Dead Presidents

Historical facts, thoughts, ramblings and collections on the Presidency and about the Presidents of the United States.

By Anthony Bergen
E-Mail: bergen.anthony@gmail.com

Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan
Del Quentin Wilber
Trade Paperback.  305 pp.
March 27, 2012.  Picador.



One of the most challenging aspects to writing about history is trying to find a way to retell a story about a well-known person or event that sheds new light or brings forth a different perspective on a very familiar subject.  The very best history books are those that sharpen the knowledge that we already possess, augment it with new information or previously untold details, and package everything with first-rate reporting and compelling storytelling in order to create a work that is not merely noteworthy but definitive.  And definitive was the word that never left my mind as I sped through Del Quentin Wilber’s Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan.

On the surface, the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan just 70 days into his Presidency is a memorable event.  On March 30, 1981, a deranged young man named John Hinckley, Jr., opened fire as President Reagan left the Washington Hilton Hotel after giving a speech.  Hinckley was mentally ill and, after watching Taxi Driver, obsessed with actress Jodie Foster.  After stalking Foster and finding that his love for her was not reciprocated, Hinckley had delusions that a dramatic act on his part might yet win the young actress’s attention.  If killing the President didn’t lead Jodie Foster in his arms, Hinckley was certain that the other possibility of his action — being killed in a shootout with Secret Service agents — would satisfy his other obsession, suicide.

As Reagan left the Hilton for a short walk to his waiting limousine, Hinckley fired six shots.  Two shots missed.  One struck White House Press Secretary Jim Brady in the head.  Another wounded Washington, D.C. Police Officer Thomas Delahanty.  Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy literally took one of the bullets for the President; as soon as he heard gunshots, McCarthy spread his body into a wide stance directly in front of Reagan and was shot in the chest.  The other bullet had ricocheted off the Presidential limousine and tore into the left side of President Reagan. 

Secret Service agent Jerry Parr quickly shoved Reagan into the limousine and the motorcade hurriedly sped away from the chaotic scene of the shooting.  As the Secret Service raced the President back to the safety of the White House, Reagan found himself in a lot of pain and short of breath.  The President and his top Secret Service agent, Parr, saw no signs that Reagan had been shot but they both worried that Reagan’s ribs had been broken when Parr shoved the President into the limousine.  Instead of going to the White House, Parr ordered the limo to take the President to George Washington University Medical Center for treatment.

In Rawhide Down, Del Quentin Wilber uses his top-notch reporting skills to give a moment-by-moment account of the major players in the assassination attempt and its aftermath, from the time they woke up on March 30, 1981 and through the chaos of the shooting and Reagan’s arrival at the hospital.  Like Wilber’s legendary colleague at the Washington Post, Bob Woodward, this is journalistic history at its best — the always-riveting tick-tock format, but done in a way that seamlessly blends activities happening at the scene of the shooting, at the White House, at the hospital, and throughout the shaken country. 

Yet, it’s not just the assassination attempt itself that gives Rawhide Down its color.  The personalities at work throughout that day really tell the story thanks to Wilber’s meticulous research (research that makes Wilber’s footnotes a must-read, as well).  There is the disturbingly calm would-be assassin, Hinckley; the brave and devoted members of Reagan’s Secret Service detail; Reagan’s “troika” of James Baker, Michael Deaver, and Edwin Meese; the Cabinet — trying to “mind the store” at the White House — and making a mess of things; the frightened but strong-willed First Lady, Nancy Reagan; the level-headed leadership of Vice President George H.W. Bush; the frantic media; the spectacular medical staff at George Washington University Medical Center; and, above everyone else, the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan.

While everything up to the shooting is detailed and riveting, Rawhide Down becomes impossible to put down as President Reagan’s motorcade races to the hospital.  Still unsure of what’s causing Reagan’s injury, the limousine pulls up to the emergency room entrance, but Reagan insists on walking into the hospital under his own power.  Obviously weakened and shaky, hospital staff at first are worried that the 70-year-old President — the oldest man to ever hold the office — was in the midst of a serious heart attack.  As soon as Reagan walked inside the hospital, he collapsed and was rushed to a trauma room.  The frantic scene at the hospital is brought to life three decades later by Wilber’s vivid account.  Hospital staff rushes to treat Reagan, yet many of the nurses and doctors don’t realize who their patient is until after they start treating him.  Shockingly, it isn’t until several minutes after they begin examining Reagan that they realize that the President indeed had been shot.

The scene that Wilber depicts in Rawhide Down is far more serious than what most people realize.  Because Ronald Reagan seemed to recover so quickly, enjoyed a full two terms as President, and lived until he was 93 years old, many have overlooked how serious his wounds were on March 30, 1981.  When Reagan was first brought into the trauma room, many hospital staff worried that he was almost certainly going to die.  Not only was Reagan’s gunshot wound serious, but it appeared that he was going into shock — a potentially lethal development for a 70-year-old man.  As doctors searched for the bullet and the cause of massive bleeding inside Reagan’s chest, they were forced to pump the President full of pints of donated blood while ensuring that he was getting enough oxygen into his system to keep his organs functioning.  By the time doctors finally stopped the bleeding in Reagan’s chest, the President had lost more than 50% of the blood in his body.  Blessed with a rapid response, better technology, and top-notch medical treatment, the 70-year-old President survived a gunshot wound far more dangerous than the bullet wounds that killed 49-year-old President James Garfield in 1881 and 58-year-old President William McKinley in 1901.

Through it all, though, it is Ronald Reagan who stands amongst a cast of fascinating figures of history.  Many Americans forget just what it was exactly that turned an elderly former movie actor into an icon for a political movement and one of the legendary Presidents of modern times.  Reading Rawhide Down, we’re reminded of the aspects of Ronald Reagan’s character and personality that rose above politics and inspired confidence.  There’s the unfailing good humor of a severely wounded man who happened to be the most powerful person in the world, yet tried his best to put his doctors and nurses at ease by joking, “I hope you’re all Republicans” or calming the worried nerves of his beloved wife by  telling her, “Honey, I forgot to duck.”  Most touching to me was how Reagan stayed up until 4:00 AM after his surgery and once his breathing tube was removed so that he could chat with the two nurses on special duty watching over him.  Reagan basically felt bad that they were forced to stay by his side on his account, so he joked with them, asked them about their families, talked about his job, and regaled them with old stories from his days in Hollywood.  Rawhide Down does what all great history books are somehow able to do — tell the story of a significant event through the eyes and words and actions of the people who lived it.

There have always been two books on Presidential assassinations that have stood heads-and-shoulders above the rest — William Manchester’s The Death of a President and Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  Those two books, both about the JFK assassination, are so richly detailed and vivid that they have had no peers.  I do not hesitate in placing Del Quentin Wilber’s Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan in the rarefied air of Manchester and Bugliosi.  This book is a masterpiece.

Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan by Del Quentin Wilber will be released in trade paperback by Picador USA on March 27, 2012.  It’s currently available in hardcover or on your Kindle.  Mr. Wilber also has a website about the book at rawhidedown.com.