That isn’t a myth or a cliché. Not only do I think that a Secret Service agent would take a bullet for the President, but a Secret Service agent already HAS taken a bullet for the President!
This is March 30, 1981, as President Reagan leaves the Washington Hilton. In this first photo, John Hinckley, Jr. has just fired his first shots at Reagan and you can see the reaction. The blonde-haired agent in the blue-gray suit at the center of the photo is Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy:
Behind McCarthy, Secret Service agent Jerry Parr is shoving President Reagan into the limo. Not only is McCarthy reacting to the gunshots, he’s turning the front of his body towards them:
This is no accident or stroke of bad luck. Milliseconds have passed, but Agent McCarthy has shifted his body into a wide stance and is literally shielding President Reagan, who can still somewhat be seen directly behind McCarthy as Agent Parr keeps shoving the President into the limousine:
In that instant, as Hinckley was firing his shots at President Reagan, Agent McCarthy instinctively (yet consciously) recognized the danger, understood the consequences, realized what he had been trained to do, and, yes, in a superhero move, used his body as a shield and took a bullet for the President of the United States:
Of course, we know that President Reagan was still shot and nearly killed during this assassination attempt, but the bullet that struck Reagan had ricocheted off the limo and hit him. The quick-thinking and incredible heroism of Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy probably saved the 70-year-old President from taking another bullet, and he probably saved lead agent Jerry Parr from being shot, as well.
To reiterate, Tim McCarthy didn’t just happen to accidentally get caught in the crossfire — he consciously turned himself towards the gunfire, purposely spread himself into a wide stance, and used his body as a shield so that John Hinckley, Jr. would shoot him instead of President Reagan. So, yes, I think other Secret Service agents would do the same. In fact, one member of President Truman’s protective detail was killed and two were wounded in 1950 when two Puerto Rican nationalists tried to shoot their way into Blair House, the temporary Presidential home while the White House was being renovated, and assassinate President Truman.
By the way, Agent McCarthy fully recovered from his wound.
I’m not sure it’s possible to answer this one. Unfortunately, we don’t know the extent of Lincoln’s sense of humor because we have no video or audio of him and there wasn’t a White House Correspondents Dinner or anything in the 1860s. We can guess about it since we know he enjoyed jokes and to tell his funny stories to folks (sometimes over-and-over-and-over again!), but it’s not like there is some sort of instrument to measure and compare the senses of humor of two people.
Plus — and we don’t know this for sure, either, so it’s just a wild guess — I think Lincoln and Obama are probably funny in different ways. Lincoln seemed to have a story for everything, loved to hear a good joke and was always ready to tell one of his own, was self-deprecating about his height and his looks, and enjoyed reading many of the comedic writers of his day. Obama’s humor is probably not as goofy or silly as Lincoln supposedly could be, but President Obama has great comedic timing. Those White House Correspondents Dinners can be awkward with Presidents who might have funny speeches written for them but lose a little on the presentation because they aren’t used to the rhythm of comedy (I’m looking at you, President Clinton!). Obama has a great delivery when he’s trying to be funny.
Let’s not forget that Reagan was a pretty funny guy, too. He and JFK had really quick wits and funny little quips. They also had good comedic timing and delivery, especially Reagan, although I guess being a professional actor helped with that. George W. Bush could be funny at times, too, but didn’t have too many opportunities to let loose during his Administration since the world happened to go to hell for eight years.
I think that Eisenhower and Reagan probably would have been tempted to seek a third term, if possible. They both had health problems during their Presidencies, but I could see Eisenhower seeking a third term anyway. He had a difficult time stepping away, which is one reason why he waited so long to give Richard Nixon a solid endorsement in 1960. It wasn’t necessarily a lack of confidence in Nixon’s abilities, but partly because Ike felt that he (Ike) was still the best man for the job.
