Forty Years On

As is being widely remarked, today is the 40th anniversary of the assassination attempt on President Reagan outside the Washington Hilton. I was a fresh-out-of-college intern working for Stan Evans up at the Capitol Hill office of his National Journalism Center, where we typically had the public radio classical music station on at low volume in the background. So when the station broke into the middle of the music to make the announcement everything came to a stop, as you might imagine.

For those of you who are Fox Nation subscribers, I was interviewed for a three-part documentary on the event narrated by Bret Baier, “The Attempted Assassination of Ronald Reagan,” that is currently streaming. I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet, and if you’re not a Fox Nation subscriber, here’s my written account of the episode, from The Age of Reagan:

On Monday, March 30, 1981, President Reagan’s schedule for the day appeared on page A-4 of the Washington Post.  It was the last time the Post published any president’s daily schedule. 

The fourth item for the day was Reagan’s 2 p.m. address to the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Conference at the Washington Hilton on Connecticut Avenue.  Despite being able to point with pride to the fact that  “I’m the first President of the United States to hold a lifetime membership in an AFL-CIO union,” it was a counter-intuitive audience for a Republican president. But both halves of Reagan’s economic plan—budget cuts and tax cuts—were in trouble, despite strong public support and the initial flourishes of January and February.  The talk in the media and on Capitol Hill was that Reagan’s “honeymoon” was about over.  A Gallup Poll in mid-March found Reagan’s approval rating was the lowest in the second month of any elected president in polling history (though it was still a robust 59 percent).  Democrats were starting to emerge from their post-election shell shock.  House majority leader Jim Wright had written in his diary the day before: “The Democratic spirit, so long subdued by the obvious Reagan popularity, is showing signs of life.” . . .

His speech was received politely but coolly, according to most accounts, though this was instantly forgotten because of the immediate sequel.  The scene outside the hotel is now etched in the American memory alongside other icons of disaster such as Dallas on November 22, 1963, or lower Manhattan in September 11, 2001.  The photo of Reagan grimacing as the would-be assassin’s bullet struck his chest may be the only picture ever taken of the photogenic Reagan where he looks ugly. 

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. 

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 verdict is unanimous: Reagan would have died of his wound.  Reagan didn’t know he had been shot; he first thought Parr had broken a rib and punctured a lung when Parr shoved Reagan into the limousine.  When the limousine arrived at the hospital, Reagan got out of the car under his own power, even though he was having difficulty breathing and had started coughing up blood en route.  He hitched up his pants as he always did and walked under his own power to the hospital door, which reassured onlookers that his injuries were minor.  But he collapsed just inside the hospital door.  The emergency paramedics who first saw Reagan thought he was having a heart attack. 

Paramedics had trouble getting a pulse and a blood pressure reading.  He was close to going into shock.  The first doctor to examine Reagan saw a small hole below Reagan’s armpit, and realized that he had been shot.  But there was no exit wound; the bullet was still inside.  Gradually Reagan realized he had been shot.  Nancy Reagan arrived at the hospital, frantic.  A small person to begin with, she lost 10 pounds over the next month.  It was at this moment Reagan made the first gesture demonstrating his authentic ruggedness and good nature.  Lifting his oxygen mask, he tried to reassure Nancy by quipping, “Honey, I forgot to duck”—the line Jack Dempsey had used after he lost a title fight to Gene Tunney.  Reagan also quipped to a nurse holding his hand, “Does Nancy know about us?”  Reagan’s steadiness might have been called the actor’s greatest performance, but as there was no script and no director, it gave evidence that he was not just someone who read other people’s lines.

The doctors quickly decided that Reagan’s high rate of blood loss—Reagan ended up losing almost 50 percent of his total blood volume before the ordeal was over—meant that they would have to perform surgery to find the bullet and close the wound.  When he was wheeled into the emergency room, Reagan did it again, asking the medical team, “Please tell me you’re all Republicans.”  The lead physician, Dr. Joseph Giordano, was a liberal Democrat, but was equal to the moment, telling Reagan, “Mr. President, we’re all Republicans today.”

