Reagan assassination attempt

Reagan assassination attempt

The Reagan assassination attempt occurred on March 30, 1981, just 69 days into the presidency of Ronald Reagan. While leaving a speaking engagement at the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C., President Reagan and three others were shot and wounded by John Hinckley, Jr. Reagan suffered a punctured lung, but prompt medical attention allowed him to recover quickly despite his age. No formal invocation of presidential succession took place, although a controversial statement by Secretary of State Alexander Haig that he was "in charge" marked a short period during which Vice President George H. W. Bush was flying back to Washington, D.C. aboard Air Force Two. Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity and has remained confined to a psychiatric facility.


The motivation behind Hinckley's attack was an obsession with actress Jodie Foster. While living in Hollywood in the late 1970s, he saw the film "Taxi Driver" at least 15 times, apparently identifying strongly with Travis Bickle, the lead character. [ [ Taxi Driver: Its Influence on John Hinckley, Jr.] Retrieved 26 February 2007.] [ Taxi Driver] by Denise Noe. Crime Library. Courtroom Television Network, LLC. Retrieved February 27, 2007.] The arc of the story involves Bickle's protection of a 12-year-old prostitute, played by Foster, with a violent climactic scene in which he kills her pimps and a john (customer). Over the following years, Hinckley trailed Foster around the country, going so far as to enroll in a writing course at Yale University in 1980 when he learned that she was a student there after reading an article in "People" magazine. [ John W. Hinckley, Jr. Biography - UMKC Law] Retrieved March 20, 2007.] He wrote numerous letters and notes to her in late 1980. [ [ I'll Get You, Foster] by Denise Noe. Crime Library. Courtroom Television Network, LLC. Retrieved March 7, 2006.] He called her twice and refused to give up when she indicated that she was not interested in him. Convinced that by becoming a national figure he would be Foster's equal, Hinckley began to stalk then-President Jimmy Carter — his decision to target presidents was also likely inspired by "Taxi Driver". [ The American Experience - John Hinckley Jr.] by Julie Wolf. Retrieved March 7, 2006.] He wrote three or four more notes to her in early March 1981. Foster gave these notes to her dean, who gave them to the Yale police department, which sought to track him down but failed. [Teen-age Actress Says Notes Sent by Suspect Did Not Hint Violence, Matthew L. Wald, New York Times, April 2, 1981. Retrieved February 28, 2007] [Yale Police Searched For Suspect Weeks Before Reagan Was Shot, Matthew L. Wald, New York Times, April 5, 1981. Retrieved February 28, 2007]

Ambush outside hotel

peaking engagement at the Washington Hilton Hotel

Hinckley arrived in Washington, D.C. on Sunday, March 29, getting off a Greyhound Lines bus [A Drifter With a Purpose, by Mike Sager and Eugene Robinson, "Washington Post", April 1, 1981. Retrieved February 28, 2007] and checking into the Park Central Hotel. He had breakfast at McDonald's the next morning, noticed U.S. President Ronald Reagan's schedule on page A4 of the "Washington Post", and decided it was time to make his move. [ The Trial of John W. Hinckley, Jr.] by Doug Linder. 2001 Retrieved March 10, 2007.] Knowing that he might not live to tell about shooting Reagan, Hinckley wrote (but did not mail) a letter to Foster about two hours prior to the assassination attempt, saying that he hoped to impress her with the magnitude of his action. [ [ Letter written to Jodie Foster by John Hinckley, Jr.] March 30, 1981. Retrieved February 26, 2007.]

On March 30, 1981, Reagan delivered a luncheon address to AFL-CIO representatives at the Washington Hilton Hotel. He entered the building around 1:45 p.m., waving to a crowd which included news media.

