On this day in 1981 – toward the end of my sophomore year of high school – a deranged John Hincklely, Jr., attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, in a misguided and very nearly tragic attempt to impress actress Jodi Foster. Fortunately, he failed, but by the very breadth of a hair: Reagan had been shot under his left arm, but the bullet had ricocheted off a rib and into his lung; it had stopped less than an inch from his heart.
Three others were also wounded in the attack: White House Press Secretary James Brady, D.C. police officer Thomas Delahanty, and Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy, who was wounded covering President Reagan with his own body. Brady was the most seriously wounded of the four, being shot in the head and left permanently paralyzed. He unfortunately later allowed himself to be used as the poster-boy for gun control in the 1980s and ’90s.
President Reagan was severely wounded, but he was a man of tremendous toughness, both mental (until robbed of that, most sadly, by Alzheimer’s disease, in later years) and physical. The most moving episode of this incident was one we did not learn about until much later: how when they arrived at Walter Reed Medical Center, the President – in excruciating pain and weak from loss of blood – nonetheless insisted on walking into the hospital under his own power.
Once safely inside and away from the cameras of the press, he all but collapsed into the arms of the waiting medical staff, and was immediately whisked away by stretcher: but the point had been made. He did not wish America’s enemies to see her Commander-in-Chief laid low by an assassin’s bullet. That personal moral courage and strength of will is one of the reasons he will always live in my heart as my favorite President, at least of my own lifetime. God bless his memory!
He was also a man of tremendous good humor: not for nothing was he referred to as “the Great Communicator.” Historian, author, and Constitutional scholar Tara Ross commented, in her post on the subject today,
“Naturally, a little thing like being shot couldn’t dampen Reagan’s sense of humor. When he saw [his wife Nancy] 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.”
One tough cookie! But the story isn’t quite over, yet:
Later that year, while giving a speech in West Berlin, a balloon loudly popped. The President paused for the briefest of moments, glanced up with a twinkle in his eye, commented “Missed me,” and continued with his speech. The crowd, understandably, went wild with applause and cheering. He was one of a kind: God’s gift to our nation at that crucial time in our history, he was by turns inspirational, entertaining, and reassuring. Sometimes all of the above, at once!
President Reagan was President from 1981–1989 – basically throughout my “coming of age” years – and was the first President I ever voted for (in 1984). I must confess that I did not and do not agree with everything he said and did as President, but between his success in restoring America’s self-confidence following the debacle of Vietnam, his key role in bringing down the Soviet Union, and incidents such as this which revealed him as a man of great and admirable character, there is a sense in which he will always be, for me, “the” President.