"I looked up at the presidential box above the stage where Abe Lincoln had been sitting the night he was shot and felt a curious sensation... I thought that even with all the Secret Service protection we now had, it was probably still possible for someone who had enough determination to get close enough to a president to shoot him."
- President Ronald Reagan on his visit on March 21, 1981 to Fords Theater.
On today's date, March 30 in 1981 President Ronald W. Reagan was wounded when John Hinckley attempted to assassinate him outside a Washington DC hotel where he had been giving a speech. The Gipper was right in the feeling he expressed in the above quote, but while several men were grievously wounded, nobody was killed, and security was tightened even more following this attempt. And happily Reagan survived to finish this and a second term in office. And the "Zero year jinx" was at last broken.
John Hinckley was yet another in a long line of LOSERS both before and since who were mentally unbalanced and sought to get attention by killing someone important, as was the case with the assailants of Lincoln, JFK, McKinley, John Lennon, Gabby Giffords and a host of others. And in this case, as had been the case with JFK and Giffords, the motivation for the attack was completely un-related to the politics of the target. Hinckley had become obsessed with the actress Jodie Foster after seeing the film "Taxi Driver" (too?) many times. In the film another character attempts to assassinate a U.S. Senator in order to protect Foster's character. Hinckley sought to impress Foster (whom he had stalked when she was a student at Yale) by assassinating a President, towards which end he had earlier stalked Jimmy Carter.
On March 30, Reagan addressed the AFL-CIO Representatives at the Washington Hilton Hotel. The Secret Service had convinced Reagan to wear a bulletproof vest for some public occasions, but on this particular afternoon he was not wearing one because his only fully public exposure was going to be in the thirty feet between the hotel and his limousine. He passed right in front of a crowd of citizens wherein Hinckley was waiting with a .22 caliber pistol. As he waved to the crowd Hinckley fired. The New York Times' Howell Raines reported the next morning:
"A rapid series of five or six shots rang out about 2:30 pm as Mr. Reagan left the hotel. A look of stunned disbelief swept across Mr. Reagan's face as the shots were fired and he raised his arm to wave to the crowd, Nearby, his Press Secretary James L. Brady, fell to the sidewalk, critically wounded. Mr. Reagan, apparently at first unaware that he had been wounded, was shoved forcefully by a Secret Service agent into the Presidential limousine that sped (away) with the President in a sitting position in the backseat."
"I Hope You Are All Republicans..."
That Secret Service Agent who pushed Reagan into the backseat was Agent Jerry Parr who at first ordered the limo back to the White House, since the President did not appear to be hit. But he felt a sharp pain in his chest which they suspected was a broken rib from being pushed into the car. When Parr checked the President for wounds he began to cough up blood, leading Parr to think that the broken rib may have punctured his lung. Parr redirected the limo to George Washington University Hospital. On arrival, the Gipper was able to walk through the doors on his own power, but collapsed immediately after entering the building. It was only after a closer examination that the entry wound from a bullet was found, with no exit wound making it clear that the bullet was still in the President's body. Upon being brought to the operating room, Reagan quipped to the assembled medical team "I hope you are all Republicans." The team all laughed and the head surgeon, Joseph Giordano, a liberal democrat, replied "Today, Mr. President, we are all Republicans."
Where Were You When You Heard About It?
I was a student at the University of Cincinnati College Conserv- atory of Music at the time. I was that afternoon waiting outside the Orchestral Rehearsal Room for a rehearsal to end, so I could go in and speak to my friend, violinist Alison Peters about playing in my sisters' wedding which was coming up. Mike Hennesy, a fellow Double Bass Player came up and said "So what's the story with Reagan?" It was then that I heard about it. I recall saying that Reagan was the next victim due to fall to the "Zero Year Jinx" on U.S. Presidents (see below). I went in after the rehearsal. spoke to my friend, and then raced to my car which was parked some distance away on Ohio Ave. By the time I got there and turned on the radio Secretary of State Alexander Haig was making his (in)famous announcement that "I am in control here at the White House..." in a voice that was nervous and quite audibly shaking. Haig was trying to reassure folks that everything was under control, but in his subsequent remarks that he, as Secretary of State was next in line to the Presidency after Vice President Bush overlooked that the Speaker of the U.S. House is constitutionally next after the Vice President. It was a bizarre moment and one from which Haig was never able to recover,
"What A Man!!!"
In his fervor to impress Jodie Foster the idiot Hinckley ended up wounding District of Columbia Police Officer Thomas Delahanty, and Secret Service Agent Timothy Mc Carthy. In addition, Press Secretary James Brady was wounded by a bullet to his brain which he survived (despite erroneous reports of his death on ABC News), but which left him with a lifetime disability. Ronald Reagan himself was in fact hit by a bullet which had punctured his lung, and lodged very close to his heart. Happily, the bullet was successfully removed during surgery. The "Zero Year Jinx" to which I referred is the fact that every US President since William Henry Harrison elected (up until Reagan) on a zero year had died in office. Harrison, elected in 1840, dies 1841. Lincoln elected in 1860, assassinated 1865. James Garfield elected 1880, shot in 1881. William McKinley re-elected in 1900, shot in 1901. Warren G. Harding, elected in 1920, died, 1923. Franklin Roosevelt, re-elected, 1940, died, 1945. JFK, elected 1960, murdered, 1963. Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980 was next in line for this grim coincidence. But his luck held out and he beat the jinx. Jodie Foster understandably never made a public comment of any kind on the crime. John Hinckley was acquitted of his guilt in wounding four men on grounds of temporary insanity. He continues to exist to this day in a mental institution from which he occasionally gets to leave to visit his parents.The Secret Service now screens any and all public crowds who have a view of the President. My friend, violinist Stacey Woolley wrote to me at the time from Boston University and after ruefully noting that ABC News had shown that it could not only "take life, but give it back!!" (in reference to the mistaken reporting of the death of Jim Brady) concluded his letter with the sentiment which I, and many Americans shared:
"Ronald Reagan.... what a man!!"
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New York Times, March 31, 1981