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Video: Would-be Ford assassin: ‘I think it was wrong’

TODAY contributor
updated 5/28/2009 9:05:27 AM ET 2009-05-28T13:05:27

Free after 32 years in prison, Sara Jane Moore says she was wrong, “misled” and “mistaken” in trying to assassinate President Gerald R. Ford in September 1975. However, she added: “I still believe if I hadn’t done it, someone else would.”

“It was a time people don't remember. We had a war in this country, the Vietnam War,” Moore told Matt Lauer in an exclusive interview on TODAY Thursday. “This is going to sound a little strange, but I really thought that it would trigger a new revolution. We were saying the country needed to change, the only way it was going to change was a violent revolution. I genuinely thought that this might trigger that new revolution in this country.”

It was only later, while spending time in solitary confinement, that the only woman ever to fire a shot at a president said she “had begun to realize that I'd been used.”

“I think that I was misled, that I was mistaken. I think I made a serious error,” she told Lauer. “I had to learn later that everyone else didn't feel that way.”

‘I’m a human being’
Moore tried to kill Ford on Sept. 22, 1975, during a San Francisco motorcade. She spent more than three decades in prison for the crime before receiving mandatory parole on the last day of 2007. She will remain under supervision for at least five years, federal authorities say.

Now aged 80, the matronly looking Moore hopes to write a book about her life. “One gets tired of being thought of as a kook, a monster, an alien,” she said firmly. “I'm a human being.”

Moore certainly was no ordinary assailant. A 45-year-old suburban mom turned leftist advocate, she'd been married five times and worked with San Francisco's counterculture groups. Because of her connection to radical groups, the FBI recruited her as an informant.

“She was a product of those times in a not very successful fashion,” said NBC News’ Tom Brokaw.

The morning of the shooting, Secret Service agents and police picked her up, took her .45-caliber pistol and released her on charges of carrying a concealed weapon after she phoned in a threat.

She simply bought another gun and waited for President Ford outside San Francisco's St. Francis Hotel.

Moore was 40 feet from the president when she aimed her .38-caliber revolver and pulled the trigger. The bullet missed his head, and a bystander wrestled her to the ground.

“They picked me up bodily and carried me across the street,” Moore told Lauer. “I had one of those weird moments where I thought I'd never walk the streets again.”

Sara Jane Moore was 45 when she attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford; she spent 32 years behind bars.

Moore spent seven years in solitary confinement. But she also worked in an office in the prison and occasionally had to be taken out for medical treatments.

“I hated it, I wouldn't want to live with it,” she said. “But it allowed me to stop, think, get acquainted with myself.

“That's when I began to realize that this world I had leaped into and sucked myself into was a minuscule thing.”

She even wrote to the president, saying she was grateful that she hadn't succeeded.

A few hours of freedom
Of course, Moore also escaped from prison in 1979 — literally climbing the fence. Someone had told her, she said, that “when you go over, put your hand straight down on it so all you have is some puncture wounds. And it works.”

Authorities recaptured Moore hours later. She was transferred to a federal prison.

“Had I realized I was going to be recaptured so quickly, I'd have gone in and gotten a drink or gone in and gotten a hamburger or something,” she told Lauer. “That's my one regret about my mistake — that I didn't take advantage of it.”

Sara Jane Moore was apprehended after she shot at President Ford on Sept. 22, 1975.

All that time behind bars taught Moore that “a heart broken too often turns to stone.” So she tried to prevent that from happening. “You can't let yourself care,” she said. “You're a prisoner, but life goes on.”

And even after her release, Moore had trouble touching others. “I shut down my heart,” she explained. “I shut down part of my thinking. I remember the first day that somebody actually hugged me, and I thought: ‘Welcome to the human race.’ ”

Authorities won't say where Moore lives now. She's been seen around her town, but, except for a couple of close friends, most people don't know what she did. Under the terms of her release, Moore needs permission to travel, including to her appearance on TODAY.

Still, she says, “People are kind. The reins are as loose as they can make them.”

As for those who say she should never have been released, Moore says: “We have a Constitution and we have laws. Regardless of who you are, there were conditions to be met for me to be paroled, and I met those conditions.

“If people object to that, write your congressman and ask that your law be changed.”

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