BOOK REVIEW: When the president was shot

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RAWHIDE DOWN: THE NEAR ASSASSINATION OF RONALD REAGAN
By Del Quentin Wilber
Henry Holt and Company, $27, 305 pages

On March 30, 1981, outside the Washington Hilton Hotel, John Hinckley Jr., described by a presidential assistant as “a kid from a good family in Colorado who just happened to be crazy,” opened fire with a small handgun, wounding the president of the United States, his press secretary, a Secret Service agent and a D.C. police officer.

At the time, few people knew how close Ronald Reagan, code-named “Rawhide,” came to dying. In fact, in the ensuing furor, the president himself didn’t realize he’d been badly wounded. When the gunfire broke out, Secret Service agent Jerry Parr shoved the president into an armored limousine, shielding him with his body, and ordered the driver back to the White House.

The president, in pain and bleeding, thought Mr. Parr had cracked one of his ribs. But two minutes into the ride, Mr. Parr realized the bleeding signaled something more serious, and changed the destination to the George Washington University Medical Center. It was a hectic ride, almost cinematic as Mr. Wilber recreates it, the limousine with Uzi-wielding Secret Service agents crouched on its running boards, losing its police escort, narrowly missing a woman pushing a baby stroller, delivering President Reagan to the hospital within three minutes.

Later, according to the doctors, had that ride taken five more minutes, the president probably would have died. Thus, Agent Parr saved the president’s life on that day (actually twice, by preventing the president from becoming an open target), and is deservedly treated by Mr. Wilber as a genuine American hero.

The president insisted on walking into the hospital, collapsing once inside. He was taken to the emergency room in near shock and over the next few hours lost more than half his blood volume. It was finally determined he’d been wounded by a small caliber bullet (later identified as a .22-caliber Devastator) that entered the left lung and lodged just an inch from his heart.

The story of the operation to remove that bullet and repair the damage, as well as his remarkable recovery, is detailed and dramatic, as is the story of the doctors and nurses - especially the nurses, who never left his side and treated him with a mixture of respect and genuine affection - who brought him through it.

And finally, there’s the leading man, even at the darkest moments keeping an even keel, joking to visiting aides that he’d hoped to avoid a staff meeting, writing notes to his nurses, trying out one-liners on doctors in the ER and OR.

“I hope you’re all Republicans,” he told them, famously, just before going under.

And there’s the moment, early on, when Nancy sees him for the first time since the shooting: “She was badly shaken by the sight of her wounded husband lying on the gurney. IV lines stretched from his arms and a clear oxygen mask covered his face. … But when Reagan saw his wife his spirits seemed to lift … he pulled up the oxygen mask and reprised a remark made by the boxer Jack Dempsey after he lost the heavyweight championship:

“Honey,” the president said, “I forgot to duck.”

Mr. Wilber, a Washington Post crime reporter who writes clear, crisp prose, fleshes out his gripping narrative with a number of well-told side stories, among them the Chinese fire drill at the White House as Al Haig and Caspar Weinberger butted heads.

But in the end, the leading man owns the story, just as he will come to own his audience. Twelve days after the shooting, he was back at work, and within four weeks delivering an address to a joint session of Congress after “a rafter-shaking ovation.”

His response and recovery, as the late David Broder said, “is the stuff of which legends are made. … He was politically untouchable from that point on,” Broder later told Mr. Wilber. “He became a mythic figure.”

Lou Cannon tells Mr. Wilber that Reagan’s actions after the assassination attempt “cemented a bond with the American people that never dissolved.”

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