The Failed Assassination Attempt on Ronald Reagan

President Reagan waving to crowds immediately before being shotPresident Reagan waving to crowds immediately before being shot (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

On March 30, 1981, at about 2:45 PM, Washington time, the first reports of an assassination attempt against President Ronald Reagan began to surface. In an ABC breaking news segment, anchor Frank Reynolds narrated over the confusing images recorded outside the Washington Hilton Hotel minutes before. A gunman had opened fire on the president after he spoke at the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Conference. The video showed Secret Service agents pushing the president into a waiting limousine, tackling the assailant, John Hinckley, Jr., and tending to three wounded men—Timothy McCarthy, a Secret Service agent; Thomas Delahanty, a Washington police officer; and James Brady, Reagan’s press secretary.

Initial news reports suggested Reagan had not been hurt during the attack. But once in the limousine, Secret Service Agent Jerry Parr made the decision to go directly to The George Washington University Hospital. Parr found no visible injury to the president, but Reagan had trouble breathing and had begun to cough up blood. In spite of his injuries, Reagan walked into the emergency room for treatment. White House Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver in his memoirs suggested how the decision showed “not even a would be assassin was going to bring Ronald Reagan down.” Only after the trauma team examined the president did it become clear one of the bullets had struck the president. Given the spate of successful and unsuccessful attempts on the lives of public figures since the 1960s, this attempt stunned the American people. As they learned more about the attack, questions arose. Who was the man responsible? Who was in charge of the government? How badly injured was the president? And how might those injuries affect his leadership of the country?

Americans learned almost immediately that Hinckley fired six shots from a .22 caliber pistol—sometimes known as a “Saturday Night Special”—before the security detail pinned him against the wall. The FBI’s investigation of events suggested Hinckley, an unassuming figure, worked his way through the press corps as it waited for Reagan. As the president exited the hotel, Hinckley fired all six shots in 1.7 seconds from a distance of about fifteen feet. The first three shots hit Brady, Delahanty, and McCarthy respectively. The next two shots hit a nearby building and a window of the presidential limousine. The final shot ricocheted off the limousine before striking the president in the chest under his left arm, which had been raised as he waved to the crowd.

In 1982, a jury found Hinckley not guilty by reason of mental insanity, and he was committed to a Washington-area mental facility. During the course of the investigation, evidence surfaced about obsession with actress Jodie Foster after seeing her in Taxi Driver. He hoped to gain Foster’s attention with the attack on the president. In this era, given Hinckley’s plea, the prosecution needed to prove he was sane at the time of the shooting. Several jurors agreed with the foreman who suggested the evidence was not strong enough to conclude Hinckley understood his actions. Public outrage after the verdict prompted conversations about the burden of proof in cases where defendants plead insanity. Over the next few years, most states, as well as Congress, shifted the burden of proof to the defense and tightened the definitions of insanity. Hinckley remains at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, although several attempts have been made to secure his release.

With details about the president’s condition still sketchy, James Baker, White House Chief of Staff, and Edwin Meese, counselor to the president, joined Michael Deaver at the hospital. Reagan’s top White House advisers discussed the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, which deals with succession to the presidency as well as situations when a president cannot perform the duties of the office. Section 3 allows the president to temporarily turn over responsibilities to the vice president; Section 4 allows the vice president or the majority of officers of the executive departments may inform Congress a president is incapable of fulfilling the aforementioned duties. The president went into surgery before he could invoke Section 3. Meanwhile, Vice President George H.W. Bush did not invoke Section 4 as he flew back to the capital from Texas. After the surgery began, Meese called Caspar Weinberger, the Secretary of Defense, who had gathered at the White House with other members of the cabinet. According to National Security Adviser Richard Allen, Meese told Weinberger the “national command authority” was in the defense secretary’s hands. He also said Alexander Haig, the Secretary of State, should ease fears of other governments.

Haig, who was not in the Situation Room when Meese called, interrupted White House spokesperson Larry Speakes, who was addressing the press about the president’s status. Haig hoped to clarify the situation about who was running the government. But the Secretary of State only made the situation worse because he said “as of now I am in control here.” He also indicated Constitutional authority fell to the Secretary of State, which it did not. According to the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, after the Vice President came the Speaker of the House, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, and then the Secretary of State. The other cabinet members seemingly understood the succession process, but Haig kept insisting he had Constitutional authority to make decisions in consultation with the vice president. His misstatement caused only more confusion for an already rattled nation. Shortly thereafter, the White House made it clear Reagan remained in charge.

The day after the attempt on his life Reagan signed a dairy bill, sending a clear message to friends and enemies the president would continue to fulfill his obligations. This calmed some fears about the seriousness of his condition. However, what really endeared Reagan to the American people were the reports of his attitude during the crisis. Once the ER doctors realized a bullet had hit the president, they had difficulty pinpointing the exact location. The X-ray image of the president’s chest suggested the bullet was lodged in his lung tissue close to his heart, but possibly in the aorta. Reagan remained conscious throughout the initial exam, and when questioned, he apparently retained his sense of humor.

Lyn Nofziger, Assistant to the President for Political Affairs, went with Baker and Meese to the hospital. As events unfolded, Nofziger concluded that rumors would surface if the administration said nothing to the press at the hospital. After speaking with Dr. Dennis O’Leary to understand the situation better, he addressed reporters. As he was leaving, someone asked him if the president said anything. Nofziger, who had been jotting down the president’s comments since he arrived at the hospital, explained how upon seeing Nancy Reagan, the president said “Honey, I forgot to duck.” And later, reports surfaced that Reagan had asked the surgical team if they were Republicans. Apparently Dr. Joe Giordano responded “Today we’re all Republicans, Mr. President.” The stories of Reagan’s one-liners helped to mask the real danger he faced. So too did the fact that for someone of the president’s age—seventy years old—he made a quick recovery. Less than a month after the shooting, in his first major public appearance, the president spoke to a joint session of Congress in support of his economic program.

Ever since the attempt on Reagan’s life, people have wondered about the impact the assassination had on Reagan. In 1999, Edmund Morris suggested, in his biography Dutch, that the president never fully recovered from his injuries because receiving a cold blood transfusion did additional injury to the president’s already damaged body. Doctors involved in treating the president then denied that the temperature of the blood had any effect on Reagan’s recovery. In their comments, they reiterated how Reagan was a very “resilient patient” for someone of his age. While the physical impact remains unclear, the attempt on Reagan’s life did alter his presidency. Hinckley shot Reagan just over two-months into the president’s first term. While he should still have been experiencing some post-inauguration popularity, his public approval rating was low and Congress did not seem keen on his proposals to address the nation’s economic malaise.

In the wake of the shooting, Congress, while not acquiescing to everything in Reagan’s economic program, became more willing to try supply-side economics. Reagan’s near-death experience also changed his outlook on the Cold War. While still openly hostile to communism, by his second term he began to pursue true nuclear arms reduction. In 1987, Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, which pledged to destroy a whole class of nuclear weapons, thus making it the first true arms reduction agreement. Finally, Reagan’s ability to connect with the American people, so effectively demonstrated from his hospital bed, allowed him to weather more difficult public relations storms later in his presidency, especially the fallout from the Iran-Contra controversy.

About the Author

Sarah Katherine Mergel

Sarah Katherine Mergel is an associate professor of history at Dalton State College in Northwest Georgia. She is the author of Conservative Intellectuals and Richard Nixon: Rethinking the Rise of the Right. She is passionate about researching, writing, and teaching on political, intellectual, and diplomatic history since the end of the Civil War. When not studying history, she loves anything about classical music (especially when it involves playing the oboe).

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