Journalists are remembering the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan’s life 34 years ago on Monday, March 30, 1981. On that day, as Reagan was exiting the Washington Hilton hotel he was bombarded by six bullets from a young delusional gunman named John W. Hinckley Jr. On March 30, 2015 all the major new sources, Washington Post, New York Times, ABC and NBC News have been reminiscing and reposting their front pages and special report coverage from that day, while journalist Judy Woodruff, recalled covering the assassination attempt with a series of tweets on Twitter under the hashtag #ReaganShot81. Woodruff witnessed the attempt on the president’s life while working for NBC News. Other news sources like the New York Daily News republished their coverage from the day after the attempt on Reagan’s life.
Just 70 days after taking office Reagan was shot by Hinckley exiting the Washington hotel after delivering a speech at 2:27 p.m., just as he was waving his arm to the public. Reagan was hit by six bullets in the arms and the chest, his lung with one bullet lodged close to his heart, four inches close. Not even the press knew just how close to death the president was after being shot. Not only was Reagan shot, but also his press secretary James S. Brady, a secret service agent Timothy McCarthy, and a Washington police officer Thomas Delahanty. At first Reagan did not want to go to the hospital unaware of the extent of his injuries, he was taken in the presidential limousine to George Washington University Hospital, where he walked in before collapsing.
The president required surgery, but at no point was the presidential line of succession invoked. Although it was, touch and go until Reagan was in recovery after the surgery having been in shock when he arrived and then when he lost nearly half his blood in surgery. The White House was not even aware just how serious Reagan’s injuries were at first; Vice President George H. W. Bush was aboard Air Force Two on the way to Austin, Texas for a speech, communications were not secure, but he was told after some confusion to return to Washington.
Meanwhile, in the hot seat of the briefing room, deputy press secretary Larry Speakes responded about who is running the government, “I cannot answer that question at this time.” Secretary of State Alexander Haig seeing how much that would cause a panic in the country and threat to national security; took over. The secretary of state made his own declaration, responding, “As of now, I am in control here, in the White House, pending the return of the vice president and in close touch with him. If something came up, I would check with him, of course.” Haig’s remarks were controversial, as the Secretary of State is fourth in the line of presidential succession. For years later Haig still was explaining that he was helming the executive branch operations, and was not acting as president.
The transfer of succession could not be done; the White House was uncertain how to deal with the crisis. Reagan remained in surgery until 6:20 p.m., and only regained consciousness at 7 p.m. After returning to Washington, Bush spoke to the nation at 8:20 p.m. calming the public, Bush relayed, “I can reassure this nation and a watching world that the American government is functioning fully and effectively. We’ve had full and complete communications throughout the day.”
Everyone that was shot that day survived, but Brady remained paralyzed a result of his injuries and when he died in 2014 the medical examiner determined it was because the injuries he sustained in 1981. Hinckley apparently shot the president because of his obsession with actress Jodie Foster, the 25 year-old stalker thought shooting the president would please Foster. Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and was not be charged with Brady’s murder.
All three of the major networks ABC, CBS and NBC News had reporters and cameras covering Reagan, his speech and the few moments where he exited the hotel until he entered his limousine for the ride back to the White House. Only CNN in its infancy did not have a camera and instead used NBC News feed. Within fifteen minutes the networks were playing the video footage of the attempt on the president’s life, CNN’s constant coverage gave the fledgling network a boost and credibility. Although networks updated each hour, CNN’s coverage gave the world it first glimpse of news updated at a moment’s notice, the news the way we all take for granted. The only way the newspapers could make their mark was with major front-page spreads published the next day.
In honor of the anniversary, Judy Woodruff tweeted her thoughts, experiences, and recollections from the blurring day in 1981, writing, “It lasted just a minute, but it’s forever burned into my memory #ReaganShot81.” With the news media now, the minute by minute updates in all platforms, it is difficult to imagine that journalists, like Woodruff had to reach a payphone to get the story to their story to their station as Woodruff had to tell NBC News then. As Woodruff recalled, “It’s humbling to be reminded that reporters who cover the President may in an instant be drawn into a much bigger story.”
After the assassination attempt, Reagan’s poll numbers went up. His Gallup Poll approval rating surged from above 50 percent at his inauguration to 73 percent after the assassination attempt. The fact that Reagan was able to quickly recover, seemed to calm some of the fears about one of the main campaign issues, Reagan’s age. Reagan was the oldest elected president in history; at the time of the shooting he had already turned 70. In reality, Reagan did not recover that quickly, Reagan was released 13 days after being shot on April 11, but was quite slow in getting back into his routine as president. Reagan returned to the Oval Office on April 25 and addressed a Joint Session of Congress three days later on April 28, to “two thunderous standing ovations.” Reagan was not however, fully recovered until October.
Reagan seemed to have ingratiated himself with the public as well with the way he conducted himself during the crisis, with news of some his humor emanating from the hospital. The president told wife and First Lady Nancy Reagan, “I should have ducked,” referring to boxer Jack Dempsey;s famous line. Reagan told the surgeon before entering the hospital “Please tell me you’re Republicans,” to which they responded, “Today Mr. President we are all Republicans.”
After the surgery Reagan used notes to convey his jokes, including “All in all, I’d rather be in Philadelphia,” “There’s no more exhilarating feeling than being shot at without result,” and “Send me to L.A., where I can see the air I’m breathing.” When the doctors were consulting and surrounded him, Reagan joked “If I had this much attention in Hollywood, I’d have stayed there.” When White House aides visited him the next morning Reagan quipped, “Hi, fellas. I knew it would be too much to hope that we could skip a staff meeting,” and when Lyn Nofziger let him the government was functioning normally, Reagan responded sarcastically, “What makes you think I’d be happy about that?”
In the heat of the moment conspiracy theories abounded, as with President John F. Kennedy’s assassination nearly 18 years earlier in November 1963, at the time of the shooting reporters did not believe that Hinckley was the lone shooter. Woodruff reported at the time she thought one gunshot came from the above the hotel. The secret service was blamed for even allowing Hinckley to get that close to the president. Then there theories about the Curse of Tippecanoe, the supposed curse that saw every president elected every twenty years on a zero years until Reagan. Reagan’s survival of the assassinated attempt seemed to have broken the curse.
That moment could have gone so much different changing the course history, as Woodruff recalled, “Whenever I think back on that day, it’s with pain, and an overwhelming sense of unreality and humility. It’s almost impossible to comprehend how lives can change in an instant. And how American history could have changed dramatically had the bullet lodged a few centimeters away from where it did.” The bullet would have hit a little closer and the country and would have been deprived of what is considered one of the greatest presidents of the 20th century, one that led to the end of the Cold War.
Historians and analysts are still wondering what may have come if Kennedy had not been assassinated. Reagan was the first president that survived an assassination attempt, with the accomplishments of his presidency and the aftermath; historians know what the world would have missed, and are grateful that March 30, 1981 was not the tragedy it could have been and the day did not change the course of history for the worse.
Cannon, Lou. President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.
Knight, Peter. “Reagan, Ronald, Attempted Assassination of,” Conspiracy Theories in American History: An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, 2003, p. 609-610.
Levy, Peter B. “Assassination Attempt (Ronald Reagan),” Encyclopedia of the Reagan-Bush Years. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1996. p. 23, 24.
Wilber, Del Q. Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan. New York: Henry Holt and Co, 2011.
Bush, George H.W. (March 30, 1981). “Statement by the Vice President About the Attempted Assassination of the President.” Reagan Presidential Library. Retrieved March 30,2015.