On Feb. 15, 1933, Giuseppe Zangara, delusional and a loner, fired his .32-caliber pistol at FDR in the Bayfront Park area of Miami.
Five feet tall, Zangara could not aim over the crowd. So, he stood on a folding chair and was piled on after the first of five shots. He wounded four people, including Mayor Anton Cermak of Chicago.
In two weeks, Zangara, who pled guilty, had been sentenced to 80 years. When Cermak died on March 6, Zangara was retried for murder and sentenced to the electric chair, where he died on March 20, 1933.
In that time, if you knew what you were doing, knew the penalty for it and then committed the crime, you paid the price -- and swiftly.
There was no wailing that Zangara, a misfit suffering from a stomach ailment, was not fully responsible.
There was no campaign to accuse Republicans, after a rough election, of creating an atmosphere in which a deranged mind may have been driven to try to kill FDR.
That came three decades later, when conservatives were charged with having "created the atmosphere" in which JFK was assassinated.
Lee Harvey Oswald was a communist who had defected to Russia and a member of the pro-Castro Fair Play for Cuba Committee, who had only recently arrived in Texas. Yet moral culpability for what he did was laid at the door of the city of Dallas and the rising American Right.
Had not, the press asked, Adlai Stevenson been lately jostled by a crowd in Dallas? Had not LBJ and Lady Bird been verbally abused in the lobby of a Dallas hotel in 1960? Was Dallas not a hothouse of the right?
The same smear tactic was employed when Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah building in Oklahoma City, killing 168, among them 19 children. Right-wing radio and its anti-government rhetoric, it was said, created the atmosphere that made it easier for McVeigh to feel justified in blowing up a federal building.
Saturday, even before Jared Loughner had been charged with murdering six people in Tucson, including a 9-year-old girl and a U.S. judge, and wounding 13 in an assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the old smear machine had been wheeled out.
Giffords, it was said, had been "targeted" by Sarah Palin for defeat in ads depicting her district in cross hairs. And had not Palin used the expression, "Don't retreat, reload!"? Had not Sharron Angle in Nevada talked of "Second Amendment remedies"?
Had not talk-show hosts on Fox News used incendiary language that can drive weak and deranged minds over the line?
Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, a Democrat and friend of Giffords, kicked off the campaign Saturday with this excoriation.