Politics, Crime Intersect In CJ Prof's 'Assassination' Book
When Willard Oliver says he grew up inside the Beltway, he's not talking about the freeway that circles Houston. He grew up inside a much more famous Beltway, that of the nation's capital in Washington, D.C.
As such, politics was a regular part of everyday conversation. He witnessed presidential caravans pass by, he remembers Nixon's resignation, he recalls two separate shootings within a few weeks in an attempt to assassinate Ford, and he was fascinated with the attempt on Ronald Reagan's life.
"Everyone was ducking as shots were being fired, but agent Timothy McCarthy took the bullet for Reagan,” Oliver said. “I just thought…wow."
Oliver wanted to be a guy like that. In fact, when he was 21, he boldly approached a Secret Service career booth at a job fair—only to be immediately turned away.
"They said 'nope, you don't even have to turn in your application.' It was because I had glasses," Oliver said. "You have to have near-perfect vision to be Secret Service."
So Oliver embarked on a career in law enforcement, served in the Army Reserves and participated in Operation Desert Storm, followed by launching a career in academia. He is currently a tenured professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University.
He's also the author of Killing the President: Assassinations, Attempts and Rumored Attempts on U.S. Commanders-in-Chief.
Oliver said he tackled the topic because, first, the subject matter is at the intersection of two of his favorite things—political science and criminal justice; and second, no one else had done it yet.
"I was looking for a book with one-chapter explanations of attempts and assassinations," Oliver said. "I found one geared towards the 8-to-10-year-old crowd, which was interesting but not of great depth. Another book I found tried to figure out the psychology of assassins and it included Martin Luther King and Malcolm X; not specific to presidents. I just wanted a straightforward book, and since I couldn't find one, I figured I would write one."
It took Oliver three years just to research the book. There was either so little written about assassinations and attempts that he had to dig up primary documents and newspaper articles, or there was so much that it was a challenge to weed out information relevant to his focus.
Of the four actual assassinations, more than a dozen confirmed attempts and two rumored attempts Oliver writes about in the book, he is most intrigued by James Garfield.
No, wait, make that William McKinley. Then again, there's Theodore Roosevelt…and let's not forget Zachary Taylor. Was it the combination of milk and cherries that killed him, or was he deliberately poisoned with arsenic?
And then there are all the rumors and conspiracy theories. Did Warren Harding's wife poison him in an attempt to save his public reputation while at the same time end his philandering ways?
Needless to say, the book makes for great reading.
For the record, and for the record of anyone wondering why a man named Will Oliver has an extensive search history of killing presidents on his computer, the publisher of the book wanted to rev up the pop-culture draw, thus the sensational title and dramatic cover shot.
Oliver and the book’s co-author Nancy Marion appeared on a 2012 National Geographic special titled "Top Secret: Presidential Assassinations." Marion is a professor of political science at the University of Akron in Ohio, whom Oliver met when he referenced one of her publications in his 2000 dissertation The Law & Order Presidency.
"It ended up being published, so I sent her a copy and thanked her for being the springboard to my dissertation," Oliver said.
The duo has since co-authored numerous papers, chapters and books.
"Working with Will is very entertaining," Marion said. "His brain is always on; always thinking of new ideas. We'll be working on one and he's already thinking of what we're going to do next. I hear 'I have a new idea,' and I think 'oh no…'"
Marion said they usually have a few books on the go at the same time; case in point, the forthcoming Introduction to Homeland Security and Federal Law Enforcement Agencies in America.
They have also co-authored criminal justice text books, including Crime, History, and Hollywood: Learning Criminal Justice History Through Major Motion Pictures and The Public Policy of Crime and Criminal Justice in America.
And, in a follow-up to Killing the President, the duo is writing a book about assassinations or attempted assassinations on congressmen.
"We were already writing the book when Gabby Giffords was shot," Oliver said. "It turns out six members of congress have been assassinated and approximately eight have had serious attempts on their lives."
Oliver is also working on a solo book, something that's been five years in the making, a biography on August Vollmer, said to be the father of American policing.
"I just sent it off and have been working to try to land a contract," Oliver said. "It's the only book I've ever written where I started writing before I had a contract."
Clearly, Oliver has set himself a goal, and he won't rest until he's reached it. That's just how he rolls. For example, he's crossed the finish line in eight marathons, and he created a Texas Criminal Justice merit badge for Boy Scouts of America. To date, an estimated 2,000 lads have earned the badge and may very well be thinking of a career in criminal justice, perhaps even one at the intersection of political science.
"There will always be a need for criminal justice," Oliver said, "regardless of what it focuses on, whether it's homeland security, high crime, low crime or crime prevention."
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