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'Rawhide Down,' a gripping account of the day Reagan was shot

President Reagan waves, then looks up before being shoved into Presidential limousine by Secret Service agents after being shot outside a Washington hotel Monday, March 30, 1981.
President Reagan waves, then looks up before being shoved into Presidential limousine by Secret Service agents after being shot outside a Washington hotel Monday, March 30, 1981.
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Secretary of State Alexander Haig apparently did not grasp the succession to the presidency as outlined in the Constitution, leading to his infamous pronouncement, "As of now, I am in control here."

While Chief of Staff James Baker, White House counselor Edwin Meese and others were in a makeshift conference room at the hospital discussing strategy and making decisions, Haig, Weinberger and others were at the White House independently fashioning their own tactics.

And as Wilber makes abundantly clear, not only was the White House not speaking with one voice, the messages conveyed were often garbled and, in some cases, totally inaccurate. White House staffers Larry Speakes and David Gergen both faced anxious reporters and failed spectacularly. Normally a consummate professional, Gergen couldn't deliver cogent answers. Later, as concerned journalists fired questions at Speakes, he gave one non-answer after another. Indeed, the journalists seemed to know more about what had happened to Reagan than either of the staffers did.

In Texas, meanwhile, Vice President George H.W. Bush could not even receive a clear, secure phone call from the White House on Air Force II telling him about the attack. He was finally alerted to the shooting via a secure teletype transmission.

It was only later, when veteran Reagan aide Lyn Nofziger held a news conference, that the tide turned in the White House's favor. Nofziger was assured and authoritative in detailing Reagan's condition and that of his wounded press secretary, James Brady. He also divulged some of the jokes that Reagan cracked while at the hospital, which served to calm the country.

The medical personnel who treated Reagan at George Washington are portrayed as highly competent and caring, but also prey to very human fears. One surgeon probing for the slug in Reagan's lung imagined a headline reading, "Doc Leaves Bullet in President!" A nurse couldn't believe that she had to scold the most powerful man in the world for fiddling with his breathing tube. When a hospital worker took personal information about the patient in the ER from Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver, the worker didn't look up when he heard the name Reagan and then the name "Ron." However, he visibly reacted when the patient's home address was given as 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

As for the would-be assassin, we learn that Hinckley had previously stalked President Jimmy Carter with the intent of killing him but couldn't muster the courage. He had been stopped at an airport screening in 1980, and three revolvers were found, along with a box of ammunition and handcuffs. Had the security officers dug deeper into Hinckley's suitcase, they would have also found a journal detailing his obsession with actress Jodie Foster and his plan to kill Carter in Nashville. Instead, the guns were confiscated, and Hinckley was fined a minimal dollar amount and released. It's all rather bizarre, but reading that Hinckley helpfully spelled the word "assassinate" for the D.C. police officer booking him was perhaps the most bizarre of all.

This story, though, is really about one man: Ronald Reagan. As the late Washington Post journalist David Broder noted, Reagan "was politically untouchable from that point on. He became a mythic figure."

Just as the country once had Camelot, it now had a president who had survived an assassination attempt with grace, quotable quips and courage. Who can forget the now-legendary utterances? To a terribly worried Nancy Reagan: "Honey, I forgot to duck." Or when looking up at the medical personnel hovering over him in the operating room: "I hope you are all Republicans."

Reagan was John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart rolled into one. His survival that day connected him with the American people better than any of his speeches or policy decisions did. Thus, as Wilber sums up convincingly, a would-be budget-balancer who left behind an enormous deficit, a tax opponent who raised taxes many times, and a Teflon president whose top aides were embroiled in myriad corruption charges could rise above it all and walk into the sunset, his legacy ensured.

David Baldacci is the best-selling author of 20 novels.

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