In this eye-opening book of solid journalism, we learn just how close Ronald
Reagan, code-named "Rawhide" by the Secret Service, came to being the
president with the second shortest time in office (after William Henry
Harrison) when he was severely wounded after about two months in the White
(Poor Tippecanoe died a month after his inauguration in 1841.)
Reagan was finding his first months in office in 1981 difficult after his upset victory over Jimmy Carter. Reaction to his policies, from "Reaganomics" to welfare cutbacks, was cutting short the traditional honeymoon of new presidents. But, as author Del Quentin Wilber points out, the aftermath of the attempt on his life, driven largely by Reagan's grace under fire and recovery, assured him considerable popularity for years to come.
His poll numbers were declining by the time he headed to the Washington Hilton Hotel March 30 to address an AFL-CIO gathering of 4,000 union members. According to Mr. Wilber, a Washington Post reporter, the speech was aimed at solidifying Reagan's blue-collar support in advance of the next presidential election in 1984.
In a double irony, it was politics in advance of the 1964 campaign that sent President Kennedy to Dallas Nov. 22, 1963, and it was Reagan's later dismissal of air traffic controllers that alienated organized labor.
Mr. Wilber said he wrote this book because there was no comprehensive account of the event. Now there is a deeply researched history of the shooting, enhanced by a wealth of personal information from Reagan administration officials, including Secret Service agents and medical personnel at George Washington University Medical Center, where the president's life was saved.
The collateral damage from the flurry of bullets fired by the seriously disturbed John Hinckley was devastating -- three wounded, with James Brady, then Reagan's press secretary, seriously disabled, and Washington, D.C., police officer Thomas Delahanty forced to quit with a severe back injury.
Mr. Hinckley, now 55, remains in St. Elizabeths Hospital for the mentally ill in Washington, D.C. After his futile attempts to woo actor Jodie Foster, he was on the verge of killing himself when he decided to let the Secret Service do the job by shooting Reagan, according to the author.
The most compelling sections of the book cover the treatment the president received at the hospital, the bumpy progress of the response from the White House and the appropriate actions of agent Jerry Paar, who quickly recognized how dire Reagan's condition was after a bullet fired by Hinckley ricocheted into a lung close to the heart.
Mr. Wilber cites the skilled work of surgeon Dr. Benjamin Aaron, who removed the bullet smashed to the size of a dime after a stressful hunt through the patient's lung.
The scene at the White House, including the infamous "I am in control here" assertion -- wrong -- by Secretary of State Alexander Haig, gets thorough treatment. Vice President George H.W. Bush was returning from a political trip, and Mr. Haig apparently did not know that the speaker of the U.S. House is next in line after the vice president in succession.
One skirmish erupted between Mr. Haig and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger who rebuked his fellow Cabinet officer for making off-the-cuff remarks while he worried about the Soviet Union's reaction to the shooting.
The succession issue occupied other White House aides, including the Justice Department's Theodore Olson, who discovered his outdated copy of the Constitution didn't include the 25th Amendment, setting up the steps to deal with an incapacitated chief executive.
Details such as this strike a good balance between hard facts and recollections, lending the book the sense that Mr. Wilber made judicious use of his massive store of material.
Its lesson, though, instructs all of us about how uncertain and confusing the government's response to a presidential disability or death remains. It also reminds us that often decisions are made for political reasons, in Reagan's case, his aides' determination to hide the president's true condition from the public.
Ronald Reagan recovered to serve two terms, pushing this possibly game-changing episode into obscurity. "Rawhide Down" brings those events of March 30, 1981, back into perspective.
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