Q&A: Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan

By Terence P. Jeffrey | June 13, 2011 | 5:52 PM EDT

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(CNSNews.com) - When Ronald Reagan was in surgery on March 30, 1981, after being shot by would-be assassin John W. Hinckley, Jr., Dr. Benjamin Aaron, the thoracic surgeon responsible for the operation, could not find the bullet lost in the president’s lung.

It is a tense scene in the new book Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan.

“They rushed Reagan into surgery. And they insert the chest tube. And they take the chest tube out. And the surgeon is looking for this bullet,” author Del Quentin Wilber told CNSNews.com’s Online With Terry Jeffrey. “Ben Aaron worried it slipped into an artery and is going to hit Reagan’s brain. He’s trying to find the bullet. He can’t find it."

“Meanwhile,” said Wilber, “31-year-old surgical intern David Adelberg, just 31, intern, nobody that day, happened to be there, gets roped into surgery … reaches his hand inside Reagan’s chest and gently cups the president’s heart in his hand and nestles it aside to give the other surgeon more room.”

“He had never concentrated so much in his life as during those moments,” said Wilber. “It’s seared in his brain.”

Wilber reviewed historical documents and records and interviewed more than 125 sources to reconstruct a narrative of the day President Reagan was shot. To hear more of his retelling of the story you can view the videotaped interview, or read the transcript below.

Terry Jeffrey: Hi and welcome to this edition of “Online With Terry Jeffrey.” Our guest today is Del Quentin Wilber, a reporter for the Washington Post and author of Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan. Del welcome to the program.

Del Quentin Wilber: Thanks for having me.

Jeffrey: Early in your book you spend some time describing the character of Ronald Reagan--who this man was. Who was Ronald Reagan?

President Ronald Reagan leaving the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. and heading for his limousine. The photo was taken just before John W. Hinckley, Jr., began firing at Reagan in an attempt to assassinate him. (Courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Library)

Wilber: You know Ronald Reagan, as an author as you’re approaching a book and you want a central character, you cannot get luckier than having a guy like Ronald Reagan.

I approached this book, as you probably know and others, I am a Washington Post reporter. I cover the federal courthouse. My publicist would kill me if she heard me say that I am not a presidential historian, but I am not. Right? I approached it that way and came at it as a crime story.

I approached Reagan with a bit of trepidation, frankly, because so much has been written about him. He is like an iconic figure in American politics. But I actually came to really admire the guy. I found him to be kind of the quintessential leader. I found that the portrayal of him in the media at the time and even today as someone who just read what was put in front of him like a script was not true. In fact in my research, the day he was shot—the very day he was shot--just 70 days in office, he delivers a routine speech to the AFL-CIO, right, routine speech. He rewrote that speech by hand.

So, what kind of guy puts that time in on a Saturday to rewrite his routine speech and to rewrite the Gridiron speech he gave that next day? And I came to kind of admire him as a person. You know, he came from nothing. I think there are a lot of lessons in Reagan’s life story for all of us. Like, for example, we all know that he grew up in rural Illinois, and he had a choice--either go work in a factory or go work on a farm. He went to college. What does he major in? Not education. Not teaching. He majors in economics. Then what does he want? He wants to be in the movies, and he goes to work at a radio station. Now, that is not easy during the Depression. Then he becomes a movie star, but that’s not enough. He becomes Screen Actors Guild president. That’s not enough. He becomes governor. He loses in 1976 to Gerald Ford. But he doesn’t quit. He runs again when everybody thought he was too old, and he is sworn in as president as a 69-year-old.

Jeffrey: And all that stuff wasn’t happening by accident to Ronald Reagan. These are goals that he set, that he worked towards consistently with intelligence and focus, correct?

Wilber: Oh, there is no question. You know people kind of portray him as bumbling through life in a way, and I don’t know where that comes from, because you cannot succeed in what he succeeded at and be like kind of a guy wandering through life. You know how hard it is to be a union president? I know a lot of conservatives bash unions all the time, but trust me--I’m a guild member at the Newspaper Guild--it is hard work. And he was president of the Screen Actors Guild. It’s not easy to be governor of the biggest state in the country. He did a lot of stuff.

Jeffrey: In your character portrait of Reagan that you start out with in the book, you also say something very interesting. In light of so many politicians we see who flip-flop back and forth, really don’t know where they are. Of course, Ronald Reagan had been a Democrat; he became a Republican. But you say in the book he is someone who had a fully formed political conscience.

Wilber: There is absolutely no question he had fully formed political conscience.