The shooting

Shortly before 2:30 p.m. EST, as Reagan walked out of the hotel's T Street NW exit toward his waiting car, Hinckley emerged from the crowd of admirers and fired a Röhm RG-14 .22 cal. blue steel revolver six times in three seconds. [ [ The President is Shot] by Denise Noe. Crime Library. Courtroom Television Network, LLC. Retrieved February 27, 2007.] The first bullet hit White House Press Secretary James Brady in the head. The second hit District of Columbia police officer Thomas Delahanty in the back.Hunter, Marjorie. "2 in Reagan security detail are wounded outside hotel", "New York Times", March 31, 1981] Feaver, Douglas. "Three men shot at the side of their President", "The Washington Post", March 31, 1981.] [Fears of Explosive Bullet Force Surgery on Officer, by Charles R. Babcock, The Washington Post, April 3, 1981] The third overshot the president and hit the window of a building across the street. The fourth hit Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy in the abdomen. The fifth hit the bullet-proof glass of the window on the open side door of the president's limousine. The sixth and final bullet ricocheted off the side of the limousine and hit the president under his left arm, grazing a rib and lodging in his lung, near his heart. Sixteen minutes after the assassination attempt, the ATF found that the gun was purchased at Rocky's Pawn Shop in Dallas, Texas. [Guns Traced in 16 Minutes to Pawn Shop in Dallas, Charles Mohr, New York Times, April 1, 1981. Retrieved February 28, 2007.] It was loaded with six "Devastator"-brand .22LR cartridges, which contained small lead azide explosive charges. The rounds were not manufactured in the U.S.; any bullet which contained actual explosives would have been classified as an illegal explosive device under U.S. federal law at the time Hinckley purchased them. All six bullets failed to explode.

Since the assassination of President Kennedy, which had not been recorded by any professional cameramen, television services were much more insistent about taping as many of a president's public appearances as possible. In this case, the entire incident was captured on video by at least five cameramen, including all of the major broadcast networks (the new Cable News Network had been broadcasting Reagan's speech live moments earlier, and its crew was still inside the hotel). Hinckley asked the arresting officers whether that night's Academy Awards ceremony would be postponed due to the shooting, and indeed it was — it aired the next evening.

Reagan taken to George Washington University Hospital

Moments after the shooting, Reagan was whisked away by the Secret Service agents in the presidential limousine. At first, there was no realization that the President had been wounded; the bullet which struck him entered under his armpit. However, when Secret Service agent Jerry Parr checked him for gunshot wounds, Reagan coughed up bright, frothy blood, indicating that his lung was punctured. Reagan, already in great pain, believed that one of his ribs had cracked when agent Parr pushed him into the limousine. Parr ordered the motorcade to divert to nearby George Washington University Hospital. [ Medical chronology of President Ronald Reagan's shooting, at] ]

Upon arriving at the George Washington emergency room, Reagan wiped the blood from his face, exited the limousine and walked (supported by the Secret Service agents) into the emergency room. Although the emergency room staff had been notified that gunshot victims were incoming, no stretcher was ready. Complaining of difficulty breathing, Reagan's knees buckled, and he went down on one knee.

The trauma team, led by Dr. Joseph Giordano, treated Reagan with intravenous fluids, unmatched blood transfusions, oxygen, tetanus toxoid, and chest tubes. When Reagan's wife arrived in the emergency room, he said, "Honey, I forgot to duck" (borrowing boxer Jack Dempsey's line to his wife the night he was beaten by Gene Tunney).

Significant quantities of blood came out of the chest tubes. The chief of thoracic surgery, Dr. Benjamin L. Aaron, decided to operate because the bleeding persisted. Ultimately, Reagan lost over half of his blood volume.

In the operating room, Reagan remarked, "Please tell me you're all Republicans." Giordano, a liberal Democrat, replied, "We're all Republicans today." The operation lasted about three hours. His post-operative course was complicated by fever, which was treated with multiple antibiotics.

Reagan's staff was anxious that the President appear to be recovering quickly. The morning after his operation, despite being disoriented and receiving morphine, he signed a piece of legislation. Reagan left the hospital on the 13th day. Initially, he worked two hours a day in the White House. He did not lead a Cabinet meeting until day 26, did not venture outside Washington until day 49, and did not hold a press conference until day 79. Reagan's physician thought recovery was not complete until October.

