25th Anniversary: Reagan's Brush With Death

Reagan Wounded by Assailant's Bullet

David S. Broder
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 31, 1981

President Reagan survived an assassination attempt yesterday when a revolver-wielding gunman waiting among reporters and photographers on the sidewalk outside the Washington Hilton hotel fired a bullet into his chest.

The same assailant critically wounded White House press secretary James S. Brady and felled a Secret Service man and a Washington policeman.

In the 70th day of his presidency, Reagan underwent three hours of surgery at George Washington University Hospital to remove the bullet that entered under his left armpit, struck his seventh rib and burrowed three iches into his left lung.

On his way into surgery, the president gamely reassured friends: "Don't worry about me. I'll make it."

At 7:25 p.m., five hours after the shooting, the president was out of surgery and in stable condition. Dr. Dennis O'Leary told reporters the 70-year-old chief executive's "prognosis is excellent," adding that "at no time was he in serious danger." O'Leary said the president was "clear of head and should be able to make decisions by tomorrow." But he said Reagan may be in the hospital for two weeks and would not be "fully recovered" for perhaps three months.

The president's good spirits survived the traumatic day. At 8:50 p.m., according to White House aide Lyn Nofziger, with drainage tubes still in his throat, Reagan wrote a note to his doctors saying: "All in all, I'd rather be in Philadelphia." The line is a classic uttered by W. C. Fields when facing a lynching in "My Little Chickadee."

Vice President Bush, at a White House briefing held after his rushed return to the city, said he was encouraged by the medical reports and anticipates a "complete recovery" by the president.

"I can reassure this nation and a watching world that this government is functioning fully and effectively," Bush said.

Police subdued the suspected assailant on the scene. He was later identified as John Warnock Hinckley Jr., the 25-year-old son of a wealthy Evergreen, Colo., oil executive.

About midnight, Hinckley was formally charged in U.S. District Court here with the attempted assassination of a president and assault on a federal employe, the Secret Service agent. The suspect was being held without bond at an undisclosed location, and U.S. Magistrate Arthur L. Burnett, at the government's request, ordered that Hinckley undergo a psychiatric examination today and return for a preliminary hearing Thursday.

Sources said last night that the initial determination of the Justice Department was that the suspect had been acting alone.

Sources said six shots were fired from a .22-caliber blue-steel revolver that Hinckley had purchased from Rocky's Pawn Shop in Dallas last Oct. 13.

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© 1981 The Washington Post Company