None at all. I mean he came into office knowing what he wanted to do, how he wanted to get there. He was willing to compromise, which frustrated people on both sides. Made a lot of conservatives thought he compromised too much. In the Cold War, with Gorbachev, he compromised a lot. And in the battles with the Democrats, he gave away stuff. People thought, “Oh you shouldn’t.” There is that famous quote from him: “Wouldn’t I rather have 70 percent of what I want than go over the hill with my flag waving—”

Jeffrey: Yes, but he didn’t compromise his principles.

Wilber: No, he did not. No, he compromised on the edges. He said: I want lower taxes. And what can I get to get that? I want to win the Cold War. What am I willing to give away to win that goal.

And on this day, he was shot and survived. It changed him as a person, too. It made him even more focused about what he wanted to achieve in life. And so he wanted--but he was really funny. Ronald Reagan was a very spiritual man. He didn’t get a lot of credit for that either. Very spiritual man. I am not going to say religious because there is still debate about how often he went to church.

Jeffrey: Well, in your book you describe a scene where he and Nancy were waking across Lafayette Square to church.

Wilber: To church, the day before the shooting. He liked it. He loved church. Now, he didn’t get to go as often as he wanted. That’s true, because the Secret Service and all these other requirements. But after he’s shot, he said, I think God spared me for a purpose.

But what I liked about Ronald Reagan was that today so many people say God wants me to do this, God wants me to that, right? He was not presumptuous to even think about what God wanted him to do. He said, I believe God wanted me to try to end the threat of nuclear war. That’s why I was spared. Well, if you really parse what he wrote there in his autobiography, and you really examine it, it’s really fascinating. He’s not saying. He doesn’t predispose what God--you know, he’s not presuming he knows what God wants from him.

Jeffrey: You believe that Ronald Reagan believed he was put on this Earth to do in his life what God willed him to do, and he was ready to find that path and do it.

Wilber: To do the best he could, but he wasn’t so presumptuous as to assume: I know what God wants from me. Which is very humble, right? For a guy who is president of the United States.

Jeffrey: You know a related characteristic you mention in your book that may be tied to this, you say he was a supremely confident person and a relaxed person. This wasn’t a man who had a great deal of angst. He wasn’t someone who was worried about what other people thought of him.

Wilber: No. There’s that famous plaque on his desk: There is no limit to what a man can achieve if he doesn’t care who gets the credit. It’s true about Ronald Reagan. I mean he was really good at, like, people played him as: Oh he’s just reading from a script, you know. And they all lost, OK. Tip O’Neil. Jim Wright. I mean they all, in these battles with him over policy and everything, they almost always came in second place because he was always underestimated. Like 1966, he ran against Edmund Brown for governor. I mean, the guy ran a campaign ad saying he’s just an actor. Ronald Reagan is just an actor. We know who shot Lincoln, don’t we? He lost by a million votes. What I came to conclude was you cannot underestimate Ronald Reagan.

Jeffrey: So, this is a man who was elected president in 1980. January 1981 he is inaugurated. Seventy days later, it is late March of 1981--I know you have a whole host of characters in your story--but what happened?

The scene outside the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. on March 30, 1981 immediately after President Ronald Reagan was shot by would-be assassin John W. Hinckley, Jr. (Ronald Reagan Library photo)

Wilber: On March 30, 1981, at 2:27 pm, Reagan had just finished giving a speech to the AFL-CIO at the Washington Hilton Hotel. For those of you who don’t know Washington, it is a beautiful hotel, big ballroom designed just for the president of the United States to go there. A special VIP entrance that goes into a holding room that is like a bunker. You know, it is well laid out. But they didn’t consult the Secret Service on the driveway, and so the VIP entrance is separate from the T Street entrance, where you pull up to T Street, you go up to the VIP entrance, you drop the president off, and normally you just leave the limousine there, and pick him up, and keep going.

Well, the driveway was too narrow and winding to support the 13,000 pound limousine, the presidential limousine known as The Beast. So, they had to back it up about 20 to 30 feet, and Reagan would have to walk out of this hotel to get there. People are constantly asking me, surprised. Well, that’s a surprise. I would’ve thought that if you are building this big hotel you would’ve designed it properly.

Jeffrey: Especially right down the street from the White House.

Wilber: Yes. And the whole purpose of this VIP room was to get the president to go there. You know you get a lot more events if you can host the president of the United States. Well, another thing is: Reagan on this day, this speech, routine speech, crazy routine speech to the AFL-CIO, but it was important enough to him that he rewrote the draft by hand. And the rewrite of that draft that he wrote, the original draft was written by Mari Maseng.  She is a smart cookie. She goes on to marry George Will. She is Mari Will. She is a very smart at communications. She can write a great speech. Her speech was good. But Reagan even made it better. And that surprised me, taking the time to do that.

Jeffrey: By the way, let me ask you on the sources for this. You write this narrative, very detailed, and really tick-tock the thing out. Here’s what is going on. How do you know that Ronald Reagan rewrote that speech by hand? How did you figure that out?

Wilber: I found his draft. I went to the Reagan Library and I found the draft. I found his own writing. And, so, I got Mari Maseng’s draft and then stapled to it the president’s changes. The first full page is his handwriting--him rewriting everything. Then he goes through it, scratching out stuff, rewriting paragraphs, making it better, cracking better jokes. And so, there was a lot of research at the Reagan Library that went into this to figure out who Ronald Reagan was.

Jeffrey: So this was a Monday when Ronald Reagan was shot?

Wilber: It was a Monday.

Jeffrey: And on that Saturday he was sitting in the White House--

Wilber: In his residence rewriting his speech--

Jeffrey: --Rewriting this speech to make sure it was just the way he wanted it to be.

Wilber: Yes, because it was important to him. Because, you know, he was a former AFL-CIO member because of his affiliated union, the Screen Actors Guild. But, two, he really cared about how he was portrayed and what he said. He really cared about that stuff. And as president, do we have anything more important than the bully pulpit. No. This was who Ronald Reagan was. So he delivers his speech. And frankly it wasn’t his best speech. Okay. I watched it. Not the best speech. It was well-written but not well delivered.

Jeffrey: It wasn’t Ronald Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate.

Wilber: No it wasn’t. Not “tear down this wall.” Although in the book it is really interesting, “Tear down this wall”--not to digress, a comment--he echoed it. I tracked down Richard Allen, who went with Reagan on a trip to Berlin in 1978, and they are sitting at the Berlin Wall in 1978, and Reagan is looking at the wall, and says, “Dick, we have to find a way to knock this thing down.”

Jeffrey: It’s a great story.

Outside the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. on March 30, 1981 immediately after President Ronald Reagan was shot. (Ronald Reagan Library photo)

Wilber: Eight years later, what does he say, or ten years later?

So, 2:27 pm, March 30, 1981, Reagan emerges from the VIP entrance of the Washington Hilton Hotel. He is walking towards the presidential limousine, which is about 25 to 30 feet away. Off his left shoulder is Jerry Parr, 50-year-old head of the Secret Service detail. He wasn’t even supposed to be there that day. In fact, he had taken a shift from another agent because he wanted to get to know Reagan better. They’re walking towards the limousine. Fifteen feet from the president, behind an unsecured rope line, are reporters waiting to ask questions. Like Sam Donaldson who is on the body watch. He is there just in case something bad happens. And you have a bunch of union guys. Some of them joking around--Let’s see if we can count his wrinkles. We can get that close. And there is John W. Hinckley Jr.

John W Hinckley Jr. is obsessed with a movie actress who is now at Yale University, Jodie Foster. He had stalked her for quite some time. In fact, he had in his mind that if he shot the president of the United States, killed him, he would gain her affection. So in 1980, in October, he was stalking Jimmy Carter and got within arms reach, may have even shaken his hand. But he didn’t bring his guns with him. He had left them at the bus depot.

He stalked Reagan in the transition at Blair House. And now, he is going through D.C. on his way that morning, on his way back to New Haven, Connecticut, where he is going to kill himself, kill her, or kill both of them in an orgy of violence. That is what his goal was that day.

But he had seen the president’s schedule in the newspaper. He said, You know what. I am going to take my gun up to the Hilton and see how close I can get. So there he was at 2:27 pm, cloudy gray day. Not the nicest day in Washington. He pulls out his gun and releases six shots in 1.7 seconds.

Jeffrey: Literally standing next to these reporters.

Wilber: Standing next to reporters, 15 feet from the president. If you’ve ever been to a basketball court and shot a free throw, that’s 15 feet. That close. Six shots in 1.7 seconds. 1.7 seconds, by the way, is the time it takes me to say 1.7 seconds. First shot hits James Brady, the press secretary, in the head. He falls to the ground. The second shot hits D.C. police officer Thomas Delahanty in the back. He falls to the ground. The way to Reagan should be clear. But Jerry Parr is already reacting. In about four tenths of a second, Parr has grabbed the president of the United States and thrust him towards the open limousine door. The third shot goes high. I am not surprised that Hinckley missed with that third shot because he took a ton of target practice but mostly at stationary targets. But Jerry Par has already gotten the president moving.

Jeffrey: So, the third shot came after the Secret Service, Parr, was putting Reagan down?

Wilber: As he’s pushing him into the car. The third shot goes high over their head. Right over the president’s head. If Parr had frozen and hesitated, Reagan would have been a sitting duck for that third shot.

