This Day in Gipper History

Today is being well remembered as the 30th anniversary of the assassination attempt on President Reagan outside the Washington Hilton. In my second Age of Reagan volume I offer the following observations:

The shooting and near death of President Reagan on that March afternoon provides another occasion for reflection on the radical contingency of human affairs and for counterfactual “what-if” speculation. What if Winston Churchill had been killed when he was struck by a taxi on Fifth Avenue in New York in 1932? What if Oswald had missed his target in Dallas? Most such speculations are ultimately fatuous, but in the case of Ronald Reagan one can speculate with confidence that the “Reagan revolution” as it came to be known would not have been consummated under the presidency of George H.W. Bush. . .
One of the quips Reagan scribbled on a note pad after waking up after surgery was Winston Churchill’s famous line from his autobiography My Early Life that “there is no more exhilarating feeling than being shot at without result.” But the bullets missed Churchill. While Reagan survived his bullet, it was not without “result.” In addition to the severe pain of his wounds (whose treatment required strong medication including morphine), Reagan contracted a staph infection in the hospital that was as life threatening as the bullet wound. He had to be placed back on oxygen and given powerful antibiotics. Three days after the shooting House Speaker Tip O’Neill was the first outsider to visit Reagan in the hospital. “He was in terrific pain, much more serious than anybody thought,” O’Neill said. In an extraordinary moment, O’Neill, in tears, knelt next to Reagan’s bedside, held the president’s hand, and recited the 23rd Psalm with Reagan in prayer.
Although Reagan returned to the White House after 13 days in the hospital, his working hours were severely curtailed for weeks. Al Haig, one of Reagan’s first visitors back at the White House, said “I was shocked when I saw him. He was a shell of his old self.” It would be two months before he worked a full day. His personal physician said that he didn’t think Reagan fully recovered until October, seven months later. Reagan never mentioned his discomfort. His only complaint was that he wouldn’t be able to ride a horse for a while.
The White House staff never made any conscious decision to downplay or mislead the public about Reagan’s condition, as was the case after Woodrow Wilson’s stroke in 1919. It was understood that the uncertainty over a diminished president would be intolerable. Reagan’s own jauntiness–his “courage under pressure,” as the pundits were quick to pronounce–bestowed on him a heroic quality that would have been foolish to traduce by officially deeming him disabled from his job. Senator Pat Moynihan, who was present in the White House on November 22, 1963, wrote a few days after the shooting: “In the history of the office has any man ever so triumphed over danger and pain and near death? We are surely proud of him.” Even The Nation magazine, not ordinarily friendly to Reagan, wrote: “[Reagan’s] resilience provided a brief celebration of the tenacity of life and a reassuring glimpse at an appealing aspect of Ronald Reagan’s character. . . One half-expected to read upon awakening from the anesthesia he had quipped, ‘Where’s the rest of me?'” Certainly the nation was better served by the hope of his recovery rather than the worry of the continuity of his administration.
Somewhere in the back of everyone’s mind was the memory of the national tragedy of 1963, and the day after Reagan’s shooting the nation breathed a sigh of relief that it had averted a JFK-style nightmare. In fact Reagan’s shooting would turn out in the fullness of time to be the exact inverse of the JFK tragedy. JFK looms large in our mind because he was, as our second-youngest president, the youthful tragic hero, cut down before he could achieve his potential. Reagan, our oldest president, having survived the assassin’s bullet, would go on to achieve his full potential, and become the conquering hero of the Cold War. (Reagan’s later Alzheimer’s Disease, taking him away from the public years before his physical death, elevated him also to the status of tragic hero, which is one reason why his passing in 2004 recalled the memory of JFK for so many Americans.) That such a prospect was possible was understood at the time. The Washington Post‘s Haynes Johnson wrote that “Reagan’s survival alone was proof enough that the country’s luck had turned for the better.”

There’s much more about the whole thing and its aftermath in Chapter 4, but that’s enough for this morning.


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