This Day in History: Ronald Reagan survives an attempt on his life
On this day in 1981, Ronald Reagan is shot by a would-be assassin. The President was then leaving an event at the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. Fortunately, Reagan’s Secret Service detail moved fast! One agent, Jerry Parr, pushed Reagan down and into a limousine. In the meantime, another agent, Tim McCarthy, threw himself in front of Reagan, in a spread-eagle position. He was trying to turn himself into the biggest possible target, hoping that the President wouldn’t be hit.
Given the chaotic scene, the agents couldn’t prevent Reagan from being shot that day, but they likely did save him from taking a bullet to the head.
Unfortunately, the incident wasn’t without other casualties. D.C. police officer Thomas Delahanty and White House Press Secretary James Brady both took bullets, as did McCarthy. Brady suffered the most serious injury of the four men: He was shot in the head and would be permanently paralyzed.
Reagan later described his own experience of the day:
“I was almost to the car when I heard what sounded like two or three firecrackers over to my left—just a small fluttering sound, pop, pop pop.” He was thrown into the limo and “landed on my face atop the arm rest across the backseat . . . Jerry jumped on top of me.” Reagan was in excruciating pain and thought Parr had broken one of his ribs.
It was more than just a broken rib, of course. Reagan had been shot under his left arm, but the bullet had ricocheted off a rib and into a lung. It had settled less than an inch from his heart.
Naturally, a little thing like being shot couldn’t dampen Reagan’s sense of humor. When he saw Nancy Reagan at the hospital, he quipped, “Honey, I forgot to duck.” On the way into surgery, he told his doctor, “I hope you’re a Republican.” The doctor (who happened to be a liberal Democrat) responded with class: “Today, Mr. President, we’re all Republicans.”
As Reagan recovered from surgery, he was placed on a respirator to help his left lung, which had collapsed. The Gipper was still cracking jokes—even if he had to scribble them on a piece of paper. “I’d like to do this scene again,” he wrote, “starting at the hotel.”
Despite his age and the bullet wound, Reagan recovered quickly and was soon back at work, signing a bill from his hospital bed by the next day. In the end, he spent a little less than two weeks in the hospital.
The entire series of events unfolded because of the delusions of one man, John Hinckley, Jr., who was obsessed with the actress Jodie Foster. Hinckley thought that killing a President would impress her. In an odd twist, he didn’t really care about Reagan one way or another. In fact, he’d originally planned to shoot Jimmy Carter, but his plans had been foiled when he was caught in a Nashville airport with guns and ammunition in his baggage.
For his part, Reagan credited his survival to a divine hand. “Someone,” he later wrote, “was looking out for us that day.” His autobiography notes the unusual number of doctors at the E.R. when he arrived after the shooting. The doctors had been there for a meeting, but the result was that specialists in virtually every medical field were immediately available to help save the President.
“Whatever happens now,” Reagan would write in his diary on April 11, “I owe my life to God and will try to serve him in every way I can.”
Primary Sources & Further Reading:
Del Quentin Wilber, Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan (2011)
Ronald Reagan, An American Life (2011)
Ronald Reagan, The Reagan Diaries (Douglas Brinkley ed., 2007)
Steven F. Hayward, The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution: 1980-1989 (2009)