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This Week in History: Reagan Targeted in Assassination Attempt

Photograph of President Reagan waving to crowds immediately before being shot in an assassination attempt

Photograph of President Reagan waving to crowds immediately before being shot in an assassination attempt, Washington Hilton Hotel, March 30, 1981. Photo Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

On March 30, 1981, barely two months into his presidency, President Ronald Reagan was the target of an assassination attempt, which left him and three others seriously wounded. Press Secretary James Brady suffered a gunshot wound to the head that would leave him permanently injured, while Secret Service Agent Timothy McCarthy was shot in the chest and Washington, DC police officer Thomas Delahanty was hit near the spine. As Reagan was rushed to George Washington University Hospital for emergency surgery, administration aides downplayed the severity of the injuries. However, inside the operating room, the situation was anything but humorous as Reagan lost nearly half his blood supply and had to endure hours of surgery to remove a bullet lodged less than an inch from his heart.

The Reagan Oral History Project examined this event with each participant that was in the administration at the time of the shooting. Below are excerpts of these officials' reactions to the assassination attempt and how each responded to the early phase of the crisis.

Martin Anderson, Assistant to the President for Policy Development

There's all kind of thinking that goes on. There have been books, a Stanford professor wrote a book about this. There are a few--I'll be semi-charitable--but there is an academic view of what should happen. Basically the academic view is, you've got the President in charge, he's in control. Something happens to the President, who's in control and who's in charge? Wrong, that's not the way it works. It is not like throwing a light switch.

I think what happened that day is probably a clearer example of it. When we got the information that he had been shot, we did not know the seriousness of it. We did not know if he was dead, we didn't know how wounded he was, we just knew he had been shot. Now, what happened was, and no one can seem to understand this is--nothing. You wait. You find out what the situation is. You don't rush off and assume, "Oh my God, he's been shot, we're going to put the Vice President in charge." Or you don't say, "Well, he's been shot but he's in charge so let's talk to him and see what he is going to do." You wait and say, "Well, let's see what happens." And people were very calm and they just settled down.

It is amazing how much goes on in the government, in the White House, without someone "controlling" it. It works, people do things. Life proceeds. They were just very careful. They took slight steps, they checked to make sure this wasn't an overall plot. They checked to see where the Soviet submarines were and the Soviet submarines were a little bit out of their normal course and closer to our shores than they were supposed to be, so they checked that out. Then a little while later they said, "Well, that's not a problem"--and there were more submarines, and they said, "Wait a minute, what's going on here." Then they discovered it was the end of the month and that actually they were changing battalions and so they had more submarines, there were always more submarines. They didn't act precipitously and the academic mind can't understand that.

Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of Defense

I had responsibilities, and I felt that I should exercise them. I didn't know what the Soviets were doing, what the nature of this attack had been--whether it was a single madman, or whether it was some sort of concerted effort. I even had in mind the [Abraham] Lincoln assassination, where there was a concerted effort, and several of the members of the Cabinet--including the Secretary of War--had been attacked the same night. I felt that the troops should have a higher degree of alert and be ready for anything that might occur, even though, fortunately, it did not. It was the work of a single madman.

Max Friedersdorf, Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs

We didn't know whether it was an attack on the government, an attack on the country, or what. Of course they wanted everybody down there in the situation room, which is bomb-proof, and we started getting calls from the hospital, from Baker, he was with the President and he said that he thought that the President was in surgery, he wasn't sure whether he would survive or not, for everybody to stay there in the situation room and he would keep us posted. That day was kind of a blur, but I remember Haig and Weinberger having some dispute that day about what should be done. I think that was the day that Haig went out and said, "I'm the vicar. I'm in charge."

William Webster, FBI Director; Director of Central Intelligence

The word came through that morning that the President had been shot. I moved over to the command center to find out what was going on, what we were doing, and then I ordered the Executive Director for Criminal Investigations and the head of the Washington field office back to Washington in the airplane. Then I arranged to take a commercial flight, first available commercial flight. It was headed to Maryland, Baltimore. But without my having asked them to do it, I don't know how it happened, whether it was the pilot's idea or someone at the Bureau thought about it, they came back and said, "We're going to drop you at National." So they made an unscheduled landing there, picked me up. I was being driven back in a Bureau car.

