On Friday, I wrote about heroism. I’ll continue in that vein this morning by highlighting the actions of an American president -- and his primary political adversary -- during a traumatic episode in U.S. history that took place 39 years ago today.
Early that afternoon, Ronald Reagan delivered the first speech of his presidency to a major labor group, the Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO. Although organized labor had supported Jimmy Carter in the 1980 campaign, many of its members -- perhaps a majority -- had voted for the Republican challenger and Reagan seemed delighted to be among them. A former labor activist and official himself, Reagan began by telling the group that he felt some pride at being the first president to boast of having a lifetime membership in an AFL-CIO union.
Outside the Washington Hilton Hotel, however, danger lurked in the form of a mentally ill drifter armed with a cheap .22-caliber pistol and evil intent. His aim was to commit the fifth assassination of a sitting U.S. president. It wasn’t to be, although White House press secretary James Brady sustained grievous wounds in the attempt. This morning, however, I’m focusing on reactions to the shooting, by Reagan and others.
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As President Reagan strode to his waiting limousine on March 30, 1981, the afternoon air was pierced by the sound of gunshots. The president didn’t go down, but the Secret Service agents followed protocol: Jerry Parr, chief of the president’s detail, shoved him into a waiting car. Once inside, Reagan’s breathing was labored and he was in pain. The president thought some of his ribs had been broken inadvertently by Parr.
“Are you hit?” the agent asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” the president replied. “I think you hurt my chest when you landed on top of me.”
That’s what Americans believed, too, because it’s what the news media and other political leaders told them. “The president was not hit,” famed anchorman Frank Reynolds informed the large ABC audience that had been watching the daytime drama “One Life to Live” until the news division interrupted regular programming.
On the nascent cable television channel CNN, news was regular programming, but they didn’t do any better. “We cannot say it too many times: The president of the United States is okay,” Bernard Shaw assured viewers. “And now I’m told, the president sustained a bump while he was being pushed into the car.”
On Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker of Tennessee interrupted a floor debate on the budget just as Frank Reynolds had done with ABC’s soap opera -- with the same misinformation. “I have been advised that the president of the United States was the target of a shot fired at him a few moments ago,” Baker said. “He was not hit.”
Meanwhile, inside the armored 1972 Lincoln Continental nicked named “The Stagecoach,” the president of the United States was definitely not okay. Jerry Parr realized this when he saw blood on the napkin Reagan used to wipe his mouth. The color was draining from Reagan’s face and his lips started turning blue. The Stagecoach became a de facto ambulance, racing an injured 70-year-old man to The George Washington University Hospital. But what was wrong with him? Nobody in the car knew and when they arrived, Reagan insisted on walking on his own.
Once inside, however, he complained of not being able to breath and his knees buckled. A surgical resident named G. Wesley Price swiftly checked the president’s chest with his stethoscope. He noticed that the left side of Reagan’s lungs was not working, then spotted a slit five inches under his armpit. The president’s lung was collapsed and filling with blood. “He’s been shot,” Dr. Price told Parr.
After it was over, which is to say, after the skilled medical professionals stabilized a wounded president and saved his life on the operating table, the nurses and doctors were struck by how solicitous their famous patient had been for the feelings of his caregivers and those around him. This went on from the moment he entered the emergency room until he was discharged 12 days later. Reagan prefaced complaints about discomfort in polite, almost apologetic language. As he was being prepped for surgery, he sought to lighten the tense mood in the operating room by quipping to the doctors, “Please tell me you’re all Republicans.” When first lady Nancy Reagan showed up, Reagan sought to soothe her fear by reprising an old Jack Dempsey quip, “Honey, I forgot to duck.”
This was a famous line to men and women of Ron and Nancy Reagan’s age, which is to say, no one else in the room that day. Reagan used it on Nancy for the same reason Dempsey had done in 1926 when his wife, silent film star Estelle Taylor, first saw her husband’s bruised and battered face after he’d lost the heavyweight championship of the world to Gene Tunney.
Reagan almost lost a lot more than a boxing match on this date in 1981. But the grace he displayed under pressure impressed everyone from his own spouse to a Democratic House speaker with whom Reagan was already waging spirited political combat. But anyone who doubts that Nancy Pelosi really prays for Donald Trump might want to know that even before Reagan was out of the woods Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neil Jr. found his way to Reagan’s bedside.
Nancy Reagan had tasked White House legislative aide Max L. Friedersdorf with keeping away well-wishers, including prominent members of Congress. An exception was made for O’Neill, and Friedersdorf never forgot the scene:
“Tip got down on his knees next to the bed and said a prayer for the president and he held his hand and kissed him and they said a prayer together,” he recalled. (They recited the 23rd Psalm: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters…)
“The speaker stayed there quite a while,” Friedersdorf recalled later. “They never talked too much. I just heard him say the prayer, then I heard him say, ‘God bless you, Mr. President, we’re all praying for you.’ The speaker was crying. The president … said, ‘I appreciate you coming down, Tip.’ He held his hand, sat there by the bed and held his hand for a long time.”
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.