Reagan had been scheduled to visit Philadelphia on the day of the shooting. While intubated, he scribbled to a nurse, "All in all, I'd rather be in Philadelphia", a reference to the W.C. Fields tagline. [ "March 30, 1981"] Reagan's reflections on the assassination attempt, Retrieved March 5, 2007]

Haig takes control

Members of the Cabinet, including Secretary of State Alexander Haig, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, and National Security Advisor Richard Allen, met in the White House Situation Room to discuss various issues, including the availability of a Nuclear Football (which was still in the possession of the Army officer "carrier" with the president for much of the day), the apparent presence of more than the usual number of Soviet submarines off the Atlantic coast, and the presidential line of succession. These meetings were recorded with the participants' knowledge by Allen, and the tapes have since been made public. [ [ Morning Edition - Reagan Tapes ] ] Upon learning that Reagan was in surgery, Haig declared, "the helm is right here. And that means right in this chair for now, constitutionally, until the vice president gets here."cite web |publisher=Viacom Internet Services Inc.|work=CBS News|title=The Day Reagan Was Shot|url=|accessdate=2007-11-29]

In fact the Secretary of State is not second in the line of succession but fourth, after the Speaker of the House (at the time, Tip O'Neill) and the President "pro tempore" of the Senate (at the time, J. Strom Thurmond). Haig was accused, by Weinberger and others, of overstepping his authority. [White House Aides Assert Weinberg Was Upset When Haig Took Charge, by Steven R. Weisman, New York Times, April 1, 1981. Retrieved March 3, 2007.] [Bush Flies Back From Texas Set To Take Charge In Crisis, by Steven R. Weisman, New York Times, March 31, 1981. Retrieved March 3, 2007.] However there had been no opportunity to brief the Vice President or others in the line of succession about military issues.

At the same time, a press conference was underway in the White House. One reporter asked deputy press secretary Larry Speakes who was running the government, to which Speakes responded, "I cannot answer that question at this time." Upon hearing Speakes' remark, Haig rushed to the press room, where he made the following controversial statement:

The ambiguity of presidential authority in this instance still remains today. As President Reagan had not provided written authority transferring presidential powers to the Vice President, nor a majority of the members of the presidential cabinet declaring the President unable to discharge his duties and as such, transfer the Vice President the power to act as President: The power of the office of the President was very much in question.

Reported Hinckley family connections

John Hinckley Jr. is the son of John Hinckley Sr., chairman of the oil company Vanderbilt Energy Corp., who was one of Vice President George H.W. Bush's larger political and financial supporters in his 1980 presidential primary campaign against Ronald Reagan. Also, John Hinckley Jr.'s older brother, Vanderbilt vice president Scott Hinckley, and the Vice President's son Neil Bush, had a dinner appointment scheduled for the next day. [Bush's Son Was To Dine With Suspect's Brother, by Arthur Wiese and Margaret Downing, The Houston Post, March 31, 1981] The Associated Press published the following short note on March 31, 1981:


Reagan's plans for the next month or so were canceled, including a visit to the Mission Control of Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, in April 1981 during STS-1, the first flight of the Space Shuttle. ( He would instead visit during STS-2 that November.) Reagan returned to the Oval Office on April 25, receiving a standing ovation from staff and Cabinet members; referring to their teamwork in his absence, he insisted, "I should be applauding you." [cite news | url = | title =Reagan Given Ovation On Returning to Offices | author = United Press International | date = April 25, 1981 | publisher = New York Times | accessdate = 2008-03-31] His first public appearance was an April 29 speech before the joint houses of Congress to introduce his planned spending cuts, a campaign promise. He received "two thunderous standing ovations", which the "New York Times" deemed "a salute to his good health" as well as his programs, which the President introduced using a medical recovery theme. [cite news | url = | title = Political Drama Surrounds First Speech Since Attack | author = Steven R. Weisman | date = April 29, 1981 | publisher = New York Times | accessdate = 2008-03-31]

