This Day in Gipper History

by Steven F. Hayward

Today is being well remembered as the 30th anniversary of the attempted assassination of President Reagan outside the Washington Hilton. Over on Power Line I offer a couple of excerpts about the episode from my Age of Reagan (published, I am delighted to note, by Dana Perino’s new employer — congratulations, Dana!).  

There are a couple of aspects of the aftermath of Reagan’s shooting that may not be recalled as clearly as the personal drama of Reagan’s courage that day: first, that it pushed his tax cut over the line; second, it arguably was a key moment in ending the Cold War.

Prior to March 30, Reagan’s 30 percent income-tax-rate-cut proposal was in deep trouble. The White House figured that it was 100 votes short in the House from being able to pass either its budget or tax cuts. Newsweek magazine had run the headline: “Is the Big Tax Cut Dead?” Some of the hardest blows came from Republicans. White House congressional liaison Max Friedersdorf sent around a worried memo in late March with the understatement that “our staff continues to pick up disturbing intelligence with regard to the tax reduction side . . . our problem [is] on the House side and among the Republicans in Ways & Means.” Finance Committee chairman Bob Dole was telling reporters that he did not have the votes to pass Reagan’s tax cut in his committee. Budget committee chairman Pete Domenici was openly opposing the tax plan. The conventional wisdom was that Reagan would have to settle for a tiny fragment of what he wanted.  But by skillfully exploiting his enormous public support after the shooting attempt, Reagan turned it around and ultimately got a 25 percent income-tax-rate cut, plus indexing.

As for the Cold War, Paul Kengor and others have written well about how the shooting sharpened Reagan’s sense of Providence and destiny, and played into his own resolve about ending the Cold War.  Here’s how I partly summarized the deeper background of that part of the story:

After losing the 1976 nomination campaign, Reagan wrote in a letter to a supporter: “Whether it is this job or whether it is early training from long ago just now coming clear, I find myself believing very deeply that God has a plan for each of us. Some with little faith and even less testing seem to miss it in their mission, or perhaps we fail to see the imprint on the lives of others. But bearing what we cannot change, going on with what God has given us, confident there is a destiny, somehow seems to bring a reward we wouldn’t exchange for any other. It takes a lot of fire and heat to make a piece of steel.”

Did Reagan ponder whether being shot was part of God’s plan for him? He unsurprisingly did not share whatever private thoughts he may have had, but on Good Friday, less than three weeks after the shooting, out of the blue Reagan told Mike Deaver that he wanted to talk to a clergyman. Deaver, an ex-seminarian, arranged for Terence Cardinal Cooke to come down from New York on short notice to visit with Reagan in the family residence at the White House. Reagan told the cardinal: “I have decided that whatever time I have left is for Him.” Separately Mother Teresa told Reagan that God had spared him for a purpose. The providential character of Reagan’s survival was perhaps confirmed two months later when, in a coincidence that seems hard to dismiss out of hand, Pope John Paul II survived an assassin’s bullet in Vatican Square. Providence or not, the Pope’s shooting was a sign that the Cold War had entered a dangerous new phase, as many western intelligence analysts believed the Pope’s shooting was a conspiracy involving Soviet bloc intelligence agencies. . .