The fourth shot hits Tim McCarthy in the chest. The Secret Service agent was an extension of the door. Standing there like this, he takes a bullet right here. He falls to the ground. He is not wearing a bullet proof vest. Talk about courage, you know, taking a bullet for the president of the United States and falls to the ground. The fifth shot hits the bulletproof window of the limousine door as they flash behind it. You can actually see them go behind it as the bullet cracks. The sixth shot cracked across the driveway. At the time, no one knew where that sixth shot went. Only later would they realize it ricocheted off the back corner panel of the limousine, slipped through a gap that big between the door and the door frame and hit Reagan right here in his left armpit. Imagine a guy sliding for home plate. Reagan’s diving into that car, and that’s how it hit him right here.

Jeffrey: It was that close.

Wilber: And the door slams. Now, we’re in Washington. We’ve seen plenty of presidential motorcades before, right? You’ve seen them. I’ve seen them.

Jeffrey: Sure.

Wilber: And when you’re stuck in traffic it takes a long time because it goes on and on and on. And I like people to really seriously ponder this scene. The door shuts. It takes off. The driver is praying, “Don’t let me run over Timmy. Don’t let me hit Timmy.” Tim McCarthy, the agent who fell by the back door, by the back wheel, would have been crushed to death—13,000 pounds.

He misses a police car. They take off down Connecticut Avenue. Jerry Par looks out the window. He sees three bodies on the cement, a bullet mark in the window. He knows that there has been an assassination attempt and that limousine is alone. They left the motorcade behind, but they’re taking off down Connecticut Avenue with no protection at all. And this is an actual assassination attempt. That’s how fast this stuff happened.

I mean in Washington, we can’t go anywhere without being stuck in traffic for 30 minutes to wait for the presidential motorcade to get through.

Jeffrey: Now, it is about 2:30 in the afternoon, you say?

Wilber: Now about 30 seconds—it’s about 15 seconds after 2:27 p.m. as that limousine is taking off down Connecticut Avenue.

They’re heading down Connecticut Avenue. Jerry Par checks Reagan out. He rubs his hands up and down there, through his hair, props him on the back seat. No blood. Reagan seems okay. Reagan doesn’t even know he has been shot yet.

Jeffrey: At this point.

Wilber: At this point. Parr gets on the radio and says, “Rawhide is okay. Rawhide is okay.” Rawhide is Reagan’s Secret Service code name, hence the title of the book: Rawhide Down. Well, they go on. The entire dynamic of the day, and perhaps Reagan’s presidency, changes in the next 15 to 30 seconds. Reagan starts complaining of pain in his chest. He feels like he broke a rib, maybe. Then bright frothy blood appears on his lips. And he had actually taken a paper napkin from the Hilton and dabbed his lips in it--soaked with blood.

And Jerry Par now has the most important decision of Reagan’s presidency to make: Do I go to the White House, the most secure place in the known universe, where they have a medical team. Or do I go to the hospital?

Going to the White House is probably the smart thing to do, right, because this is like Cold War. They’re getting reports that the Soviets are about to move on Poland. Maybe this is a decapitation strike? The guy is clearly a good assassin in Parr’s mind. He knocked down three people, and now the president is hurt. And they were fast. So, what does he do? Blood’s a problem. It’s oxygenated, its bubbly, bright red, meaning it’s from the lungs. He doesn’t have any security at the hospital. He makes the decision, counterintuitive in many ways of going to the hospital. It’s six blocks from the White House. You can go down Connecticut and make a right on Pennsylvania and make it there three minutes after the shooting. Reagan insists on walking inside. He walks inside, collapses into the arms of his agents.

I interviewed a paramedic who was there, saw it happen. Reagan’s eyes rolled into the back of his head. He turned ashen and collapsed, and the paramedic thought: “Oh my God, he’s code city”--meaning he is going to die. And a nurse is going, “Please don’t die. Please don’t die. Please don’t die.”--as they race him over to the gurney.

Another nurse is--They cut off his suit by the way. And by the way, this suit was given to him by Nancy Reagan. Probably not the smartest thing to do, to cut off a suit given to you by Nancy Reagan, but they cut off the suit. She can’t get his blood pressure. It’s that low. I mean they’re like, they have--she palpitates it with her finger on this arm, feeling. She can’t get it. She finally gets it. Sixty. Shock is ninety. His normal blood pressure is 140. He’s in deep, deep trouble.

They’re doing their job though. They’re flooding him with fluids, sustaining him. This is cutting-edge trauma care. This place only had become a certified trauma center two years before. And they’re doing this work that saves his life. They pump him full of fluids to get his blood pressure up.

They’re doing their jobs. There is this funny scene. This technician, doing her job, threads a three foot long IV line from here all the way to Reagan’s heart. And that is pretty intense, right? She looks up then and sees all these guys around, and they’re like, wait a minute, what are all these guys in suits and earpieces and guns, and she looks down and sees Reagan. Oh my God, she can’t do her job. She’s flummoxed. She goes and gets smelling salts off the counter. Sniffs them back. Shocks herself back into her job and goes back to work.