The two law enforcement officers recovered from their wounds. However, the attack seriously wounded the President's Press Secretary, James Brady, who sustained a serious head wound and became permanently disabled. Brady remained as Press Secretary for the remainder of Reagan's administration, but this was primarily a titular role. Later, Brady and his wife Sarah became leading advocates of gun control and other actions to reduce the amount of gun violence in the United States. They also became active in the lobbying organization Handgun Control, Inc. – which would eventually be renamed the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence – and founded the non-profit Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. [ [ Brady Campaign Official Website] Retrieved March 3, 2007.] The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act was passed in 1993 as a result of their work. [ [ Text of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act. Retrieved March 3, 2007.] ]

Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity on June 21, 1982. The defense psychiatric reports had found him to be insane [Psychologist Says Hinckley's Tests Similar to Those of the Severely Ill, by Laura A. Kiernan, The Washington Post, May 21, 1982. Retrieved March 3, 2007.] while the prosecution reports declared him legally sane. [John Hinckley's Acts Described as Unreasonable but Not Insane, by Laura A. Kiernan, The Washington Post, June 11, 1982. Retrieved March 3, 2007.] [Hinckley Able to Abide by Law, Doctor Says, by Laura A. Kiernan, The Washington Post, June 5, 1982. Retrieved March 3, 2007.] Following his lawyers' advice, he declined to take the stand in his own defense. [John Hinckley Declines to Take the Stand, by Laura A. Kiernan, "The Washington Post", June 3, 1982. Retrieved March 3, 2007.] Hinckley was confined at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he is still being held as of April 2008. After his trial, he wrote that the shooting was "the greatest love offering in the history of the world", and did not indicate any regrets. [ [ Hinckley Hails 'Historical' Shooting To Win Love] by Stuart Taylor Jr. New York Times. July 9, 1982. Retrieved March 21, 2007.]

The not guilty verdict led to widespread dismay, [ [ Verdict and Uproar] by Denise Noe. Crime Library. Courtroom Television Network, LLC. Retrieved February 27, 2006.] [Public That Saw Reagan Shot Expresses Shock at the Verdict by Peter Perl, The Washington Post, June 23, 1982. Retrieved March 3, 2007.] and, as a result, the U.S. Congress and a number of states rewrote laws regarding the insanity defense. [ The John Hinckley Trial & Its Effect on the Insanity Defense] by Kimberly Collins, Gabe Hinkebein, and Staci Schorgl. Retrieved March 17, 2007.] The old McNaughten test was replaced by a test that shifts the burden of proof of insanity from the prosecution to the defendant. Three states have abolished the defense altogether.

Jodie Foster was hounded relentlessly by the media in early 1981 because she was Hinckley's target of obsession. She commented on Hinckley on three occasions: a press conference a few days after the attack, an article she wrote in 1982, ["Why Me?", An Article by Jodie Foster to Esquire Magazine, December 1982. Retrieved March 3, 2007.] and during an interview with Charlie Rose on "60 Minutes II"; [ [ Jodie Foster, Reluctant Star] "60 Minutes II". 1999. Retrieved April 24, 2007] she has otherwise ended several interviews after the event was mentioned. [ [ Jodie Foster] UMKC Law - Jodie Foster, Retrieved March 9, 2007.]

ee also

*Curse of Tippecanoe
*List of United States Presidential assassination attempts


External links

* [ The Trial of John Hinckley Jr.] University of Missouri at Kansas City Law School
* [ The American Experience - John Hinckley Jr.] by Julie Wolf.
* [ Crime Library - The John Hinckley Case] by Denise Noe.
* [ Reagan's reflections on the assassination attempt]
* [ Unedited footage of assassination attempt on Reagan]
* [ CNN interrupts normal programming to report attempted assassination of President Reagan. (Quicktime)]
* [ 1981 - President Ronald Reagan Shot] A report from Wayne Cabot of WCBS Newsradio 880 (WCBS-AM New York) Part of WCBS 880's celebration of 40 years of newsradio.

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