Reagan, like Clinton, loved being President, too. But when Reagan left office in 1989, he was about two weeks away from his 78th birthday and, according to his official biographer, Edmund Morris, there were signs that he may have been facing the early stages of his Alzheimer’s in the last few weeks of his Administration. Since President Reagan looked relatively healthy and definitely looked fit for his age, it’s difficult for people to realize that he was almost a full eight years older than Eisenhower (70) was when Ike left office. Even if Eisenhower had served another term, Ike still would have been four years younger than Reagan at the end of that third term. I think Reagan’s age and deteriorating health would have prevented him from a third term if it was Constitutionally possible. As closely as his public image was protected by Nancy Reagan, there is no way she would have stood by while he hung on for another term and publicly started to suffer from serious Alzheimer’s symptoms.
An interesting thing is that, if they had the opportunity to run for a third term and their health allowed it, I think Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton all would have been easily elected to another term. I think George W. Bush would have had a much more difficult time with seeking a third term, if possible. However, I don’t think Bush would have run again even if he was Constitutionally eligible. In those last few months of 2008, President Bush looked SO ready to get back to Texas. Even if his chances of being re-elected were positive, I still think he would have chosen retirement instead of a third term.
As for the second part of your question, I think that Truman would have stepped away in 1952, no matter what. All Truman ever wanted to do was remain a U.S. Senator. When he was suggested as a potential Vice Presidential candidate, he was not interested, and when others reminded him that President Franklin D. Roosevelt likely wouldn’t survive the term, Truman declared that he didn’t want to be President either. Of course, he was elected Vice President and as in the case of almost every VP who succeeds to the Presidency, once Truman got to the White House he wanted to be elected to a term in his own right. Still, before Eisenhower declared that he was a Republican, Truman was suggesting that he (Truman) would be happy to step aside and be Eisenhower’s running mate if Ike wanted to run for President as a Democrat. So, Harry Truman did not mind retiring home to Missouri in 1952, and I think he would have done so, no matter what.
LBJ’s case was different. The fact that he was very nearly upset in the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic Primary by Eugene McCarthy really shook President Johnson up and showed that he was vulnerable. If there wasn’t a serious challenge from within his own party — first from McCarthy and then from RFK — LBJ would have stayed in that race in 1968. Despite his withdrawal from the race, deep down LBJ still had a flicker of hope that the Democratic National Convention would be deadlocked, turn to the outgoing LBJ, draft him into the race, nominate him, and he’d be the conquering hero, vanquishing Nixon and bringing the Vietnam War to an end.
LBJ was also a man of contradictions, though. Throughout his life, he always said that he would die young because all of the men in his family died by the time they were 64 or 65. As much as Johnson was addicted to power and craved the love of the American people (something that he never received like JFK did, which “broke his heart” according to Richard Nixon), he was also deeply worried that another four years in the White House would kill him. Worse yet, he would suffer an incapacitating stroke like Woodrow Wilson. LBJ often had a nightmare where he fell ill like Wilson and was an invalid — a shell of a once-powerful man bedridden or feebly being rolled through the White House in a wheelchair. It was an macabre thing to think about, but it was something that frequently haunted President Johnson, especially because he had suffered a near-fatal massive heart attack in 1955 when he was Senate Majority Leader. The confident, arrogant, impetuous, strong-willed LBJ wanted to take on Nixon and serve four more years in the White House. The sensitive, insecure, depressed LBJ considered resigning, didn’t think he’d live through the next term (1969-1973), and often had to receive a pep talk from Lady Bird to get his act together and go to work. So, with LBJ, it would actually depend on which LBJ you got on decision day when it comes to whether he would have sought a third term if not for the disastrous results of the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic Primary.
By the way, Lyndon Johnson died on January 22, 1973. If he had served a third term, it would have ended on January 20, 1973, just two days prior to the day that he actually died.
Thank you and thank you for the book mention, which gives me the opportunity to remind people that my book Tributes and Trash Talk: What Our Presidents Said About Each Other is available now for just $6.99! Get it instantly for your Kindle, iPad, or iPhone via Amazon, or for your NOOK via Barnes & Noble!
