Rawhide Down: Del Wilber on the near assassination of Ronald Reagan

Mar 29, 2011

Join Del Wilber on Tuesday, March 29 at 11 a.m. ET, as he chats about his new book "Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan."

In it, he fills in the gaps in history and finally tells the complete record of the day the only serving U.S. president survived being shot in an assassination attempt.

Hi, everyone! Thanks for joining the chat. I'm the Post's federal courts reporter -- well one of several -- and I just published my first book, Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan. It focuses extensively on March 30, 1981, one of the most dramatic days in presidential and recent U.S. history. You can read more about it at www.rawhidedown.com. I'm eager to answer any questions you have about the assassination attempt, Reagan and anything else that strikes your fancy. Tomorrow is the 30th anniversary of the shooting.

When I listened to the tape--and I have to admit in the confusion to understand all the lingo---but it sounded to me that momentarily someone thought Reagan had not been hit, and then it was realized he had been shot. Is that correct? I am not faulting anyone, as they quickly realized he was shot, but I am just wondering if I heard the tape correctly or if I need to get my ears checked.

You have a good ear. At first, Secret Service Agent Jerry Parr -- who was with Ronald Reagan in the limousine fleeing from the Washington Hilton after the gunfire -- did not know the president had been shot. In fact, he thought he had gotten Reagan out of harm's way and got on the radio and said: "Rawhide is ok, Rawhide is ok." Rawhide is Reagan's Secret Service code name. Anyway, they were driving back to the White House when Reagan's condition began to deteriorate. And Parr decided to divert to the hospital. Even then, Parr thought Reagan may have punctured a lung with a rib during the scramble into the limousine. Nobody – including Reagan – realized he had been hit until a doctor spotted the bullet hole in his left side, about five inches below his armpit.
This scene is one of the most dramatic in the book. In a matter of about 90 seconds – probably less – Jerry Parr saves Reagan’s life twice. He got the president out of Hinckley’s direct line of fire (if the agent had been a split second slower, Reagan would have been hit in the head). In the car ride back to the White House, Parr noticed that Reagan had bright frothy blood on his lips – that’s a signal that the blood is oxygenated and coming from the lungs. So he decided to divert to George Washington University Hospital. Doctors say if Parr hadn’t made that decision, Reagan would have died.

Theodore Roosevelt also was shot and continued to serve.

Actually, Roosevelt was wounded while campaigning for president in 1912 – nearly four years after he left office in 1908 and decided to run again as the candidate for the Progressive Party. He was merely a candidate. Now, after getting shot, he continued with his speech. That was very impressive!

A great story in the Post today about the nurses perspective at that moment in history-- i look forward to reading your book. The nurses saw an incredibly unique and human side to this tragic event. Now 30 years and lots of patients (and probably a few other famous ones in the DC area) later, did you find them particularly still able to recall that moment or was this just another VIP? Did it change them? alter their careers?

March 30, 1981, was a big day in their lives and they had amazing and detailed memories of the crisis and the care they provided the president. After their long shifts,  many went home and took notes about their interactions with Reagan and what they did -- which really benefit historians. I came to really admire the nurses because they are such unsung heroes and without them the medical system would fall apart. They are key care givers but also great comforts to patients during their most dire hours. Almost all nurses continued in medicine -- Kathy Paul Stevens, Marisa Mize, Denise Sullivan and Wendy Keonig are all active nurses, more or less. And just fantastic subjects. Great memories. They are also very spirited and passionate about their jobs. As a writer, you cannot ask for better characters. Thank you very much for reading the story and recognizing the work these nurses did -- and for picking up the book!

Other than now using tents for the presidential limo to drive into and segregating the media pool from the public what other security features directly came about from that day?

Ah. Some are secret and I don't even know. They began using tents, as you noted, and magnetometers became much more common. Perimeters were expanded, and the Secret Service became much more active in tracking potential assassins. Agents have taken other steps -- which they refuse to disclose -- that they believe have helped avert another shooting. But, as we saw in 2009 when two would-be socialites snuck into the White House and shook Obama's hand, no security measure is fool proof.

