President Reagan survives an assassination attempt
By Tom Range, Sr.
On March 30, 1981, when the media reported the assassination attempt on the life of President Ronald Reagan, there was a collective flashback to the events in Dallas in 1963, which took the life of President John F. Kennedy. The current president, in office for only 69 days, was leaving the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. when he and three others were shot and wounded by John Hinckley, Jr. The would-be assassin was waiting outside in a small crowd including the news media. Six shots from a revolver were fired. Four hit the president, his press secretary James Brady, Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy and D.C. police officer Thomas Delehanty. Hinckley was quickly subdued by the Secret Service. The entire incident was captured on video by television reporters.
The presidential limousine sped to George Washington University Hospital, where emergency surgery was performed on President Reagan. The Presidential Line of Succession Act of 1947 mandates that the vice-president assume the duties of the office of president, then in turn the speaker of the house, the president pro-tempore of the Senate and then the secretary of state.
When President Reagan was shot, Vice-President George H. W. Bush was traveling in Texas. Secretary of State Alexander Haig, responding to a reporter’s question regarding who was running the government, answered that he was “in charge” at the White House. Many quickly denounced this claim because Haig was still two positions away from legally assuming control. Some have suggested that much of the controversy was the result of Haig being in conflict with the White House chief of staff. It is possible that Haig only intended to express that he was personally overseeing executive matters at the White House pending the vice president’s return. On the other hand, audiotapes made that day in the White House by National Security Advisor Richard Allen, and released in 2001, suggest that Haig was indeed under the erroneous impression that the Constitution placed him after the vice-president in the Line of Succession.
Considering that he was 70 years old at the time, President Reagan recovered quickly from his surgery and was able to continue his presidential duties. But shortly before his surgery to remove the bullet, Reagan remarked to his surgeons, “I hope you’re all Republicans.” To his wife Nancy he jokingly commented, “Honey, I forgot to duck.” Apparently he was quoting a famous remark made by boxer Jack Dempsey in 1926, explaining the loss of his heavyweight championship. After Dempsey lost to Gene Tunney, his wife Estella Taylor asked him, “What happened?” His reply was repeated by Reagan 55 years later.
As with the assassinations, and attempts on the lives of other presidents, conspiracy theories initially abounded. With Kennedy, did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone? Was Oswald shot by Jack Ruby to shut him up about connections with Castro’s Cuba, or the U.S.S.R. or organized crime? Was there really another shooter on the grassy knoll? Hinckley’s motive was far from conspiratorial. In modern parlance, he would be called a nut-case, a wacko who shot the president to impress the movie actress Jodie Foster.
He was obsessed with the actress after seeing her in the film “Taxi Driver”, apparently identifying strongly with Travis Bickle, the lead character. Near the end of the film, Bickle becomes fixated on the protection of a 12-year-old prostitute, the character played by Foster. The morning prior to the assassination attempt, Hinckley wrote a letter to Jodie Foster, saying that he hoped to impress her with the magnitude of his action.
At his trial on June 21, 1981, Hinckley was found not guilty of the charges leading to the wounding of the four victims, by reason of insanity. He was confined to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. The two law enforcement officers fully recovered from their wounds. The presidential press secretary James Brady, who had sustained a very serious head wound, became permanently disabled. He and his wife Sarah became leading advocates of gun control and other actions to reduce the amount of gun violence in the United States.
Most notable in Reagan’s two terms as president was the rapport established between him and the premier of the U.S.S.R., Mikhail Gorbachev. The Soviet Union in the 1980s was in the process of disintegrating. The Soviets were waging an unsuccessful war in Afghanistan and the Soviet economy was crumbling. Negotiations between the two leaders led to the softening of relations between their countries and the ultimate dissolution of the U.S.S.R.
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