Now, they’re working. They’re trying to save Reagan. They realize he’d been shot, and they insert a chest tube in his side to drain the blood because they realize the bullet--I wish I had brought my dime--but if you have a dime, that’s what the bullet got flattened into. And imagine getting hit there edgewise by the dime. It’s a tiny little slit.

Jeffrey: After it hit the car?

Wilber: Yeah, it smashes, ricochets and smashes into the shape of a dime and hits him right here. And it hits a rib and tumbles end over end chewing up arteries and tissues. That’s why he is bleeding so much. He would lose more than half his blood on this day--more than half his blood. He’s 70 years old. Half his blood. And they make the decision to go to surgery.

Jeffrey: Del, this in the emergency room at George Washington Hospital?

Wilber: In the ER, the trauma bay.

Jeffrey: In the ER at George Washington University Hospital?

Wilber: Yes. Six blocks from the White House.

Jeffrey: You interviewed these folks?

Wilber: Yes, I interviewed more than 125 people for the book. Probably more than 35 people who were medical, treated Reagan.

Jeffrey: Who were in that room or somewhere along the way that day?

Wilber: And I also cobbled together his medical record. So I know when stuff happened.

Jeffrey: You talk about what was going on in the limousine from the hotel over to George Washington University Hospital. Are there recordings of the Secret Service communications and so forth?

Wilber: There are. Now, I just got those released in March. It took 30 years, but you know, I’ve only been FOIA’ing it for a year and a half. But I got those released. Freedom of Information Act.

Jeffrey: Sure.

Wilber: And I got those released, and they’re really dramatic because you can tell on those tapes, too, they don’t know Reagan is hurt until the driver of the limousine gets on. Very calmly: “We’re going to George Washington, fast.” And on the tape you can also hear Jerry Par say, “Let’s hustle.” But it is all very calm.

And I also benefited because I obtained records from the Secret Service that had never been seen before. Interviews with the agents days after this had happened, lengthy interviews. So, I know what happened to them. So, for example, the driver’s taking off down Connecticut Avenue. Imagine this driver is taking off down Connecticut Avenue, there is no motorcade. He finally sees the armored follow-up car pull up behind him in his rear view mirror. There are two guys hanging onto the running boards, brandishing Uzis. Agents going 65 miles per hour down Connecticut Avenue holding onto the running boards with Uzis.

Jeffrey: So, you’ve heard these tapes. You’ve interviewed the Secret Service people that were there. You’ve interviewed the people in the hospital. So, you’ve reconstructed this narrative point by point by point, from documents, from recordings, and from the actual eyewitnesses who were on the scene.

Wilber: Yes. And in many ways the documents were very helpful. Like, a lot of these doctors and stuff went home and wrote detailed diary entries. The nurses went home and wrote detailed notes because this was an historical day to them. They saved the president’s life.

In fact, I got very lucky, too. This is the perfect time to tell this story, to write this book because, you know--“Why didn’t you do it five years after this had happened, Del?” Well, because I was nine, okay, or eleven. I was eleven. I was six. I don’t even remember it happening. And so, I didn’t do it then. Twenty years from now, these people won’t be alive. And the stuff they kept in their attic will be thrown out.

So, I am very lucky. I got to combine the record that has never been seen before with all these interviews of people finally feeling comfortable to talk--because Reagan had died in 2004. And, enough time has passed, but it is ingrained in their mind, and a lot of them took notes. For example, the nurse who first treated Reagan, right there who was like “Please don’t die, please don’t die” wrote four pages of notes about what she did with Reagan.

Jeffrey: And you got access to these?

Wilber: Yes, and then you always have an interview that is always just galvanizing to you as a writer, and for me that happened when I got David Adelberg. They rushed Reagan into surgery. And they insert the chest tube, and they take the chest tube out, and the surgeon is looking for this bullet. Ben Aaron worried it slipped into an artery and is going to hit Reagan’s brain. He’s trying to find the bullet. He can’t find it. Meanwhile, 31-year-old surgical intern David Adelberg, just 31, intern, nobody that day.

Jeffrey: He just happened to be there?

Wilber: Happened to be there. Gets roped into surgery. May have done a gallbladder that morning. You know, routine day. Roped in. 31-year-old David Adelberg reaches his hand inside Reagan’s chest and gently cups the President’s heart in his hand and nestles it aside to give the other surgeon more room.

Think about this for a minute. This is a 31-year-old nobody in medicine, unscreened, in a room surrounded by a dozen armed Secret Service agents ready to pounce at the slightest misstep if they can even define what that is in medicine. And David Adelberg held the beating life, held the life of the president in his hand. And when he told me that, and that is why this is the perfect time to tell this story, that is such a vivid memory to him. And how galvanizing; he had never concentrated so much in his life as during those moments. It’s seared in his brain. I would not have been able to tell that story after it happened because they wouldn’t have talked. Twenty years from now, he may not be around to tell that story.

