Friday, May 13, 2011

Won for the Gipper

In Rawhide Down: the Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan, Del Quentin Wilber provides a galloping account of a literally breathtaking event

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.

Thirty years ago, an assassin almost killed Ronald Reagan at the very dawn of what proved to be a long and decisive presidency. We now know that Reagan was more seriously injured than most people believed at the time, and there has also been speculation that the trauma of the experience proved more lasting than realized. In Rawhide Down -- the title refers to President Reagan's Secret Service nickname -- Washington Post reporter Del Quentin Wilber sidesteps such broader analysis and renders a highly detailed, yet remarkably fast-paced, account of March 30, 1981. The book unfolds with the liquidity of a good novel, while at the same time providing a useful slice of social history in terms of matters like traumatic medical care, law enforcement, and the granular dimensions of everyday life for extraordinary people like presidents of the United States.

Though this is presumably a piece of objective reportage, the book is played in a key of quiet heroism. That goes for the agents, in particular Jerry Parr, an important source of the book and one who saved Reagan's life twice, first by throwing him into his limousine so that a bullet ended up in the president's chest rather than his head, and then by making the critical decision to direct the limo to the George Washington University hospital, where timely care made the difference between life and death. Wilber also reconstructs the actions and thinking of Reagan's doctors and nurses, who are portrayed as dedicated professionals with passionate feelings they nevertheless kept under control. We also get sympathetic portraits of the three other victims that day: Washington DC policeman Thomas K. Delahanty, Secret Service Agent Tim McCarthy, and White House Press Secretary Jim Brady, the most seriously injured of the four and in whose name President Clinton signed a control bill in 1993.

Of course, not everybody in this story comes off well. Secretary of State Alexander Haig damaged his career by inaccurately asserting he was "in control" in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, though Wilbur notes that Haig's behavior, however irritating to his colleagues, reflected real concerns about the appearance of chaos. And the assassin himself, John W. Hinckley, who performed the act as part of a grotesque strategem to impress Jodie Foster, is seen a very troubled man. But certainly there's nothing here to suggest that his eventual acquittal by reason of insanity was incorrect, or that we should feel much more than pity for him.

The star of the book, perhaps inevitably, is Reagan. His grace under pressure and quips that day ("I hope you're all Republicans," he said to his doctors, who weren't; "Honey, I forgot to duck," he said to his wife) have long since passed into political lore. But learning more about Reagan's behavior in the aftermath of the shooting only increases even a liberal's sense of awe. It's hard not to be moved by his concern for others, even Hinckley, and his profound modesty and gratitude as a patient. Most remarkable of all is the quickness of his wit, whether simply in deploying his stock lines ("Send me to L.A., where I can see the air I'm breathing, he wrote in frustration at having a breathing tube stuck down his throat) or in his deadpan delivery ("I should have known I wasn't going to avoid a staff meeting," he said the next morning, as aides crowded into his hospital room).

A number of people who saw me carrying around this book commented that they couldn't believe it's already been thirty years since Reagan was shot. Such a remark reflects the proverbial speed of time's flight. But it may also suggest that in an important sense, we're still inhabiting the moment that arrived when Reagan became president a mere two months before the shooting. For better (and, as far as many of us are concerned, for worse), it's still the Age of Reagan. Not even his death in 2004 or the ascension of Barack Obama to the presidency five years later have changed that. Having gotten his chance, the Gipper's aim proved better.