It was about half past 7 on Thanksgiving Eve, 1975, when Gerald Gainous Jr. decided to go for it. Dressed in jeans, a windbreaker and holding a black briefcase, the 24-year-old scaled the White House fence. Entering from the south side, he crawled between bushes on his stomach, evading detection. As Gainous told the Washington Post in 1977, he wasn’t scared, nor did he think anything bad was going to happen to him, “I enjoyed doing it, it was exciting … I didn’t feel was going to be shot. I knew I wasn’t going to be harmed.” Fifty yards in, he set off a sensor, triggering several lights on the South Lawn. Security guards came rushing out, but Gainous hid in a boxwood. After 10 to 15 minutes of searching, they left. For the next hour or more, Gainous wandered around the White House grounds alone.
Around this time, Susan Ford, the president’s 18-year-old daughter, and White House photographer David Hume Kennerly pulled up into the driveway. As Ford, who was also a photojournalist, unloaded her camera equipment, Gainous approached. As he explained in the 1977 interview, he said nothing to her–only smiled. The Secret Service pounced on Gainous as Susan Ford was whisked away.
It is certainly amazing that Gainous was able to wander undetected for such a long period of time on the South Lawn–especially now, when a flying apple core can shut down a sidewalk near the White House, or a Thanksgiving fence jumper can trigger a lockdown of the whole campus. It is also of note that this intrusion occurred only two months after two separate attempts on President Ford’s life. But what is perhaps the most unbelievable thing is that after he was detained, Gainous was held for only two days before being released to his grandparents. Or maybe it’s that by August of the following year, he had managed to jump the White House fence three more times.
Gerald Gainous Jr. grew up in a middle-class military family. His father was a master sergeant in the Air Force during Vietnam. That swiftly changed in January 1972, when Sergeant Gerald Gainous Sr. was arrested for a role in the infamous “Cadaver Connection,” a heroin smuggling ring that supposedly used dead American soldiers corpses to transport dope stateside (it almost certainly did not). Gerald Jr. attended University of North Carolina at the time, and his dad’s case pulled his attention from his studies. The mounting legal bills and Gerald Sr.’s conviction a year later caused the family to fall into poverty. It also triggered a growing “revolutionary ideology” in Gainous. While still in college, he began work on his 400-page “Revolutionary Manifesto of America.” According to a 1976 Daily Tar Heel article, Gainous could often be found sitting at the student union with signs advertising his manuscript and more self-written literature about a “democratic American revolution.”
In 1975, he went to DC with two missions. The first goal was to get his manifesto into the hands of someone important, someone who could publish it. The other was to request a pardon for his father. Gainous felt President Ford could help with both. If Ford could pardon Nixon, Gainous reasoned, then surely pardoning his dad would be an easy ask. He arrived in the nation’s capital and stayed with family friends. Then, on November 26, armed with a black briefcase holding his manifesto, Gainous made his way to the White House.
His first arrest didn’t give Gainous the satisfaction he was looking for: He never got to see Ford, and no one cared about his manifesto. So, he jumped the fence again 10 days later. This time he was detained nearly the moment he hit the ground. Refusing to pay bail, he spent 40 days in the DC Jail. This arrest, though, got him attention–including writeups in major newspapers across the country with quotes from his manifesto. He was so excited that he sent the manuscript to several major publishers. No one bit.
Gainous’s third and fourth jumps were a bit more contentious. During a jump in June 1976, he calmly explained to Secret Service agents that he thought he should be appointed president and that the federal government was illegal. His final attempt, on August 14, 1976, was met with weariness from the Secret Service, who told reporters they knew it was the same guy as before because they had been watching him. Still, Gainous jumped–and actually injured himself on the fences’ spikes. When he came down, he was met by several Secret Service agents. He greeted them by slugging one of the agents in the face.
Today, jumping the White House fence even once is enough to land someone in jail for a considerable amount of time. In 1975, one could make a habit of it. Gerald Gainous Jr. certainly did.