It was forty years ago today, and I remember it well. I was working at a radio station in Norfolk, Virginia, and part of my task was to read the news. The news that day was rather shocking. As President Reagan walked out of the Washington Hilton, gunman John Hinckley waited in the crowd.
Shots were fired; a scramble was on to grab the assailant and protect the president.
No one knew at the time that Reagan had been hit. One of the bullets struck the limousine, flattened out like a dime, and entered his chest. Secret Service agent Jerry Parr (in the light coat in both photos above), realized something was wrong because Reagan wasn’t breathing easily. Then frothy blood came out of his mouth.
At that moment, Parr made a historic decision to take Reagan directly to the hospital. Reagan wanted to walk into the hospital; he made it part way, then collapsed. Doctors descended upon the emergency room from every part of the hospital. It took some searching, but they eventually found the entrance wound. Surgery followed, and, although the general public didn’t know it then, Reagan’s life was saved. Without that decision to go directly to the hospital, he might have succumbed. The bullet stopped an inch from his heart.
His recovery was slow but steady. Later, stories about his sense of humor came out. “I hope you’re all Republicans,” he told the doctors as they prepared his for surgery. “Today,” one of the doctors assured him, ” we are all Republicans.”
A few weeks later, he addressed a joint session of Congress. He honored those who put their lives on the line for him: a DC policeman; a secret service agent who threw himself in front of Reagan during the shooting. He continued to honor his press secretary Jim Brady, who never recovered from the brain damage he suffered during the attack, by paying his salary for the rest of his presidency.
He also shared a letter he received from one young boy who told him he had better recover quickly or he might have to make a speech in his pajamas. The typical Reagan humor.
An interesting postscript to this is that Jerry Parr, the agent who made that good decision that probably saved Reagan’s life, had decided to become a secret service agent because of a movie he saw when he was a youngster.
And the star of that movie? How appropriate.
I remember the Reagan years. I’m not someone who lives in the past, and I don’t exalt nostalgia, but I surely do miss the time when a man of high character occupied the Oval Office. I miss the time when Republicans were concerned about character in office. But I’ll stop there before I upset too many people.