JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: A bestselling novelist tackles the subject of protecting the president in the modern age.
The threats against a president have long captured the darker side of writers’ imaginations. In his new thriller, “The Fifth Assassin,” Brad Meltzer explores those questions, too, as his protagonist tries to stop a fictional killer. But, in this case, Meltzer benefited from the helpful advice of a former president and the perspective of the Secret Service.
Jeffrey Brown sat down with Meltzer recently for our book conversation.
JEFFREY BROWN: Brad Meltzer, welcome.
BRAD MELTZER, “The Fifth Assassin”: Thank you very much.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, some of this comes from a program — I was reading, it comes from a program. You were working with the Department of Homeland Security.
BRAD MELTZER: Yes.
A few years ago, I got a call from the Department of Homeland Security, asked me to come in and brainstorm different ways that terrorists could attack the United States.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, they were reaching out to writers?
BRAD MELTZER: My first thought was, if they’re calling me, we have bigger problems than anybody thinks, right?
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.
BRAD MELTZER: But, of course, I was honored to be part of what they call the Red Cell program.
And they bring together what they say are out-of-the-box thinkers who look at things differently. And I guess they had seen my novels and my research and said, why don’t you come in? And they would pair me with a Secret Service agent and a chemist. And we would destroy a major city in an hour. And you go home not feeling good. You go home terrified because you see how easy it is to attack and kill us.
JEFFREY BROWN: My goodness.
So, just to — just to think as creatively and destructively …
BRAD MELTZER: Out of the box. That’s it.
They want to figure out, because if you look at someone who flies planes into buildings and uses them as weapons, it’s someone who is not thinking in a straight-line way. So, they want to figure, OK, if we get someone else who thinks in a different way, how would you do it?
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so that gets your mind thinking about these terrible things, right?
I liked, in this book, the hero works as a researcher in the National Archives?
BRAD MELTZER: Yes. He’s an archivist.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, you made a hero out of a government researcher?
BRAD MELTZER: Well, you know what? I’m so nerdy that I didn’t even realize that that was a nerdy job. I thought a guy who works with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution from Mad magazine to the pink dress that Jackie Kennedy wore when her husband was shot, that to me sounds like the greatest job in the world.
And so I have spent now four years in the National Archives really going through the great attic of Americans’ memories.
JEFFREY BROWN: And the research that you’re doing to — we’re not going to go through the – give away the whole plot here, but you’re looking at an assassination attempt, right, on the president.
BRAD MELTZER: Yes. No, that’s exactly right.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, you are going back through time and looking at past attempts?
BRAD MELTZER: Each one — you know, what happened is there are basically over two dozen attempts on the life of the president of the United States.
JEFFREY BROWN: Right.
BRAD MELTZER: Four have been successful.
And what the plot is, is a serial killer who is meticulously recreating the crimes of all the presidential assassins, from John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald. But the fun to me is the research and looking and saying, what do they have in common in real life?
JEFFREY BROWN: You mean the various traits and the way they went about it.
BRAD MELTZER: Exactly.
So, if you look, the Secret Service studied and said if you look at all the people who have attempted to kill the president, they have almost nothing in common. It’s every age range, every socioeconomic range.
But look at the four who have successfully done it, and the overlaps start getting a little creepier. So, you will see that three out of the four are in their 20s. They basically are all meticulously neat, of all things. They don’t drink. They barely drink. They don’t do any drugs. Most of them are known as — they’re not even known as troublemakers, until, of course, that moment when they pull the trigger.
But when you really think of assassins, they go into two categories, hunters and howlers. And howlers make a lot of …
JEFFREY BROWN: Hunters and howlers.
BRAD MELTZER: Yes. So, howlers make a lot of noise. They call in the bomb threats. They say they’re going to kill us. The good news is, they rarely take action.
But hunters are very different. Hunters plot and they execute. They plan and they go through with their plan.
JEFFREY BROWN: And that would be someone like?
BRAD MELTZER: And that would be basically someone like John Wilkes Booth or Lee Harvey Oswald. But the interesting part is, is hunters have no interest in howling. And howlers have no interest in hunting. And so when you really look at them from John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald, all four are hunters.
JEFFREY BROWN: And I understand that you had one very interesting source, and that’s former President George H.W. Bush.
BRAD MELTZER: Yes.
You know, I have gotten — when you write thrillers like I write, you sometimes get really good readers.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.
BRAD MELTZER: And former President Clinton has written me letters. Former President Bush has written me letters. And George H.W. Bush has just become a real close friend over the years and has had me come out to Houston.
And we like to talk books and we like to talk adventure. And he likes to be entertained. And, so, listen, I write fiction. I can make up whatever I want. But we all know that there are only a few people on this planet who know what it’s like to live in the White House and know that someone is out there trying to kill you.
And he was kind enough to put up with my questions, saying, sir, are you scared of that moment? Do you think of that moment? Are you scared when this or that happens? And I use those answers to really make my characters have real personality, as opposed to kind of a fake person.
JEFFREY BROWN: And what did he tell you, in a nutshell?
BRAD MELTZER: Yes. And it was interesting.
You know, he was almost confused by the question. He was like, I can’t think of scary. And I was like, well, what about this or this? And he said, you know, tense, we had a lot of, right? In the White House, we got a lot of tense.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.
BRAD MELTZER: Scary, that just — it was almost like he was — he didn’t — it was like he couldn’t even fathom it.
And I realized in that moment that these assassins a lot in common, but so do our presidents. And I think it’s like almost imagine that guy who works on a skyscraper on the 100th floor out on the girder. That person every day when you’re up there, the fear of heights is no longer a part of the job description.
And I think, for our presidents, when you’re surrounded by it every day and all those Secret Service and everyone that is out there, it’s just that fear is not part of the job description. And it’s not false bravado by him. He’s 88 years old. He doesn’t need to impress me.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Yes. Sure. Sure.
BRAD MELTZER: But I just think it’s not part of the job description.
JEFFREY BROWN: Very interesting.
Let me ask you last, briefly, this novel involves a potential wide-scale conspiracy, right, through time as well.
BRAD MELTZER: Sure.
JEFFREY BROWN: You have a History Channel show, right, where you look at conspiracies. Are you a conspiracy theory guy? I mean, where does this come from?
BRAD MELTZER: I mean, the real question is, is, am I conspiracy nut, right?
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. OK. I didn’t want to put it quite like that.
BRAD MELTZER: But you have to say, right — but the truth is, I think those people are nuts too.
For me, I think that anyone who says that there’s always a conspiracy is not only being reckless, but, of course, being dishonest. I mean, everything can’t be blamed on the government. And I think the reason people like to code it and watch it is because sometimes we say, yes, that’s wrong. That shouldn’t have happened. And sometimes we say, no, that’s nonsense you read on the Internet.
And I think people really know that the scariest story of all is the true story.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right.
Well, this — non-true story, right?
BRAD MELTZER: Absolutely. This is a non-true…
JEFFREY BROWN: “The Fifth Assassin.”
Brad Meltzer, nice to talk to you.
BRAD MELTZER: Pleasure.