Sunday, February 12, 2012
On March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan was just seventy days into his first term of office when John Hinckley Jr. opened fire outside the Washington Hilton Hotel, wounding the president, press secretary James Brady, a Secret Service agent, and a D.C. police officer. For years, few people knew the truth about how close the president came to dying, and no one has ever written a detailed narrative of that harrowing day. Now, drawing on exclusive new interviews and never-before-seen documents, photos, and videos, Del Quentin Wilber tells the electrifying story of a moment when the nation faced a terrifying crisis that it had experienced less than twenty years before, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
With cinematic clarity, we see Secret Service agent Jerry Parr, whose fast reflexes saved the president's life; the brilliant surgeons who operated on Reagan as he was losing half his blood; and the small group of White House officials frantically trying to determine whether the country was under attack. Most especially, we encounter the man code-named "Rawhide," a leader of uncommon grace who inspired affection and awe in everyone who worked with him.
Ronald Reagan was the only serving U.S. president to survive being shot in an assassination attempt.* Rawhide Down is the first true record of the day and events that literally shaped Reagan's presidency and sealed his image in the modern American political firmament.
I clearly remember the day Reagan was shot. I was in college in Washington, DC at the time, coming back to my dorm from a class and all my friends were gathered around the little black and white portable TV in one of our rooms watching the coverage. We all felt a kinship to the new president, having just experienced his riveting inauguration, the release of the Iran hostages, a new vitality in Washington. There was a new excitement and polish to his presidency that spread across town - it was electric. He had a larger than life presence, this Hollywood cowboy. I was lucky enough to attend one of the inaugural balls and got a glimpse of him in his limousine with Nancy (alas, they were just leaving as we were arriving). There was a light on in the back of the limousine where they were seated so the public could see them as they drove past. I was a young twenty year old at the time, and as I saw them departing the Pension Building where the Presidential Ball was being held, all I could think of to say was a breathless, "Wow." Not only did Ronald Reagan have that movie star glamour about him, but now he had the Presidential glamour. It was... awesome. (I still have a souvenir napkin from the ball we attended that night.)
Watching the scene unfold on TV, we were devastated. No matter what your politics, it was a scary moment in history and unthinkable. I felt like crying, I remember thinking how old Reagan was, and I was so worried for him. He had just turned 70, the oldest president to be elected, yet he was amazingly spry for his age. I liked him, even though I didn't vote for him. I cared about him. Life was taking an alarming turn around this time. First John Lennon's death the previous fall, now Reagan shot and a few months to come, the Pope would be shot as well. There was so much to take in. Little did we know while watching the events on TV what was really going on behind the scenes with the attempt on Reagan. This book answers every question about that day.
Rawhide Down is an excellent account of all that happened that day outside the Washington Hilton as Reagan was leaving from a labor union luncheon. The events are fascinating to read about. We get a glimpse into the daily life of the Secret Service agents on duty as well as the surprising background on the Secret Service itself. It was quite an eye opener and I was surprised to learn of how little training was actually involved for many of the first agents, leaving it to mostly on the job training. By the early '80's their training had been formalized, but at the time of Kennedy's assassination there had been hardly anything.
We also get the lead in to Hinckley and his motivations. His obsession with Jodi Foster was the determining factor, but his plan to assassinate Reagan was, for the most part, a last minute decision. Amazing.
Of course we get the full White House point of view of all that is involved with security and Reagan himself. His schedule and routine, his background and general mien. He's a genuinely likable man. This book brings that day all back. The events leading up to the attack and it's aftermath are meticulously gone over. I couldn't put the book down. Once the shooting takes place, it's a quick read, fast paced and riveting. His staff scrambling waiting for Vice President Bush to arrive in Washington, Alexander Haig taking command and his blunder on the air of mistaking the chain of command - all fascinating to read about!
But, I found the most compelling part of the book was what no one knew about at the time. Reagan came dangerously close to dying. Due to the quick thinking of one of his Secret Service men who quickly pushed him into the limousine to speed off away from the Hilton, Reagan's life was saved. He was unaware that he'd actually been hit by a bullet which hit the limousine and ricocheted off it to go into Reagan's back, and into his lung, narrowly missing his heart. While Hinckley was being captured and press secretary James Brady was fighting for his life in a pool of blood at the Hilton, Jerry Parr, Reagan's Secret Service man in the limousine with him, was trying to determine if Reagan was all right or not. The president was complaining he could not breathe, but did not think he'd been shot. At first the limo was heading back to the White House, but Parr made the split second and live saving decision to change course and take Reagan to the George Washington University hospital.
From there, we switch to GWU's Emergency Room and what happened when they got the call from the little white phone at the desk. The phone that rarely, if ever, rings. It's a direct line from the White House to notify them that the president has been hurt and is on his way. Just the thought of how they all must have been freaking out! But they didn't. They were professionals and handled the crisis amazingly well, a lot better than Reagan's advisers at the White House who were all running around like chickens with their heads cut off!
I won't go into every little detail, you'll have to read this book for yourself, but trust me, it's great and if you are at all interested in presidential assassinations or Ronald Reagan, this is a must read. I highly recommend it. Wilber is a reporter for The Washington Post, and he did a pain staking job at researching and interviewing for this book. You feel like "you are there." Don't miss it.
*There have been many assassination attempts on U.S. presidents, four of which were successful: Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy. President Theodore Roosevelt was injured in an assassination attempt after leaving office.