This story originally ran on page A1 on 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 inches 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.
A spokesman for the Hinckley family told reporters the suspect had been under psychiatric care, but offered no further details. A family spokesman in Colorado, attorney James Robinson, said the young man’s family is “grieving and heartbroken by the tragedy. They love their son and will stick by him. Their hearts and prayers go out to the president and other victims of the shooting.”
The Nashville Tennessean reported that a man of that name had been arrested at that city’s airport last Oct. 9 with three guns in a suitcase. Two of the guns confiscated in Nashville were the same model .22-caliber revolvers used in the attempt on Reagan yesterday. President Carter had arrived in Nashville two hours before the arrest.
Witnesses said the alleged assailant was waiting in a crowd of reporters and spectators outside the ballroom entrance of the hotel, where Reagan had just addressed a trade-union audience.
Word of the shooting shocked Washington and brought Bush flying back from Texas, where he had been on a speaking trip. Bush returned to the White House early in the evening and joined other senior administration officials awaiting reports from the hospital.
Brady, who was five feet from the president and no further from the assailant, was the most gravely injured person. O’Leary said the assassin’s bullet had passed through Brady’s brain, leaving him in critical condition. Television networks reported incorrectly in late afternoon that Brady had died, but hospital officials said last evening the 40-year-old press secretary was in surgery and “fighting for his life.”
Later, Nofziger said Brady had emerged from surgery at 8:15 p.m. with his “vital signs . . . stable,” and the prognosis was “certainly better than it was earlier today. There may be some impairment [of brain function] but the surgeon does not know how much.”
Secret Service agent Timothy J. McCarthy was reported n good condition and Washington policeman Thomas K. Delahanty was reported in serious condition at George Washington and Washington Hospital center, respectively. McCarthy was shot in the stomach and Delahanty in the neck and shoulder.
The assassination attempt sent shock waves around the world. The consternation was heightened by confusion, as the first report that Reagan had escaped injury gave way later in the afternoon to speculation about his chances of recovery.
But after surgeons Ben Aaron and Joseph Giordano had completed the surgery, the hospital’s dean for clinical affairs, O’Leary, painted a more hopeful picture of the situation. He said the bullet had missed the heart and aorta and “there were no major bleeding points.” He said Reagan received five units of blood before entering surgery but none during the operation.
Pronouncing the 70-year-old president “an excellent physical specimen,” O’Leary said “we anticipate no problems” in his recovery.
Michael Borowski, a technician who assisted at the surgery, said he held the president’s hand as he was put under anesthesia. “I saw Reagan looking around at everybody busy doing their things,” he said. “He had sort of tears in his eyes. . . . I told him everything was going to be okay.
“He was very quiet. . . . He really had this look of appreciation on his face. That’s what really touched me. I just thought to comfort the guy a little -- rub his shoulder while he went under. . . . I sure appreciated being able to do it.”
There was no indication last night as to the possible motive for the assault.
The president’s day had begun with a breakfast briefing for sub-Cabinet and agency officials on his tax-and-budget program, followed by his regular daily national security briefing and a meeting with Hispanic leaders.
The talk he delivered to the building tradesmen began with a recital of Reagan’s own record as president of the Screen Actors’ Guild, an AFL-CIO affiliate, then swung into a plea for support of the economic package that is before the Congress. Observers noted that the president’s delivery was flatter than and that he was interrupted by applause only four times.
He was scheduled to return to the White House for a meeting with four Republican members of the House Ways and Means Committee, a courtesy call from banker David Rockefeller and the Japanese and French co-chairmen of the Trilateral Commission and a dinner with two of his Cabinet members, Secretary of the Treasury Donald Regan and Secretary of Health and Human Services Richard S. Schweiker, and their wives.
But on the sidewalk outside the Hilton, those plans were abruptly interrupted.
About 2:25 p.m., the president emerged bareheaded from the ballroom entrance and walked through a light rain toward his limousine, parked in the driveway. He was waving to a mixed crowd of reporters and spectators who were behind a security rope to his left. A couple of reporters tried to attract his attention for a question by shouting, “Mr. President, Mr. President.”
Reagan was still grinning and had almost reached the car when gunfire erupted from his left. There were two shots, a slight pause, and then four more -- all of them apparently coming from someone in the crowd behind the rope, between 10 and 12 feet away.
Michael Putzel of the Associated Press, one of the reporters closest to the president, said that when “the popping [of the gun] started, Reagan just stood there motionless. . . . the smile just sort of washed off his face.” Others on the scene said they thought they saw his knees buckle.
In the next instant, Secret Service agent Jerry Parr, standing directly behind Reagan, pushed him into the open door of the limousine. At least two bullets hit the car, one of them making a hole in a window, but it was not immediately clear which shot in the sequence had struck the president.
As his car sped away from the hotel toward George Washington University Hospital, a scene of carnage and shock was left behind on the T Street sidewalk of the Washington Hilton Hotel.
Brady lay in a pool of his own blood as security officers and spectators huddled over him. Behind him, further up the hill toward Connecticut Avenue, were the prostrate forms of McCarthy and Delahanty.
The suspected assailant who had apparently emptied his gun was immediately surrounded by police and Secret Service agents and shoved up against the wall of the hotel.
ABC Television cameraman Henry M. Brown--who said he had complained to the Secret Service that nonjournalists had “penetrated” the press area -- described the assailant as a man in a brown sports jacket, standing up against the wall of the hotel.
“He just opened up and kept squeezing the trigger,” Brown said.
Mike Garrahan, a hotel doorman who was watching from across the street, said he saw the suspected assailant in the crowd. At first, the man appeared to be holding a camera, Garrahan said, “but then I saw him drop the camera and he had something black and he started firing.”