Jeffrey: And that’s why they found the bullet?

Wilber: No. How they found the bullet: He’s holding his heart, and Aaron’s hunting for this bullet. He wants that bullet really bad for several reasons. One, not good to leave a bullet in the president of the United States, politically. Two, he doesn’t know if it might migrate somewhere and kill him. You know, 80 percent of shooting victims they leave the bullet in people because they are benign. They just stay there. This bullet’s a different case. They also know that the bullet is just one inch from Reagan’s heart. They have to find it because they have done x-rays. He’s reaching. Finally, he can’t find it because what’s happening is the bullet is like slipping between the lung tissue. Squeezing through, the bullet. He can’t get it. He inserts a catheter through the bullet track, through the lung, down to where he thinks it is and starts pushing around the catheter and finally gets it. Gets it and with a dramatic flourish says I got it and drops it in a paper cup. And you know, that is the moment when Reagan is saved.

Jeffrey: At that moment, this is still not a long time after Hinckley actually fired the shot, right?

Wilber: This is--They pulled the bullet out at 5:45 pm.

Jeffrey: So this is three hours later. So by this time the whole country knows that the president has been shot?

Wilber: Yes.

Jeffrey: He’s in the hospital. People don’t know what is going on.

Wilber: They know he is in surgery at this point because Haig has come out and announced he is in surgery. That’s Alexander Haig, the secretary of state, which I am sure we will talk about later.

And so he lives, and I like to tell people that Reagan’s life literally--like, you knew about the shooting, and I didn’t know about the shooting--before I researched for the book was Reagan’s shot, he lives, moves on, he’s not Kennedy. But Reagan’s life literally, literally, hung in the balance of a split second decision and a mere inch. We came that close to losing, waking up on March 31, 1981 with George H.W. Bush as president of the United States. When I say a split-second, if Jerry Par is a split second slower in getting him into that car, the trajectory of the bullet hits Reagan in the head. If he hesitates at the scene for a split second, Reagan is a sitting duck. If he goes to the White House and not the hospital, Ronald Reagan is dead. An inch. As I said before, that is how close the bullet came to his heart.

Jeffrey: This Secret Service Agent, Parr--

Wilber: Saved Reagan’s life twice.

Jeffrey: With good and instinctive decisions. He’s professional. He knew what he is doing and he did in his job.

Wilber: In fact, what is really interesting, in researching the book, there is a rich Secret Service history. Did you know the Secret Service didn’t train agents to react without thinking until the mid-1970s? I mean after Kennedy, after George Wallace was shot in 1972, only after that in the mid-1970s did a bunch of agents out in L.A. decided they needed to do drills to the point where they can react without thinking. You hear gunshots. You do something. They never really trained agents like that before.

Jeffrey: So these men who are protecting Reagan, the natural human instinct is to get out of the way when you hear gunshot. They did the exact opposite. They got in the way, and they moved the President, and they saved his life.

Wilber: Training that only had come around years before.

Jeffrey: How long was Reagan in surgery before they finally got him sutured up and back to a room, and they--

Wilber: He was in the operating room for about three hours. For about three, no, about three and a half--3:00 to 6:45. He gets to the recovery room at 6:45.  And what’s really interesting is--

Jeffrey: Was his life out of danger at that point?

Wilber: Mostly out of danger. I think his life actually was mostly out of danger—well, you know, he is 70 years old and in surgery, anything can happen--I’d say once he is in the recovery room his life is out of danger, mostly. But you still have complications. They were worried about blood-gas readings. All this complicated stuff. It wasn’t where they wanted it to be.

Jeffrey: And this is while he is under anesthesia.

Wilber: Anesthesia, coming out of, groggy. What I also like to tell people is that--we were talking about Reagan at the beginning. And what did we learn about Reagan on this day? All right, the general public had this sense that Ronald Reagan was kind of an actor. He read from a script. What we learned about on this day about Ronald Reagan, like on the campaign trail, he cracked a lot of jokes. Remember the funny joke: “This is the 39th anniversary of my 30th birthday.” Were they really his jokes? Was it written for him? We don’t know. Do we ever think we really know the guy on Pennsylvania Avenue? I don’t know.

On this day, the script got thrown out the window at 2:27 pm. Sorry, no more script. And what do we learn about Ronald Reagan? He’s shot. He’s clearly in pain. He’s got a chest tube in his side. He’s facing death, right? You’re 70. You get shot. We all instinctively know that’s bad, no matter how at the time they portrayed it as not so bad, right? He’s going to be okay. He was just shot in the left side. He’s stable. We all know it’s not a good thing. He sees his wife, Nancy Reagan, in the ER, and what’s the first thing he says? “Honey, I forgot to duck.” Okay, that’s a joke. He’s not crying or whining. If I’d been shot, and my wife came in, you’d been shot, and your wife comes in--Are you going to crack a joke to her? Honestly?

