In the prologue to “Rawhide Down,” Washington Post reporter Del Quentin Wilber hypothesizes that the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, and the president’s grace and courage in dealing with it, were the catalysts for his eight mostly successful years in office. The public’s impression of Reagan certainly changed after the events of March 30, 1981. Indeed, John Hinckley may have created the “Teflon president” when he opened fire outside the Washington Hilton. Afterward, not even the Iran-Contra debacle could bring Reagan down. He had performed heroically after being shot, and America loves its heroes.
Wilber does an excellent job of putting the principal characters through their paces. Although the book ostensibly covers only one day, it actually deals with a larger historical footprint. But the chapters that detail the assassination attempt and its immediate aftermath read like a thriller.
In clear prose, we learn that Reagan was far closer to death than was previously thought. One paramedic, on seeing the president enter the hospital, thought, “My God, he’s Code City,” meaning he was about to die. The doctors at first could not stop the internal bleeding, and Reagan ended up losing more than half his blood. Surgeons made repeated attempts to find the bullet. They had almost given up when it was discovered, only an inch from his heart. The slug was a devastator round, designed to explode on impact. Fortunately, the shot that hit Reagan had first deflected off the armored door of the presidential limo. Had the bullet exploded in his body, Reagan would almost certainly have been killed.
We also learn that a series of security lapses gave Hinckley the opportunity to shoot. Possibly the most egregious was allowing spectators to await Reagan’s exit from the Hilton without screening them for weapons. An armed Hinckley stood less than 20 feet from where his target would leave the hotel.
Conversely, a series of decisions, most notably by Secret Service agent Jerry Parr, saved Reagan’s life. Because he initially didn’t see any blood and Reagan didn’t think he’d been shot, Parr’s first thought was to return to the safety of the White House. When the president complained of pain and shortness of breath, Parr thought he had either been injured when he was pushed into the limo or else might be having a heart attack. Then he saw that blood was coming from Reagan’s mouth and that it appeared frothy, which meant it was coming from his lungs. Parr redirected the limo to George Washington University Hospital. If Reagan had not been taken to a hospital, he almost certainly would have bled to death, and the nation would have mourned its fifth slain president.
Yet, while reading the book, I also kept thinking of the Keystone Kops. As Wilber takes pains to point out, many things did not go well that day.
Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger apparently did not understand the military’s DEFCON numbering system. He proposed raising the military readiness level to DEFCON Level 2, believing that it indicated relatively peaceful conditions, when in fact it was only one level below expecting an imminent attack. As Wilber points out, the United States had not been close to DEFCON 1 since the Cuban missile crisis.
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.
The Near Assassination
of Ronald Reagan
By Del Quentin Wilber
Henry Holt. 305 pp. $27