EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an excerpt from Dinesh D’Souza’s Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader.
Sometimes the inner character of a leader remains forever concealed from those he leads. The reason is that public figures wear a kind of mask, which comes off only in unguarded moments. If the leader is a seasoned performer, as Reagan was, those moments can be quite rare. Yet these occasions can provide a clearer insight into the leader than countless hours of staged appearances. Fortunately the American people were able to see Reagan’s true nature early in his presidency because of an event he could not anticipate: John Hinckley’s assassination attempt. “As for dying,” Montaigne writes, “practice can give us no assistance. A man may by experience fortify himself against pain, shame, want and other such accidents, but as for death, we can essay it but once: we are all apprentices when we come to it.”
On March 30, 1981, just nine weeks after assuming office, Reagan was leaving the banquet room of the Washington Hilton Hotel when six shots rang out, fired in rapid succession. Press secretary James Brady collapsed with a bullet in his head. Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy and policeman Thomas Delahanty were also hit. Agent Jerry Parr shoved the president into his limousine while other agents rushed the gunman. Reagan, who did not know he had been shot, felt an acute pain in his chest. Parr noticed that blood was coming out of the president’s mouth and ordered the limousine to George Washington Hospital, where doctors discovered a bullet lodged less than an inch from Reagan’s heart. Benjamin Aaron, the surgeon who operated on him, said he was “right on the margin” of death.
Reagan survived the barrage of his assailant, a troubled drifter named John Hinckley, and in the process showed the American people that he had the right stuff. On his arrival at the hospital, he quipped to the doctors, “Please tell me you’re Republicans.” When he opened his eyes again and they asked him how he was feeling, he replied by scribbling on a notepad the old W. C. Fields line, “All in all, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.” He probed the hospital staff about the man who had tried to kill him: “Does anybody know what that guy’s beef was?” He explained what had happened to Nancy Reagan: “Honey, I forgot to duck,” the words boxer Jack Dempsey told his wife when he lost the heavyweight title to Gene Tunney in 1926. In a telephone conversation he told his daughter Maureen that “this fellow Hinckley” had ruined one of his favorite suits, and he was obligated to buy a new one.
To a solicitous nurse who held his hand, Reagan cautioned, “Does Nancy know about us? When the hospital staff told him about the progress being made by the others who had been wounded in the assassination attempt, Reagan said, “That’s great news. We’ll have to get four bedpans and have a reunion.” To three White House staffers who came to see him, Reagan mumbled, “Hi fellas. I should have known I wasn’t going to avoid a staff meeting.” His first question to Michael Deaver was, “Who’s minding the store?” Deaver told him everything was going smoothly in his absence, and he chuckled, “What makes you think I’d be happy to hear that?” Before Reagan left, he told the doctors and nurses, ” If I had this much attention in Hollywood, I’d have stayed there.” A year later, Reagan spoke again before the same group he had addressed when he was shot. Reporters asked him if he was afraid, and he replied, “No, but I’m wearing my oldest suit today.” To the audience he said, “I know you all understand how happy I am to be back,” he said, “but if it’s all the same to you, when I finish speaking, I think I’ll slip out the back door this time.”
When has a man taken a bullet in his chest with greater élan? Many Americans who were deeply shocked by the assassination attempt were relieved and comforted to hear how well Reagan was doing. Almost subconsciously, Reagan was performing a valuable task of psychological leadership. By his own example, he was helping the country recover its balance after a traumatic national event.
Reagan was the first president to survive a wound in an assassination attempt. Andrew Jackson, Harry Truman, and Gerald Ford were all targets of botched attempts. Other presidents, like Lincoln and Kennedy, were killed in office. In Lincoln’s case the manner of his death only enhanced the aura of his greatness, which, even in life, arose out of tragedy. Kennedy’s assassination, which ended his brief presidency, validated the truth of the saying that immortality is chiefly a matter of dying at the right moment.
Two of the great presidents of this century, the Roosevelts, were also targets of would-be assassins. During his 1912 bid to return to the presidency, Teddy Roosevelt was shot and injured by a political enemy and–being Teddy Roosevelt–elected to give his campaign speech anyway, with blood on his shirt. In 1933 an assailant fired five times at Franklin Roosevelt, but he missed, hitting Chicago mayor Anton Cermak instead. Roosevelt showed calm command of the situation, revealing a steely interior. Yet for sublime grace and wit, even the two Roosevelts’ conduct under fire could not compare with that of Reagan.
Suddenly it could no longer be said of Reagan that he was the giddy optimist, that he lacked gravitas because he had not experienced tragedy. Courage, Reagan demonstrated, is more than the lack of fear. The president had been shot, but he stayed in the saddle and lived to laugh about it later. John Wayne, in his best performance, could have done no better. The assassination attempt showed Americans that even when Reagan’s body was wounded, his spirit remained intact. It gave the president an almost mythic dimension in the eyes of his countrymen.
It also infused Reagan with a sense of mortality and mission. He was convinced when he returned from the hospital that he had a limited amount of time to achieve his ambitious agenda. Yet his goals were not only political but also personal. With Cardinal Cooke, who came to visit him, Reagan struck a spiritual note: “I have decided that whatever time I have left is for Him.” The late Mother Teresa, who visited the White House that June, told Reagan, “You have suffered the passion of the cross and have received grace. There is a purpose to this. Because of your suffering and pain you will now understand the suffering and pain of the world. This has happened to you at this time because your country and the world needs you.” Reagan was speechless. Nancy Reagan wept.
–Dinesh D’Souza is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader.