawmakers across the country. He was sent for treatment to St. Elizabeths, a psychiatric hospital in Washington, where he has been confined ever since.
Taxi Driver was written by Paul Schrader who said he was inspired by Arthur Bremer's An Assassin's Diary (1973). Arthur Bremer shot and paralyzed George Wallace in 1972, ending the Alabama Governor's aspirations for a national political career. There is very little in common between the screenplay and the Bremer book, other than the narrative convention of a young man recording his thoughts in a journal.

This past Sunday I finished reading An Assassin's Diary, and I was blown away by what an obvious fraud it is. There is no way an unemployed 21-year-old Milwaukee busboy could have written An Assassin's Diary. Absolutely no way. Anyone who has toiled with letters will reach the same conclusion; Gore Vidal did in a 1973 New York Review of Books essay, "The Art and Arts of E. Howard Hunt."

This sent me down the rabbit hole of trying to understand why there hasn't there been more of a hullabaloo over such an obvious fraud. Bremer crippled the man who is responsible for the birth of the present-day Republican Party. Kevin Phillips designed Nixon's Southern Strategy to co-opt Wallace's nascent third-party juggernaut American Independent Party. In 1968 Wallace had run one of the most successful third-party presidential campaigns in the history of the United States, winning five states.

Wallace relied on two things to garner support: negrophobia and Hippie-bashing. Wallace also pioneered the demonization of the Washington bureaucrat. But his overwhelming appeal to voters was based on skewering the negro and the longhair.

Wallace was running strong again in 1972, when, on May 15, Bremer shot and crippled the Alabaman at a shopping center campaign rally in Laurel, Maryland. Nixon went on to trounce McGovern in one of the greatest electoral routs ever.

It goes without saying that Nixon benefited by Wallace sitting out the election in a hospital bed. Many feel that the 113-page diary found in Bremer's '67 Rambler after the shooting, presumably the manuscript Harper's Magazine Press published as An Assassin's Diary in 1973 (portions of which first appeared in the January 1973 issue of Harper's Magazine), was written and planted by the White House Plumbers in order to convince the public that Bremer's original target was Nixon not Wallace. That is why the most developed passages of An Assassin's Diary are those that describe Bremer's trip to Ottawa to kill Nixon, who was on a state visit to the seat of Canadian government.

If people believed that Bremer originally meant to kill Nixon then they wouldn't suspect that Bremer was a Nixon agent or dupe. The Ottawa passage convinced me that An Assassin's Diary is ghost written. (Vidal argued that there are too many literary references for a high school graduate who only had pornography and comic books in his apartment when it was searched; also, there is too deft a utilization of potboiler conventions, such as front-loading a sex scene, to be the work of an amateur.) The book has been heavily edited. Misspellings are used as camouflage to obscure a skillful professional pen at work. Complicated action flows precisely. Street names are used. The writing is done decorously except for all those ludicrous misspellings. If you kept a journal when you were in your early 20s, as I did, you are aware that it was nothing like the powerful economy of An Assassin's Diary.

Let's take a look. Here is a passage, pages 70 and 71, from An Assassin's Diary. Bremer has just arrived in Ottawa, and he is waiting alongside the road near a military base for Nixon's motorcade to pass. He is considering trying to get a shot off.
It was a long wait. 40 minutes at least, maybe over an hour. Some cops on bikes roared by people got out of their cars & went to the curbless, sidewalk less road. I joined in.
False alarm. Stayed out of the car 10 minutes, fingers got nume. That wouldn't do. I went back in & turned the heater on, still listening to the radio for news flashes. Earlier, I had seen the emty President's Lincoln Continental & all his cops & cars going in to the Uplands base. Against ten-of-thousands of people & tens-of-millions of dollars . . . 
I had worn a 3 inch "Vote Republican" button & a 3 inch "Richard Nixon (with his picture)" button to watch the motorcade. I exchanged looks at Mr. Moustache, my gun inside my pocket. Fantasied killing Nixon while shooting right over the shoulder of that cop.
Came out & went inside again. Longjohn weather. I was conscience of my hands. Didn't want to keep them inside of my pockets & get searched. Didn't want to keep them out & nume them too much.
Some folks there kept their hands in their pockets almost all the time, they weren't questioned & either was I. But I wanted to be careful, didn't know if a stop & frisk law existensed or what my rights were as an American here. Felt added confidence with my suit on & short hair & shave.
Didn't recognize my self clean shaven at first. My head hair came in nice & thick.
People jumped from their cars. Would the assassin get a good view? Everyone moved in close (about 20 people). We were the only people other than the cops for a few blocks.
He went by befor I knew it. Like a snap of the fingers. A dark shillowet, waving, rushed by in the large dark car. "All over", someone said to no one in particular. The following cop cars had 2 antentenas each & probaly walkie-talkies too -- jam proof communications. Umbrella in one hand, pocket in the other, I walked back to my car. I had missed him that day. The best day to make the attempt was over, I thought.
Sort of Jack Kerouac's Doctor Sax in Papa Hemingway's prose banged out on Mickey Spillane's manual typewriter. No way, no how written by a young dude with a semester of technical college. There are plenty of red flags -- reference to stop-and-frisk laws and jam-free communications; the use of synecdoche, "Mr. Moustache" -- that point to someone much older and more experienced. Most likely a middle-aged cognac-drinking operative penned this journal. The biggest tell is the management of the scene's action, which is complex, complete with backshadowing -- "Earlier, I had seen the emty President's Lincoln Continental & all his cops & cars going in to the Uplands base." -- and foreshadowing -- "I went back in & turned the heater on, still listening to the radio for news flashes."