As for Ted Kennedy, I really admired his work in the Senate, where he truly was an iconic figure, despite the fact that nobody really expected much out of him when he became a political figure of his own. Arguably — partly because of his longevity and the short, tragic ends to JFK and RFK — Ted Kennedy effected more Americans in a real, legislative way than his older brothers did. JFK and RFK were big on vision but their assassinations robbed us of what they could have actually accomplished. Ted Kennedy had almost 50 years of service in the U.S. Senate and his work has effected so many individual Americans on a day-to-day basis.
He’s certainly a fascinating figure. I think Reagan vs. Kennedy in 1980 would have been a hell of an interesting campaign (and, just to answer the question I assume will follow, I think Reagan would still win). The Kennedy/Jimmy Carter dynamic at the 1980 Democratic Convention is one of the most awkward interactions you’ll ever see in the tightly-controlled world of Presidential politics. Maybe he could have been a great President, but what he did in the Senate was just as important and perhaps more than he ever could have done in the White House.
40th President of the United States (1981-1989)
Full Name: Ronald Wilson Reagan
Born: February 6, 1911, Graham Building, 111-113 South Main Street, Tampico, Illinois
Term: January 20, 1981-January 20, 1989
Political Party: Republican
Vice President: George Herbert Walker Bush
Died: June 5, 2004, 668 St. Cloud Road, Bel-Air, Los Angeles, California
Buried: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, Simi Valley, California
There are many aspects of being President of the United States. First and foremost is the President as a political leader, commander-in-chief, chief executive of the federal government, and administrator of all of the departments which make up the Executive Branch. Yet, there is also the public relations role. A role which sometimes calls for inspirational leadership, motivational leadership, the skills for challenging Americans to be their best that is almost like the skills required of a great athletic coach. This part of the Presidency is an almost paternal role, and it is best exhibited in trying moments like the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger or the bombing of the Marine barrracks in Beirut. No one was better at this part of the Presidency than Ronald Reagan, and that means something in these rankings. Reagan wasn’t the best manager/administrator, but he was a rock star politically and, when the nation needed their President to make them feel like everything would be okay, Ronald Reagan was usually there to say the right things with his comforting voice and warm easy smile. That may not make you the best President and the metrics may not put him in the top tier, but something is to be said for someone who makes Americans feel good and strong and safe.
1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine: Not Ranked
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine: Not Ranked
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine: Not Ranked
1990: Siena Institute: 22 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine: 25 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 11 of 41
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll: 6 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership: 6 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians: 10 of 42
2010: Siena Institute: 18 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre: 8 of 40
“Ronald Reagan would have, based on his record of finding accommodation, finding some degree of common ground, as would my dad [George H.W. Bush] — they would have a hard time if you define the Republican Party — and I don’t — as having an orthodoxy that doesn’t allow for disagreement, doesn’t allow for finding some common ground.” — former Florida Governor Jeb Bush in BuzzFeed, echoing something that I have previously written about, namely the opinion that Reagan and Bush 41 would have a difficult battle in gaining a foothold in today’s Republican Party or winning the GOP nomination because of the partisan extremists who control the narrative.
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.
I picked up Del Quintin Wilber’s Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan earlier today and haven’t been able to stop reading it. I’ll be finished with the book in another hour — that’s how good it is. The story of the assassination attempt on President Reagan has been told in bits and pieces, but never as completely and definitely as Wilber tells it — moment-by-moment. It’s detailed and fascinating and just really damn good. The book’s already out in hardcover and Kindle, and the paperback edition will be released at the end of the month. I highly recommend it.
Here’s a tiny example of one of the little details that makes the book so good. In the panicked moments after Reagan arrived at George Washington University Medical Center, Presidential aide David Fischer and Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver were in the Emergency Room trying to find out Reagan’s condition and open of a line of communication with the White House, when Deaver was stopped by a hospital worker, which shows how chaotic the scene must have been in the hospital:
After Fischer hurried back to the trauma bay, a hospital worker in green scrubs approached Deaver. “Do you know the name of the patient in the emergency room,” he asked.
“Would you give me his name, please?”
“It’s Reagan. R-E-A-G-A-N.”
The hospital employee kept scribbling.
“Sixteen hundred Pennsylvania.”
The man’s pencil stopped moving.
“Yes, you have the President of the United States in there.”