I enjoyed your book and appreciate the thorough research, as far as it goes. But you didn't question whether there was another shooter. Judy Woodruff was at the scene said a shot came from the balcony. In an official White House photo taken at the time of the shooting, you can see a man in a sport coat with his arm protruding from a room window on the balcony in what looks like a firing position in line with the shot hitting the limo that in turn wounded Reagan. What is your comment on this issue?

There was NO second shooter. Audio and video tape revealed that only six shots were fired and all six shots came from the gun brandished by John W. Hinckley JR.  The reliability of witnesses at shooting scenes -- especially when it comes to sound, etc. -- is often murky. Reagan was struck in the left side, about five inches below his armpit. That bullet, which ricocheted off the side of the armored limousine, was certainly fired by Hinckley. And all of the other injuries – and forensic examination of the bullets – were consistent with a lone gunman, Hinckley.

The Kennedy assassination is often cited as an event that the Secret Service learned from in improving its protection policies. What lessons, if any, were drawn from the attempt on President Reagan? Something we may not know about.

Actually, I found that the Kennedy assassination attempt played a marginal role in improving the Secret Service. The training that taught Jerry Parr to save the president's life that day did not come into existence until the mid-1970s -- and only after some agents in the LA Field Office decided they needed to improve their response to attacks. This training -- so intense it caused some agents Vietnam flasbacks -- was eventually adopted by the Secret Servicce. The response to George Wallace's shooting in 1972 was a debacle. The response in Kennedy's was lackluster. It was surprising to me that the training that got Parr to react so quickly -- and to recognize Reagan's injury as a serious one -- didn't come into existence until just a few years before the assassination attempt. I was also surprised to learn that the trauma care that ultimately saved Reagan's life at GW hospital also didn't come into existence until the mid-1970s. Reagan was very lucky to have survived.

Was then-VP Bush out of touch, or was Al Haig just ignorant of the line of succession when he made his famous "I'm in charge here" declaration?

Actually, Haig said: "I'm in control." And he mangled the line of presidential succession. Bush was on Air Force 2 heading back from Texas. However, this plane did not have secure voice communications and that made it difficult to keep tabs on what was happening in Washington. Dick Allen, the national security advisor, made 4.5 hours of tape recordings in the Situation Room that he allowed me to listen to and take notes. They were instrumental in my reporting on this day and helped show that Haig really was confused about presidential succession, even behind the scenes, and did want to exert control over the response to the crisis. I came to admire Haig -- he was a former general and a well-regarded chief of staff to President Nixon -- but this day came to define him as a power-hungry Secretary of State. That is unfortunate. I think he was trying to do the right thing even as he seemed to blunder through the day.

If there is such a thing as a political conversion, it happened to me after the near assassination of President Reagan. He embodied strength, courage, and a spirit that endeared him to me. We may not have always liked President Reagan's policies, but we certainly loved the man. Will or can there be another like him?

I don’t know. I certainly came to admire Ronald Reagan while researching this book. And this shooting certainly helped redefine and recalibrate his presidency. His one-liners at the hospital – “Honey, I forgot to duck.” – were reassuring to the American public. The country had just had a string of not-so successful presidencies and the four presidents who had been wounded all died.  On this day, Reagan was heroic. I often say that Reagan had one of the most scripted presidencies in history, and this was its most unscripted day. His actions and bravery on March 30, 1981, allowed him to form a bond with the American public because people got an unvarnished glimpse at the man, and they liked what they saw. It really helped him – not in the sense that people felt sorry for Reagan for being shot. But they got a real look at his true character and poise.

Everyone, I have to run. Thanks so much for the great questions. I had a lot of fun and hope to chat again with you about the book. If you are in Los Angeles, come to my talk on April 4 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and visit www.rawhidedown.com for more info about the book and the assassination attempt. Thanks again!

In This Chat
Del Wilber
Del Quentin Wilber is an award-winning reporter for The Washington Post. He has spent most of his career covering law enforcement and sensitive security issues, and his work has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and two sons.
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