Jeffrey: Is this before or after the surgery?

First Lady Nancy Reagan with President Ronald Reagan in George Washington University hosptial four days after the March 30, 1981 attempt on Reagan's life. (Courtesy of Ronald Reagan Library)

Wilber: This is before, all right? So, I’ll rewind. He’s been in there about 15 minutes, 20 minutes. They finally let Nancy Reagan come in to see him because she wants to see him desperately, and his first thing to her is to calm her down. We didn’t instinctively know that, don’t we? Now, would we have done that? I’ve been shot. Have a chest tube in my side. People squirreling around. I don’t know. The world seems to be upside down. Do I tell my wife a joke? I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m that brave.

Jeffrey: But we know as an historical fact Ronald Reagan did.

Wilber: Yes, he did.

Jeffrey: Tell us about the other conversations he had in that hospital.

Wilber: As he’s being wheeled into surgery, he sees Baker, Meese and Deaver, his three top advisers, and he says: “Who’s minding the store?” Because, you know, he’s kind of poking fun of himself with his hands-off management style with the troika. He gets into surgery, he gets up on an elbow, dramatically takes off the oxygen mask, and says: “I hope you’re all Republicans.” Puts it on and goes back to sleep.

Jeffrey: He actually took off the oxygen mask?

Wilber: Yes. It was very dramatic. Takes it off. Now, the public--

Jeffrey: --You heard this from the surgeons who were there? They described this.

Wilber: Oh yeah, everything. People say all of this didn’t happen. All that happened. I promise you.

Jeffrey: He literally took off the oxygen mask and he leaned up and said this to them?

Wilber: Yes. Very dramatic.

Jeffrey: In the surgery?

Wilber: Yes, right before being anesthetized. Right before being put out.

Now, the public hears he does this, and what’s your reaction? If you’re in the public, and you hear the president of the United States has just been shot. We’ve just had a series of basically failed presidencies. Lyndon Johnson didn’t seek a full second term. Nixon resigned under Watergate. Ford, three years, out. Carter malaise. We turn to a former actor to save the country. He’s been shot. The last four presidents who’ve been shot all died. He’s cracking jokes in the hospital, basically, in the face of death. We like that. The American people like that. I don’t care what anyone says. It is true. We kind of admired that. He’s tough. That’s who we want.

And it built this bond with the American public that we got to see who he really was. In fact, the guy on the campaign trail really was Ronald Reagan. We liked that. Well, what’s interesting, that helped him later on. It helped him separate the person from the politics.

What I found interesting, you were laughing about the oxygen mask, I’ll tell a side anecdote story: Reagan tested that line out 20 minutes earlier in the ER.

Jeffrey: He rehearsed it?

Wilber: He’s lying in the ER, oxygen mask on, he sees Jerry Par. And he had tried to do some jokes. He says to Jerry: “I hope they’re all Republicans.” Jerry Par is the agent looking down at him, and: “I hope they’re all Republicans.” And Jerry Par looks down: Uh, huh. Jerry doesn’t remember quite if he smiled or not because, frankly, Jerry Par is going out of his mind. Okay, this guy just got shot, and he is trying to protect him, and he’s cracking a joke. And, I wasn’t sure if Jerry was correct, frankly. Jerry Par’s memory on this day is fantastic. I never doubted again. He has stuff that he got right in interviews I later verified through reports that are 30-years-old, fine. I mean, fine, Jerry, you see, he said it spontaneously in the OR later. No, no, Del, he said it a couple times. He said it. I interviewed a nurse: Did Reagan say anything? She’s in the ER. Did Reagan say anything? Oh yeah: “I hope they’re all Republicans.” What? A technician said he said the same thing. I go: Oh my God, Reagan said the line, and put it in his back pocket, and delivered it again. To me, that is new admiration for the guy. He’s setting up the stage.

Now, Ronald Reagan, I get into his filmography.

Jeffrey: He had an incredible presence of mind, obviously.

Wilber: He did. Incredible presence of mind. Now, veteran of 53 movies, right? What were his two best movies? Kings Row and Knute Rockne, All American. What were his two best scenes in those two best movies? Hospital-like death-bed scenes.

Jeffrey: Good point.

Wilber: The guy’s best scenes in all of film were these kinds of scenes. And so, he knew. He knew, as Lou Cannon argues in his book, this was a role for him to play.

Jeffrey: He was George Gipp.