Another witness in the office building across from the hotel, John Dodson, said the assailant “was walking around . . . real fidgety” before Reagan appeared.
When police subdued the suspect, they surrounded him and moved him to a police car. The rear door of that car was stuck, so they hustled him into a second vehicle for the ride to the D.C. police headquarters at 300 Indiana Ave. NW. He was taken to the third-floor headquarters of the homicide squad for questioning, and the corridor was immediately sealed to the press.
Meanwhile, Reagan was taken to George Washington University Hospital, where he walked into the emergency entrance. His longtime political aide, Lyn Nofziger, said Reagan apparently did not realize at first that he had been wounded and there was a bullet in his chest.
Third-year medical student Franklin Richards, who was in the emergency room when Reagan arrived, said the president began to stagger as he entered the room and was helped onto a stretcher. Richards -- contradicting some eyewitness reports from the hospital entrance -- said Reagan was not bleeding externally. But doctors found internal bleeding when they inserted a tube in his chest. Reagan was then stripped of his clothes and a full examination was made.
Nancy Reagan, who had not accompanied the president to the hotel speech, was driven from the White House to the hospital, where Reagan, according to Nofziger, told her, “Honey, I forgot to duck.”
After examining doctors determined that the bullet had collapsed Reagan’s left lung, he was prepared for surgery. According to Nofziger, Reagan remained conscious and in good spirits throughout the 90 minutes. He told his close friend, Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada: “Don’t worry about me, I’ll make it.” The president quipped to White House aides Edwin Meese III, James A. Baker III and Michael K. Deaver, who were also hovering on the scene: “Who’s minding the store?”
When Reagan was brought into the operating room about 4 p.m., Nofzinger said, the president looked at the surgeons and said, “Please tell me you’re Republicans.”
Back at the White House, the shock of the afternoon’s events was compounded by great confusion as to what exactly had happened. The first report from deputy press secretary Karna Small was the Reagan had not been hit but might have been injured slightly as he was pushed into his limousine. It was not until 3:18 p.m. that Frank Ursomarso, director of communications, stood on a secretary’s chair in the briefing room and told a crowd of reporters, “I’m confirming that the president was shot.”
Later in the afternoon, all three television networks reported Brady’s death -- only to have that report contradicted by Brady’s deputy, Larry Speakes.
With Bush en route from Fort Worth to Austin for a scheduled address to the Texas legislature, four senior Cabinet members gathered at the White House to take temporary command of the operations of the government. White House staff director David Gergen told a briefing at 3:37 p.m. that Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., Treasury Secretary Regan, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and Attorney General William French Smith were on hand, but that no formal transfer of authority was contemplated.
Forty minutes later, with President Reagan in surgery, Haig himself came to the White House briefing room to say that foreign governments had been notified of the attack on the president but that no measures had been taken for a military alert.
“As of now,” he said, “I am in control here at the White house, pending the return of the vice president and in close touch with him.” The comment was an ironic footnote to last week’s publicized dispute when Haig protested Reagan’s decision to name Bush as crisis manager in a foreign or domestic emergency.
But there was some confusion over Haig’s exact role. He said during that afternoon appearance that “constitutionally, you have the president, the vice president and the secretary of state in that order. . . . “ But in fact the order of succession to the presidency is the speaker of the House and the president pro-tempore of the Senate after the vice president and before the secretary of state.
Later, White House deputy press secretary Speakes said Haig had been talking of the automatic chain of command authority, which runs from the president to the vice president to the secretary of defense. But Speakes and other White House officials emphasized that despite Haig’s apparent misstatements, they were grateful for his quick arrival at the White House and his leadership in coordinating the situation room activities in what David Gergen called “a very smooth operation.”
As Reagan was removed from the operating room, District police filed preliminary charges against Hinckley and he was immediately spirited out of police headquarters and taken first to U.S. District Court and then to the FBI’s Buzzard Point headquarters for questioning.
In Evergreen, a wealthy suburb of Denver, there was shock at young Hinckley being named as a suspect in the shooting. When a Washington Post reporter called the Hinckley home an hour after the shooting and said a John W. Hinckley Jr. was being identified in the case, the suspect’s mother said, “This is a joke.”
The mother said she had been watching television coverage of the shooting. Then she asked again, “This is a joke, isn’t it?”
When she was asked if it were possible her son was in Washington, she said, “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Then her voice cracked and she hung up.
The son of a wealthy oil exploration company chairman, Hinckley graduated from high school in Texas and attended Texas Tech University in Lubbock at various times from 1973 onward but never received a degree, according to university officials.
Reagan is the ninth American president to be the target of an assassination attempt. It was the first such assault since President Gerald Ford was fired on outside a San Francisco hotel in September 1975. Ironically, Ford had just addressed a convention of the same group Reagan spoke to yesterday -- the AFL-CIO building tradesmen.
As always, shock waves rolled around the world. The stock exchanges closed within minutes, the Senate suspended business and plans for the televised Academy Awards presentation last night were cancelled.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who lost two brothers to assassins’ bullets, was among those watching the story’s developments on television in the Senate cloakroom. Before the Senate adjourned, he made a brief floor statement, urging renewed efforts to “rid our society of hatred.”
Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) called the Senate back into session and told his colleagues that while Reagan was still in surgery, Laxalt had phoned from the hospital to say “his recovery is considered certain.”
Baker then asked Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.), an ordained Episcopal minister, to offer a prayer. Danforth intoned: “Look upon him with eyes of They mercy. Restore him to health, grant that he may grow in grace and strength.”