Today is the 25th anniversary of the attempted assassination of the late president Ronald W. Reagan, and it’s a day former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani remembers vividly.
“The morning of March 30, 1981, the White House had a breakfast with the president for newly appointed” sub-Cabinet officials, Giuliani recalls. He had occupied a Justice Department office for the previous fortnight while awaiting Senate confirmation as Ronald Reagan’s associate attorney general.
Photo courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
“Everyone took a picture with the president,” Giuliani continues. “And then we had breakfast with him . . . He gave us a talk about our role, and the importance of the administration, and the opportunity to change things. That was the whole feeling of the time: that this was an opportunity to make significant change in the way that government was organized and our priorities.”
President Reagan eventually shifted from national affairs to the national pastime.
”I remember the conversation got around to baseball,” Giuliani says. President Reagan shared a few stories about players he admired and reminisced about his days as a 1930s baseball radio announcer. “I must have asked him a question about baseball,” Giuliani says. “I can never remember a conversation about baseball that I haven’t participated in,” he laughs.
That afternoon, Giuliani conferred with presidential adviser Michael Uhlmann in his space in the Old Executive Office Building. “We were putting together a task force to consider proposals for reducing violent crime,” Giuliani remembers. During that meeting, ironically, they suddenly learned that a gunman named John Warnock Hinckley Jr. had emptied his .22 caliber Rohm revolver outside the Washington Hilton Hotel at about 2:25 P.M. One bullet hit President Reagan and burrowed to within an inch of his heart. Hinckley also struck and seriously wounded White House press secretary James Brady, Washington, D.C., police officer Thomas Delahanty, and Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy.
“It was a tremendous shock,” Giuliani says. “It would have been a shock anyway, but particularly just having seen [Reagan] at breakfast.”
“My secretary came running into my office with the news,” says Uhlmann, now an American-government professor at Claremont Graduate University in southern California. “We were stunned, of course. It took us a couple of seconds to get our acts together.”
Giuliani raced back to his office and huddled with Attorney General William French Smith, FBI Director William Webster, and Justice’s top brass.
“A lot of the next couple of hours were taken up working with the Metropolitan Police Department,” Giuliani says. “The attorney general wanted [Hinckley] in federal custody. Since the attempted assassination–at this point, we didn’t know if the president was going to live or die–or the possible assassination of a president is a federal offense, we wanted him in federal custody. I worked with the FBI to get him transferred to federal custody and found a place in the District to keep him with the U.S. Marshals.”
Where exactly did Giuliani sequester Hinckley?
“I can’t actually remember, and I probably wouldn’t tell you if I could,” he laughs.
More seriously, Giuliani says, “My job was to oversee getting Hinckley in federal custody, and then keeping him safe.” He adds, “I remember several times that day, that picture came into my head: Jack Ruby coming out of a crowd and shooting Lee Harvey Oswald” during another prison transfer. Moving Hinckley–with FBI and U.S. Marshal assistance to “a place that nobody would know about or find–was obviously more tense with that recollection.”
Giuliani soon sought due process for the most reviled man in America.
“We had to get [Hinckley] arraigned within a reasonable period of time,” Giuliani says. “Although this was a crime of worldwide significance, it still had to be treated like any other crime.” Hinckley would face a judge, hear his rights, and could request bail.
Giuliani remembers what Attorney General Smith said of Hinckley: ” ‘We have to demonstrate to people that our system operates. He should be brought out into open court the way any other prisoner is.’ ” “And it also should be shown,” Giuliani adds, “that he hasn’t been mistreated, in case anybody ever tried to make that allegation later–that he had been scarred, beaten, or whatever.”
After closing time, Giuliani dispatched FBI agents and U.S. Marshals to Washington’s E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse. “They emptied it out. They searched it. They checked it for bombs. They secured it,” Giuliani says. Hinckley “arrived for arraignment, if I recall correctly, probably around 10 o’clock at night.”
As U.S. Magistrate Arthur L. Burnett presided, Giuliani sat in open court beside FBI Director Webster and saw Hinckley hear the charges against him, hear his legal rights, and ultimately remain incarcerated.
“You look at a person like that and you wonder how something like that could happen,” Giuliani says. “You’re looking at their outer image, right? . . . What could be going on inside this man’s head, that he would attempt to kill President Reagan, or any president for that matter?”
What did that traumatic day teach Giuliani?
“For me personally,” he says, “it was one of those terrible emergencies that I was involved in. And I think it kind of taught me how to handle it. Not just me personally, but watching the other people: the attorney general, how he organized it, the head of the FBI, Bill Webster. And the attorney general, who had been in office at that point two months, handled it brilliantly. He organized all of us. He had us all doing our jobs. We each had our function.”
Giuliani finally went home and, like tens of millions of Americans, hypnotically followed the news. “I probably stayed up all night watching it on television,” Giuliani says. He heard the jokes Reagan told, even while suffering major internal bleeding.
“Honey, I forgot to duck,” he smiled at the First Lady. Before undergoing surgery, the president told his doctors, “Please tell me you’re all Republicans.” Later, Reagan scribbled aides a note: “All in all, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”
“That incident, that could have taken Ronald Reagan from us and therefore deprived us of someone I think will be one of our great presidents,” Giuliani explains, “also was a thing that created in the American mind the affection for him . . . It displayed a man of tremendous courage and an ability to handle anything.”
Does Giuliani call himself a Reaganite?
“Absolutely!” he exclaims. “He had strong beliefs. He knew what those beliefs were. He stuck to them whether they were popular or unpopular. And he did it in a way in which he was civil and nice to everyone. It was a beautiful combination of tremendous commitment to what he believed in, but not anger.”
“Ronald Reagan was a role model for me,” says America’s Mayor. “I consider him a hero.”
– Deroy Murdock is a New York-based columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a senior fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in Arlington, Va. Researcher Marco DeSena contributed to this piece.