The surgery took over two hours.  The surgeons had to remove several blood clots from Reagan’s chest, and had trouble finding the bullet, which had come to rest less than an inch from Reagan’s heart.  Placed on a respirator to help reflate his collapsed left lung, Reagan awoke at 7:30 p.m.  Unable to speak, he continued making jokes in writing.  “I’d like to do this scene again—starting at the hotel.” The next morning, when the troika turned up to have Reagan sign legislation curtailing milk price supports, he was reassured that the government was running smoothly.  Reagan immediately scribbled out a response: “What makes you think I’d be happy to hear that?”

Reagan wasn’t all self-deprecation and quips.  While he was being prepped for surgery, he pulled his oxygen mask away again to ask, “Who’s minding the store?”  In the bedlam of the moment, it is not recorded what—if any—answer he received.  Whatever answer he might have gotten would have been wrong, because the White House was initially a scene of confusion.  What followed at the White House had the proverbial Roshomon-like quality of a traffic accident at a four-way intersection: recollections from the principals about who said what are fragmented and contradictory.

Although in case of attack there are carefully worked out contingency plans for a continuity of military command authority (there was no reason, for example, to be particularly concerned with the location of the “football”—the briefcase containing the president’s nuclear launch codes and communications gear), Reagan’s circumstances were more ambiguous.  Vice President Bush was on an Air Force plane over Texas, and although he turned the plane around to return to Washington, his plane amazingly lacked secure communications ability.  Bush, the official head of crisis management, was effectively out of action for the next four hours until he reached Washington.  His absence left a command vacuum.

While the troika of Baker, Meese, and Deaver had gone to the hospital to be near Reagan, back at the White House several members of Reagan’s cabinet and senior staff assembled in the situation room in the basement, including Defense Secretary Weinberger, Treasury Secretary Don Regan, Communication Director David Gergen, White House Counsel Fred Fielding, CIA Director Bill Casey, Attorney General William French Smith, Secretary of State Al Haig, and several other White House staff.  Communication with the hospital proved to be surprisingly difficult; phone connections kept getting cut off. 

With Reagan’s condition unclear, the troika decided that the 25th amendment, which stipulates that in cases of incapacity the vice president shall assume the office of the president, should not be invoked.  This decision was constitutionally dubious, as the Cabinet is supposed to make this decision, not White House staff.  Back in the situation room there was confusion about who was in charge of the government.  National Security Adviser Richard Allen ran a tape recorder, providing the only authoritative record of what occurred at the White House.  Allen’s tape captured the following exchanges:

David Gergen: “Al, a quick question.  We need some sense, more better sense of where the President is.  Is he under sedation now?”

Haig: “He’s not on the operating table.”

Gergen: “He is on the operating table!”

Haig: “So the . . . the helm is right here.  And that means right in this chair [where Haig was sitting] for now, constitutionally, until the Vice President gets here.”

Here one can see the origin of the great tempest of the afternoon.  In fact, in the national command authority chain, Haig was third in line, behind the Secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  But that chain of command is operative chiefly in wartime.  Command authority in peacetime is more ambiguous.  By seniority of Cabinet rank, the Secretary of State is second in line after the Vice President.  By order of succession in case of a president’s death or disability, however, the Secretary of State is fourth in line, behind the Vice President, Speaker of the House, and President Pro Tem of the Senate. 

This distinction would have been largely moot except that at roughly the same time, deputy press secretary Larry Speakes was in the press briefing room, on national television before a tumultuous press corps. What was Reagan’s condition?  Speakes had no new information.  Was Reagan in surgery?  Speakes could not say.  The clincher was: “Who’s running the government right now?” Speakes did not know that the bulk of the cabinet was assembled in the situation room, and fumbled badly: “I cannot answer that question at this time.”  The press corps erupted with incredulity.  Ironically Speakes had been previously scheduled to participate in a briefing on crisis management procedures at 4 p.m. that afternoon.

The cabinet members in the situation room, where a TV was on, were appalled by Speakes’s answers. Haig took it upon himself to rush up to the press briefing room to repair the damage.  Haig, a recent triple-bypass patient and still a two-pack-a-day cigarette smoker, bounded up two flights of stairs to the press room and arrived at the podium sweaty and short of breath.  A reporter called out a question: “Who is making the decisions for the government right now? Who is making the decisions?”

Haig answered: “Constitutionally, gentlemen, you have the president, the vice president, and the secretary of state, in that order, and should the president decide he wants to transfer the helm to the vice president, he will do so.  As of now, I am in control here, in the White House, pending the return of the vice president and in close touch with him. If something came up, I would check with him, of course.”  Haig’s voice cracked in the middle of his remarks.  It was hardly a reassuring performance.  To the contrary, reporter Judy Woodruff said “I had never seen Haig look so shaken or sound so unsteady.  It made me wonder just how serious the president’s condition was.”  Worse interpretations also came to mind.  Martin Anderson, also present in the situation room, wrote that Haig’s demeanor and words “sounded ominously like a veiled grasp for power.”  It was a risible idea, yet all Haig needed to complete the image of a Latin America putsch was his old military uniform.  Many observers were able to supply the mental image themselves.  The media—and later the legions of comedians—came down hard on Haig.[1]  Pat Buchanan summarized the media spin as having portrayed Haig as “something of a cross between General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove and Burt Lancaster in Seven Days in May.”  “It will be in the third paragraph of his obituary,” Lyn Nofziger remarked.  Former Secretary of State Dean Rusk defended Haig, saying that his only problem was that he had not yet learned the special ability of secretaries of state “how to say nothing at great length.”  This was manifestly untrue, as Haig already had a well-earned reputation for being a verbose obscurantist when it served his purposes.

The Cabinet members looking on from the situation room, and the troika watching at the hospital, were appalled at Haig’s performance, and it led to sharp words when Haig returned to the situation room.  Weinberger had ordered the armed forces to elevate their alert status.  Soviet forces were active near the Polish border and two Soviet missile submarines were “out of the box,” i.e., closer to U.S. territory than usual.  The possibility of a conspiracy behind Reagan’s shooting couldn’t be immediately ruled out.  There was confusion in the room, though, about whether that meant the “DefCon” (Defense Condition”) status had been formally changed, which could alarm the Soviet Union.  It had not, but Haig had said in the press room that there had been no change in the nation’s alert status, and now felt chagrined that he didn’t know what Weinberger had done.  In the discussion that followed Haig barked at Weinberger that “I am not a liar” (no one had said he was), and “You’d better read the Constitution.” 

It is easy to understand that during the shock of the moment perspective is easily lost.  The premise of the media fury behind “who’s in charge” is that the godlike presence of the president is necessary at all times, that government decision-making grinds to a halt whenever the president makes a trip to the bathroom.  This is nonsense, arising in part from the self-importance of the news media itself.  After all, if the president is not as cosmically necessary as is presumed, what does that imply about the significance of the press corps?  The only essential matter at that moment was the continuity of national command authority, which, because of the multiple contingencies of a prospective nuclear war, was well worked out and functioning smoothly on March 30.  The details of these contingencies are classified, and would not be shared with the media in any event.  The only person in the situation room confused about this was Al Haig, who otherwise had a sound argument that as the senior Cabinet officer the government should defer to him in non-security related matters, if there were any.  None of this would have occurred had the Cabinet decided at the outset to invoke the 25thAmendment, which makes the vice president the acting president in the event of the president’s disability.  But the 25th Amendment had only been enacted in 1967 in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination.  In the uncertain circumstances on March 30, the Cabinet was understandably reluctant to invoke this never-used Amendment. 

The issue deepens as more complete details of Reagan’s condition emerged over the years.  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.[3]  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.” 


At the annual White House Correspondents Dinner on April 25, which Reagan spoke to briefly by telephone while recuperating at Camp David, Bob Pierpont joked to Reagan: “Among these people are many of your Cabinet Secretaries. There’s only really one that I think is very noticeable by his absence. I haven’t seen Secretary Haig. I wondered if you’ve been watching television tonight. We are a little worried who’s in the Situation Room and who’s in control.”  On the Tonight Show, Johnny Carson joked: “There is good news and bad news today.  The good news is that President Reagan is coming home from the hospital.  The bad news is that Alexander Haig has barricaded himself inside the Oval Office with a four year supply of Spam.”

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