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How Did I Miss This Presidential Anniversary?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011, 13:03 EDT Leave a comment Go to comments
Reagan shooting

President Ronald Reagan at the moment he was shot (top) and immediately after, March 28, 1981

It could have something to do with the fact that I still haven’t gotten my TV and internet service hooked up. But you’d think I would have noticed this some other way:

A routine day was on the agenda: A few White House meetings, and a speech at the Washington Hilton ballroom.

But that routine was shattered at 2:27 p.m., when six shots rang out.

Thirty years ago yesterday, President Ronald Reagan, less then ten weeks into his presidency, was shot by would-be assassin John Hinckley, Jr. I remember exactly where I was when I heard what had happened—in the music room at my high school, about a half hour into Glee Club practice—but not how I heard. Was an announcement made over the public address system? Did someone come into the room to deliver the news? It’s odd that such a detail would be missing from my memory, until you consider that the initial news reports contained no indication that the President was actually wounded, only that shots had been fired. The rest of the information, and the horror it evoked, came later, and gradually.

At that point, no one knew the president had also been shot.

“My job, then, was to see if he’d really been hit,” [retired Secret Service agent Jerry] Parr said. “I ran my hands up under his coat, around his belt line. And I started workin’ up, up, up, up in the armpit area. Up into the back of his neck, through his hair and everything. And I didn’t see any blood at all.

“But about Dupont Circle, he started spitting up this blood – profuse amounts of red, bright red, frothy blood,” Parr said. “And I thought, ‘Well, what would cause that?’ Maybe landing on top of him cracked a rib. Maybe it punctured a lung.”

That was when Parr made the single most important decision of the day: Forget the White House. Get to a hospital.

We learned only years afterward that Reagan was indeed seriously wounded, that the post-surgery photo op showing the President looking pretty good in fact took every ounce of strength he could muster. His true condition was a remarkably well-kept secret even many years later. Perhaps that’s why another of my most vivid memories of the event’s immediate aftermath isn’t fear for the President’s life, which we didn’t fully realize was in peril, but rather the image of Secretary of State Alexander Haig making an ass of himself by announcing on national television that he was in control, a declaration that must have come as a surprise to Vice President George Bush.

But we also heard about some of the lighter moments of the crisis, when Reagan joked with those soberly attending to him. (I can relate to this tactic, as I used it at many difficult moments, such as when my uncle died and I noted that death is just nature’s way of telling you it’s time to slow down. Yes, I really did say that. Sometimes I’m a brat.) My favorite Reagan one-liner from that day:

The first words he uttered upon regaining consciousness were to a nurse who happened to be holding the president’s hand. “Does Nancy know about us?” he quipped.

Many now see the assassination attempt as a turning point in Reagan’s presidency. In the minds of some who thought he was too old for the job, it enforced an image of a strong man who bounced back from his wounds and the subsequent surgery (the aforementioned photo op helped). It revealed a person willing to use humor to put others at ease in tense moments. It brought together, however briefly, partisans who could all agree that political means, not violent ones, are the best way to deal with elected officials with whom we disagree. It even positioned Reagan as the President who might just beat fate at its own game, since by surviving that attack (and by completing his two full terms), he broke a supposed curse dating back to 1840 that saw every President elected in a year ending in zero die in office.

Now, 30 years after he almost lost his life, 22 years after he left office, and nearly seven years after he died, Reagan is known as one of our most successful and beloved Presidents. I admit having never voted for the man; in the first Presidential election in which I was old enough to vote, I voted for the other guy. But time has softened my distaste, and I can appreciate some of the positives of the Reagan years.

Mostly, though, I am deeply grateful that the President did not die on that March afternoon in Washington, DC. Presidential assassination is a national wound that tests our mettle, and though we have survived it four times, we would prefer not to have to do so again.

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