Compare it to my own journal entry, written when I was 24, three years older than Bremer, after six years at Cal Berkeley, four of which had been spent working as an assistant instructor teaching reading and composition. I am writing about a winter cross-country trip I made from New York City to California in a VW bus:
Spent the night in a Pennsylvania (name of town now forgotten); it must've been Northeastern. I pulled off the highway, which ran through this town. My feet were pretty well without feeling. I parked the car next to this old shutdown warehouse and went out to take a piss. It was really cold. The wind was dark and howlin'. The wind was blowing through the cracks in the bus. I unfurled my bedding. My feet were wet and as cold as ice.
I'll never have that freedom again. Driving in the sunset; pointing my nose west; the world was on fire and yellow. It was golden and I couldn't see anything, but I could see enough. Hours driven this way. Hours driven alone without the radio.
Got to California. Oil snakes on the road. Drove miles this way. Big brown and red snakes crawling along with me. I slept a few miles out of Barstow with the truckers; the old bus; I didn't put my blanket over me, and I woke up almost frozen to death. But I got it out and got it over me.
Okay so there you have it. Twenty-four and still very boyish and childlike. This despite reading plenty of Plato, Hobbes, Defoe, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Flaubert, Nietzsche, Hardy et al., as well as possessing a good knowledge of the rules of grammar and punctuation. There is no way I ever could have described the Nixon motorcade scene.

The question then is if Bremer didn't write An Assassin's Diary who did? Besides someone affiliated with Nixon, the only other obvious answer is someone at Harper's. But if Harper's was going to completely rework whatever original manuscript was found in Bremer's Rambler why leave all those misspellings? Obfuscation is the only answer. And if obfuscation is the answer then that points to Nixon.

An Assassin's Diary was the second part of Bremer's journal. The first 148 pages, dated March 1 - April 3, 1972, he buried in Milwaukee; they were discovered in 1980 and are now part of the collection of Reynolds-Finley Historical Library at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Assuming the 113-page source material for An Assassin's Diary is still intact, it would be easy enough to compare the two for inconsistencies. Of course if one was a phony the other one is probably a phony too. But to maintain the fiction, both would have to come from the same pen; otherwise, discrepancies should be noticeable. (There was a Baltimore Sun article from 20 years ago pointing out that Bremer didn't get a fair trial.)

Interestingly, Travis Bickle's famous line from Taxi Driver, "Some day a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets," a sentiment worthy of a Wallace supporter, is not plucked from Bremer's journal but from one of the novels, Angel Eyes (1961), that Howard Hunt wrote under the pseudonym Robert Dietrich. Vidal quotes it in his NYRB essay. The hero of the potboiler, Steve Bentley, talks of Washington, D.C., "with its 'muggers and heroin pushers and the white-slavers and the faggotry . . . . This town needs a purifying rain!' "

Schrader no doubt read Vidal's NYRB piece and purloined that line from Hunt. Did E. Howard contact Schrader after Taxi Driver won the Palme d'Or for 1976?

The irony here -- but one that I think is very illuminating -- is that Taxi Driver owes more to the chief of the White House Plumbers than poor little Artie Bremer.

In part 2, we'll look at the film itself and discuss the score of the great Bernard Herrmann.


  1. Fascinating. Of course, when we say Nixon we are probably saying CIA.

    If it was Nixon without the CIA then that would suggest that Nixon had his own parallel kill squad. There were many people associated with Nixon in his dark milieu, but they all pretty much go back to the CIA. And when Nixon went down after the 1972 elections all those CIA actors who'd been Nixon team members (to include E. Howard Hunt) all managed to fall away and leave Nixon holding the bag. Also, the CIA was never in thrall of Nixon. He was another useful idiot, like Reagan, but somewhat more clever. Not clever enough, though.

    Just something I think it is important to remember.

    1. Hunt did time though, Bob, almost three years, and Nixon skated off to Cali to write his memoirs for a fat paycheck. I think Nixon was paranoid about the independence of the FBI and the CIA, particularly after Hoover torpedoes the Huston Plan, and the Plumbers were Nixon's miniature-golf version of The Company. I think Watergate turned into "Watergate" because the CIA refused to countenance Keystone Cops on its beat. The interesting thing though is how this dime-store ruse, Bremer's diary that is, has remain largely untarnished all these years. And not only that, through TAXI DRIVER, it basically signals the onrushing neoliberal retrenchment.

  2. But E. Howard Hunt's allegiance was to the CIA, not Nixon. Nixon (and Reagan) were working with the CIA in the fifties. If not mistaken, Nixon was dirty with Malaxia back in the late forties. Nixon was trying to find his way out of Vietnam et al. Think of all the people who testified against Nixon. Those spear carriers who worked around the White House were CIA people. As far as where Nixon ended up, you can't just kill them all when they drift off the reservation. As for Reagan, there was a rumor that his handlers and Bush's people argued over his life in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. In a way, instead of replacing Reagan with the head of the CIA for eight years they replaced him for eight years plus four.