Wilber: He was. Or Drake McHugh. You know, “Where’s the rest of me?” His best line. It is the title of his autobiography. After his legs get amputated. He knows that’s a time he has to deliver a good line to reassure the public, to reassure those around him who must be nervous too. I mean, that takes a presence of mind.

Jeffrey: It was said of George Washington that he understood everything he was doing as president would set a precedent. The country would look at it, and people would follow him, and it would have huge impact. Do you think that Reagan had that same sort of sense of who the character of the president was and that he had a moral responsibility and patriotic responsibility to do it right?

Wilber: I think there is no question. There is no question about that. I think from the very beginning when he took the office. He always wore a suit coat in the office. He never took it off. I couldn’t find anyone, except one weekend he went in, and I think he went in without a suit coat on. He never went into the Oval Office without a suit coat on. I mean, to him--maybe that’s important, maybe it’s not, maybe it means something, maybe it doesn’t--but to him, it meant something. That’s why it’s important.

He kept the Resolute Desk in that office for a reason. That’s a historic desk. He believed it.

Jeffrey: He liked the history that it evoked to him.

Wilber: Yes. Yes. And, that’s important to him.

Jeffrey: And he had a tremendous sense of that history.

Wilber: He did, in everything he did. He never wanted to diminish the office.  Remember, we had just gone through Carter, who whether you liked him or not, did kind of diminish the office. In the sense of pomp and circumstance. I think he set the thermostat up higher. He let it kind of get run down. I’m not a Carter historian. But, Reagan came in and said: No, this office is important. It means something to the American people in this way--different from what Carter thought.

Jeffrey: Well, Del, let me ask you: You’ve written a tremendous book using narrative, but let me ask you to just step back. Where do you sense Reagan stands in history of our country in terms of presidents. Having done this research, seen what this man was really like, pulled back the veil and shown people this inside vision of this guy. Where do you think the stands in the history of our country?

Wilber: I think Reagan will be viewed by historians as one of the probably more successful U.S. presidents over time in terms of getting his agenda through and his goals accomplished--whether they were accomplished after he left or not. The Cold War military build-up, our entire debate over taxes in this country is completely different now thanks to Ronald Reagan. If we had a debate with the Republican presidential contenders, you would have to say, okay, who’s your favorite president, but you can’t say Ronald Reagan. Maybe some Democrats, too, you would have to say you can’t say Ronald Reagan. He’s become this kind of iconic figure.

Jeffrey: You even have President Obama saying he was a transformational president.

Wilber: He did. You know, Obama read Lou Cannon’s book on vacation about Reagan because he knows Reagan--frankly I’d like to say that this day in particular recalibrated Reagan’s entire presidency because we got to see who he was, separated the person from the politics. Poll numbers went up. We liked who he was. Later in time, when he got in trouble with Iran-Contra and other things, it didn’t devastate his presidency because people said, you know what--you wouldn’t believe the number of people who come to me at readings who are Democrats, who say I hated the guy’s policies, I kind of liked him as a person. That helps you as a politician. Wouldn’t all politicians--

Jeffrey: It helped give the leverage to get that agenda through that you talked about that made him one of the most successful--

Wilber: Yes. It helped him survive scandals later, too. That is really important. Now, I think that is, yes, correct.

Jeffrey: And you believe in the long run in history people will remember this president of the United States who showed this character that Ronald Reagan showed on March 30, 1981 when they wheeled him into the surgery.

Wilber: I definitely think so. I think there is no question. I think CSPAN does an annual or biannual ranking of presidents, and Reagan ranks really high. You’re going to have people on both sides of the debate. Some people think he was way too conservative and they don’t like the guy. Other people on the other side hold him as this kind of iconic figure and don’t see who he really is either. He has become kind of a myth in a way. Somewhere in the middle is the real Ronald Reagan, and that is still a fundamentally good, decent person. He was a good leader, and accomplished what he wanted to accomplish. If you just judge--people see me and say you’re a Washington Post guy, Del, and you’re writing about Ronald Reagan? And I say: Listen, journalists, I think, get an unfair needle stuck in us for being biased. I’m not biased. I approached this with wide open eyes; I knew nothing about it. I came to admire Ronald Reagan as a guy and as a leader. Do I agree with all of his policy positions? No, but who does with anybody? But I can judge him on his success, right. He was a huge success.

You know he left office with the highest approval rating of any president. Now, he is looked at as having accomplished winning the Cold War, reducing the threat of nuclear war, altering the face of basically the entire Europe, changing the debate about taxes in this country--for it will never be the same again. He even helped save Social Security.

And, so, he did do dumb stuff, too, but at the same time, this is a guy who fundamentally did a lot and succeeded and accomplished a lot.

Jeffrey: Del Quentin Wilbur, author of Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan, thank you very much.

Wilber: Thank you.