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This Day In History, 1981: President Reagan Shot

Here's another one of which I have personal memories. Personal comment after the LJ-cut, below the second row of asterisks:

PRESIDENT REAGAN SHOT:
March 30, 1981

On March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan is shot in the chest outside a Washington, D.C., hotel by a deranged drifter named John Hinckley Jr.

***

The president had just finished addressing a labor meeting at the Washington Hilton Hotel and was walking with his entourage to his limousine when Hinckley, standing among a group of reporters, fired six shots at the president, hitting Reagan and three of his attendants. White House Press Secretary James Brady was shot in the head and critically wounded, Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy was shot in the side, and District of Columbia policeman Thomas Delahaney was shot in the neck. After firing the shots, Hinckley was overpowered and pinned against a wall, and President Reagan, apparently unaware that he'd been shot, was shoved into his limousine by a Secret Service agent and rushed to the hospital.

The president was shot in the left lung, and the .22 caliber bullet just missed his heart. In an impressive feat for a 70-year-old man with a collapsed lung, he walked into George Washington University Hospital under his own power. As he was treated and prepared for surgery, he was in good spirits and quipped to his wife, Nancy, ''Honey, I forgot to duck,'' and to his surgeons, "Please tell me you're Republicans." Reagan's surgery lasted two hours, and he was listed in stable and good condition afterward.

The next day, the president resumed some of his executive duties and signed a piece of legislation from his hospital bed. On April 11, he returned to the White House. Reagan's popularity soared after the assassination attempt, and at the end of April he was given a hero's welcome by Congress. In August, this same Congress passed his controversial economic program, with several Democrats breaking ranks to back Reagan's plan. By this time, Reagan claimed to be fully recovered from the assassination attempt. In private, however, he would continue to feel the effects of the nearly fatal gunshot wound for years.

Of the victims of the assassination attempt, Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy and D.C. policeman Thomas Delahaney eventually recovered. James Brady, who nearly died after being shot in the eye, suffered permanent brain damage. He later became an advocate of gun control, and in 1993 Congress passed the "Brady Bill," which established a five-day waiting period and background checks for prospective gun buyers. President Bill Clinton signed the bill into law.

After being arrested on March 30, 1981, 25-year-old John Hinckley was booked on federal charges of attempting to assassinate the president. He had previously been arrested in Tennessee on weapons charges. In June 1982, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. In the trial, Hinckley's defense attorneys argued that their client was ill with narcissistic personality disorder, citing medical evidence, and had a pathological obsession with the 1976 film Taxi Driver, in which the main character attempts to assassinate a fictional senator. His lawyers claimed that Hinckley saw the movie more than a dozen times, was obsessed with the lead actress, Jodie Foster, and had attempted to reenact the events of the film in his own life. Thus the movie, not Hinckley, they argued, was the actual planning force behind the events that occurred on March 30, 1981.

The verdict of "not guilty by reason of insanity" aroused widespread public criticism, and many were shocked that a would-be presidential assassin could avoid been held accountable for his crime. However, because of his obvious threat to society, he was placed in St. Elizabeth's Hospital, a mental institution. In the late 1990s, Hinckley's attorney began arguing that his mental illness was in remission and thus had a right to return to a normal life. Beginning in August 1999, he was allowed supervised day trips off the hospital grounds and later was allowed to visit his parents once a week unsupervised. The Secret Service voluntarily monitors him during these outings. If his mental illness remains in remission, he may one day be released.

(cf. http://www.historychannel.com/tdih/tdih.jsp?category=leadstory)

****

At the time this happened I was 11 years old and in sixth grade, my last year of elementary school. It was a frightening event; although my family hadn't voted for Reagan, we were all worried about his health because, after all, he was the president. At the time, there was an urban legend that all presidents elected in a year ending with "0" died in office -- in fact, that was true since Abraham Lincoln -- and it seemed at first as if Reagan would all victim to that as well. The fact that he didn't seemed to break the "curse."

Other fallout: after I saw the movie "Contact" (1997) I wanted to send Jodie Foster a fan letter. I decided against it; given her experiences, she's probably the last person in the world who wants to receive fan letters.

And then there's the whole Alexander Haig thing. People who were alive at the time might recall Secretary of State Haig seeming to seize power after Reagan was shot, with his infamous quote "I'm in charge here." Well, a few years later I read an article in which he defended himself, claiming that all he was trying to do was reassure the American people that someone was in charge, making sure we would all be safe in case of an attack from the Russians or something equally disastrous.

Well, you know something? I believe him now. Because a few years ago, I got to see the clip of him on The History Channel. And he's talking about where people are, and he very casually says things like, this person is there, the Vice-President is one his way back from Texas, I'm in charge here... He wasn't trying to take power, he was trying to let people know that the government would continue to run smoothly, even in the wake of the shooting.

But, of course, all this is now in the past. Which is what This Day in History is all about.

Comments

Oh, yes! The Buckwheat gets shot story. That was priceless! Eddie Murphy played both Buckwheat and the assassin.

And I loved the interviews. You know how whenever they interview the neighbors and friends of a killer, they always ask if he ever did anything to indicate his behavior? And they always say he was quiet and kept to himself? On the SNL sketch, they had a bunch of interviews that went a little differently:

"Did you ever think he would kill Buckwheat?"

"Oh, sure. He talked about it all the time."
Actually, the end in 0 bit goes back to William Henry Harrison, who was elected in 1840 and then became both the first President to die in office (which caused a minor Constitutional crisis over just what that made John Tyler; President? Acting President? Temporary President? etc.) and the one to serve the shortest term. He caught pneumonia right after Inaugeration and died a month or so later.
Right. I had forgotten about Harrison's election being in 1840.

"Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!"
Well, obviously I wasn't alive, but having read about (in the book 'The Emperor Has No Clothes'), it didn't seem like he was trying to take power...more like an impressive ignorance of the Constitution. The whole reasoned-explanation thing sounds plausible, too.
It is plausible to me as well. But at the time, you have to realize, emotions were running high. It was in the middle of the Cold War, a popular new president had just been shot, and the Vice-President wasn't in Washington. To have Haig say, "I'm in charge here" felt to a lot of people like he was trying to seize power. Or, as you say, was ignorant of the Constitution.
I remember the shooting mainly because it happened less than a mile from my parents' house. Thus for the next month or more, every time we drove down Connecticut, we saw the barricades and police lines at the Hilton.
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