In the second volume of The Age of Reagan, Steven Hayward writes that the shooting and near death of Ronald Reagan “provides another occasion for reflection on the radical contingency of human affairs and for counterfactual what-if speculation….The proximate counterfactual of March 30, 1981, is what if Secret Service Agent Jerry Parr had not ordered the driver to divert the presidential limousine to George Washington University Hospital instead of the White House?” The jury on that question is not out for long: “The verdict is unanimous. Reagan would have died of his wound.”
Del Quentin Wilber is the award-winning courts reporter for the Washington Post and the author of Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan, published this week. The book has been described in reviews as “riveting,” “mesmerizing,” “gripping” and a “meticulously researched” examination of the assassination attempt. In the review for the Washington Post, David Baldacci found that it reads “like a thriller,” and in a review for the Washington Times John Coyne described Wilber’s writing as “clear, crisp prose” that “fleshes out his gripping narrative with a number of well-told side stories.” Janet Maslin also praised the book in her New York Times review.
The book is a minute-by-minute account of the Reagan assassination attempt. I sought the author out for something that would allow us to bring the book to the attention of our readers. National Review’s John Miller kindly referred Mr. Wilber to us, and Mr. Wilber’s brother-in-law, Phillip Guthrie, the owner of Bethesda Chevy Chase Beer & Wine, testified that Power Line was the best and most influential conservative blog. (Thank you, Mr. Guthrie.) Mr. Wilber agreed to respond to the following set of questions:
Power Line: What motivated you to research and write the book?
Wilber: I am a courts reporter at the Washington Post and I was covering a hearing involving the would-be assassin, John Hinckley. He was asking for more freedom from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, where he had been held since being found not guilty by reason of insanity at his 1982 trial. Anyway, I wrote my story of the hearing and thought little more about it until a few days later when I was summoned to the FBI field office to talk about a potential story I was going to write about an undercover investigation. An agent, trying to convince me not to write the story, pulled something out of his desk and slapped it in my hand. It was Hinckley’s gun!
I was shocked. What was this infamous gun doing in a desk drawer? I went to the library and looked up books about the assassination attempt and didn’t find any that satisfied my curiosity. Amazingly, there wasn’t a book that told the story of that dramatic day. So, over time, I began making phone calls to former agents and doctors, and that is where the book began.
Power Line: How can there be anything new to say about the Reagan assassination attempt?
Wilber: This story has been incomplete for the last three decades, and only after interviewing more than 125 people and reviewing hundreds of pages of never-before-seen records did I come to understand how close Reagan came to dying on March 30, 1981. Hinckley’s bullet entered his left side and came to rest just an inch from his heart, and the president lost more than half of his blood. Reagan was also extraordinarily lucky. The Secret Service had recently stepped up its training regimen — a cutting-edge program that trained Agent Jerry Parr to push Reagan out of harm’s way and then to quickly assess his injury as the armored presidential limousine fled the shooting scene.
After a quick examination, Parr had no reason to believe that Reagan had been shot, but he instinctively knew that he’d been seriously injured. At the hospital, Reagan was saved by improved trauma care. The hospital, in fact, had only become a certified trauma center two years before the shooting. Without the superb training by the Secret Service and the improved trauma treatment, I don’t think Reagan would have survived that day.
In any case, after completing my research, I was stunned by how much new stuff there was to say about our 40th president’s near assassination. It goes so much deeper than that short but indelible video clip of the shooting outside the Washington Hilton that we have all seen countless times on television.
Power Line: Did your research change or reinforce your opinion of Ronald Reagan in any way? What did the shooting reveal about his character?
Wilber: I was a bit intimidated by the prospect of trying to sum up the life of Ronald Reagan, one of the most influential political figures of the twentieth century. But after reading many, many biographies and memoirs (including Reagan’s), I came to admire him as a leader and a person — especially for his heroic actions in the hours and days after he was shot. Through his jokes and quips and poise, Reagan revealed key aspects of his character to the American public, building a bond with the public that few politicians ever attain.
How can you not admire a man who jokes with his doctors and nurses and tells his wife, “Honey, I forgot to duck”? Also, as an author, you cannot have a better “character” at the center of your book than Reagan. He started with nothing, became a radio personality, a movie star, the president of the actors’ union, a two-term governor of California, and a three-time presidential candidate. I read many of his radio commentaries and hand-written speeches — he even took the time to rewrite the speech he gave at the Washington Hilton the day he was nearly killed — and I came to understand that he had a fully formed political consciousness that many in the press did not fully appreciate.
I also admired the fact that Reagan didn’t care that people underestimated him. It’s an amazing quality, one that few politicians possess. Reagan had this wonderful plaque on his desk: “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.” And he meant it.
Power Line: I was touched by your account of the exchange between President Reagan and the surgeons who helped save his life. What was behind that?
Wilber: Well, remember, Reagan has just been wheeled into the operating room and is about to be put to sleep. He rises up from the gurney, perches on one elbow, pulls off his oxygen mask and says, “I hope you are all Republicans.” And a very liberal doctor, Joseph Giordano, replies, “Today, Mr. President, we are all Republicans.” The room erupted in laughter and tension evaporated.
Interestingly, while researching Rawhide Down I learned that he had actually tested that line out, perhaps 10 or 15 minutes earlier, in the ER. Reagan had a tube in his chest that was draining his blood and was surrounded by anxious nurses and doctors. He looked up at one of his Secret Service agents and quipped, “I hope they are all Republicans.” The line fell flat. But Reagan must have realized that this amazing line was a keeper, so he recycled it in the OR. Imagine having the presence of mind to do that!
Now, if you look back at Reagan’s acting career you realize that his two most famous movies were Knute Rockne, All American and King’s Row. And in each of those two movies, Reagan’s best scene was a hospital-like scene. So he knew the value of a good bedside scene and could deliver a great line. And that’s what he did.
Power Line: Did the shooting lead to any changes in the Secret Service?
Wilber: The Secret Service changed a whole variety of procedures after the shooting — they installed magnetometers and also limited when the president walked in the open. There has not been a serious assassination attempt on a president in the last three decades. But there have been troubling incidents — such as the would-be socialites who sneaked into the White House and shook President Obama’s hand in 2009 — that remind us that there are gaps in all security precautions, even to this day.
Power Line: What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
Wilber: I hope readers come away from it with an understanding of how large a role this day played in Reagan’s ultimate success as president. It enabled him to build a powerful bond with the American people. As one of the most respected political writers in the country, the late David Broder, told me, the assassination attempt made Reagan a “mythic figure.” And that couldn’t be more true. He laughed at death and displayed great poise and calm during some of the most difficult moments of his life. It’s one of the reasons I chose to name the book Rawhide Down. “Rawhide” was Reagan’s Secret Service code name, and Reagan viewed himself as a kind of cowboy. And, on this day, Reagan really was Rawhide-esque.
Later, he would also tell friends and associates that he believed he had been “spared for a purpose,” and that gave him renewed energy to pursue his economic and foreign policies. He helped win the Cold War; and his work in his 8 years in office — remember the shooting happened on day 70 of his first term — redefined American politics.
The book has a companion Web site that is full of interesting material about President Reagan and the attempted assassination, including a ten-minute interview of Jerry Parr by Mr. Wilber. Please check it out.