As a reporter, you sometimes spend months trying to track down an original record, even when you know what it says. That happened to me while working on my book, “Rawhide Down,” which chronicles the near-assassination of President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981.
Though I knew the contents of some of Reagan’s notes to his nurses after his life-saving surgery, it was still a wonderful experience for me — a history buff — to touch and scrutinize them at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
In the same way, I badly wanted to inspect the historic teletype from Secretary of State Alexander Haig Jr. that informed Vice President George Bush that the president had been shot. I knew what the teletype said — Haig quoted it in a memoir — but I still wanted to see it. So in March or April 2010, I requested a copy from the George Bush Presidential Library. The archivists refused, saying the document was still classified, forcing me to file a Freedom of Information Act request. Now, two years later, a scanned copy of this historic piece of presidential history finally arrived in my e-mail in-box.
To better understand the significance of the teletype, it helps to set the scene:
When Reagan was shot as he emerged from the Washington Hilton Hotel that Monday at 2:27 p.m., Bush was in Texas, where he was giving speeches on behalf of Reagan’s economic program. In fact, the vice president was just just taking off from Fort Worth on his way to Austin, where he was going to address the Texas legislature, when a Secret Service agent burst into his cabin on Air Force Two to tell Bush what they knew. Not surprisingly, in the chaos of the moment, their information was incomplete and erroneous.
“Sir, we’ve just received word about a shooting in Washington,” Secret Service Agent Ed Pollard told Bush in his cabin. “There is no indication that the president has been hit. Word is that two agents are down. That’s all we have right now.”
A bit later, Haig was on the phone from the White House, where he would later deliver his famous “I’m in control” remark from the briefing room podium.
At that moment, Air Force Two was hurtling through the skies above Texas, and the high-tech jet didn’t have scrambled voice communications (the system was so open that two University of Alabama graduate students captured some of the radio traffic on a ham radio). In any case, the connection was lousy.
“Mr. Vice President, this is Secretary Haig. We have had a serious incident and I’m sending you a message by secure line. I recommend you return to Washington as soon as possible.”
But Haig only heard static in reply.
“This is Secretary Haig, over.”
“George, this is Al,” he said again. “Turn around! Turn around!”
Haig, who died in 2010, then dictated a secure message to send to Air Force Two.
The teletype appears to be badly crinkled and hard to read (see it here):
MR. VICE PRESIDENT: IN THE INCIDENT YOU WILL HAVE HEARD ABOUT BY NOW, THE PRESIDENT WAS STRUCK IN THE BACK AND IS IN SERIOUS CONDITION. MEDICAL AUTHORITIES ARE DECIDING NOW WHETHER OR NOT TO OPERATE. RECOMMEND YOU RETURN TO DC AT EARLIEST POSSIBLE MOMENT. SECRETARY ALEXANDER HAIG, JR.
By the time that message was sent at 3:14 p.m., Reagan was in the operating room, where doctors were working furiously to save his life — the president would lose more than half of his blood, and a surgeon would eventually pluck out the bullet from just an inch away from his heart.
Meanwhile, on Air Force Two, Bush pondered the significance of Haig’s message. Sitting in his cabin’s high-backed chair, the vice president remained calm, wondering why anyone would want to harm Reagan and praying for his recovery.
Wilber covers the District’s federal court, where he writes about would-be-assassin John W. Hinckley Jr.’s requests for more freedom from St. Elizabeths Hospital, and his book was released in paperback Tuesday. You can follow him on Twitter @delwilber .