Our privacy modes were pretty slim and far between in those days. They were building a privacy capability. They were briefing me on the telephone as we went through as to what was going on. Funny thing, same thing was happening to Vice President Bush, who was coming back on Air Two, he was getting briefed. And somebody out in Illinois was picking up those telephone calls and recording them. Some of them were actually put out on the radio in Chicago and picked up. Fortunately it didn't get the big network news. It was kind of what we were dealing with in terms of our capacity. . . . They got [John] Hinckley, of course, right away. They found the bullet fragments they wanted. I said, "Find out everything about this. We do not want another Warren Commission if we can avoid it. If we have to have one, we'll have one. But let's be sure we can close all the loops. Is this one man or is this a group of people? We need to know." So they worked very hard.

James Miller, Office of Management and Budget Director

We were in the Roosevelt Room, meeting about the next steps in the regulatory relief effort. We literally walked out of the Roosevelt Room and a lady comes out of the press office, screaming to the deputy press secretary, Larry Speakes: "Larry, Larry, the President has been shot at and Jim Brady has been shot!" It was pandemonium there, but it was controlled pandemonium. There were some reports later. They said we knew the President had been shot, it was serious and this and that. Not true. I was there.

[Dick] Darman picked up the phone immediately and asked for "Signal," which is the White House military switchboard. "What's going on?" About that time Jim Baker arrived. Baker grabbed the phone from him, and said, "I don't understand this. If he's fine, if he's okay, why are they going to GW [George Washington University] Hospital? I don't understand this." Out of the corner of my eye I saw [David] Gergen running across. He had Meese in tow and then [Michael] Deaver came running in. They threw the phone down, ran, jumped in the car--they'd brought the car around front--and took off for GW.

The notion that they knew all along that something was seriously wrong is not correct. They found out when they arrived at the hospital, but they didn't know in that immediate response. But the President was quite ill. It was a life-threatening thing. . . . the assassination attempt was a big setback. When I met with the President a few days later, I was really alarmed at how weak his voice was.

Lyn Nofziger, Assistant to the President for Political Affairs

I went into the emergency room, and I ran into one of the advance men there. I said, "You know, you ought to be taking notes, and you ought to go home and get a tape recorder and talk all this into a tape recorder, because this is going to be historical." I don't know whether he ever did or not, but I grabbed some pieces of paper from the nurses' station there, the forms with the blanks.

And I began jotting down notes, these things that Reagan had said--or it was reported to us that he said--such as to Nancy, "On the whole, I would rather be in Philadelphia."…

So Laxalt and Meese and Baker and I are standing there, and they bring Reagan out of this little emergency room where they've had him, and they're going to take him into the operating room. As they wheel him by on the gurney, he says-- Baker said he winked at me. I never saw him wink, but I'll take that. Reagan did say, "Who's minding the store?" I learned later, of course, that the doctors had cut his suit off of him. Now, Reagan's kind of a tightwad, and he was just furious, "You're ruining my suit." To hell with the fact that I'm dying, you're ruining my suit.

Anyway, they get him in there, and, of course, the word comes out that he has also said, "I hope you're all Republicans," which they weren't. And I have written all these things down, and I decide I'm going to have to get a doctor to do some briefing. I don't want the White House doctor, because I think that people will think that he's got something to hide. This is nothing against him. I just didn't think that-- I didn't want the surgeons who were operating on him, because I thought they were too close to it and wouldn't have the bigger picture…

I had my first briefing by myself and went in and talked to the press and took their questions. I had stuffed in my pocket these notes of all the things Reagan had said, but I completely forgot them. I finished the briefing, and I started to walk away, and somebody--I believe in angels, so I think there was an angel there, I really do--but somebody, I don't know who it was, he's never identified himself, said, "Did the President have anything to say?"

I said, "Oops." And I went back to the podium, and I pulled out my notes. It was those things that really told the country that things were going to be all right. It wasn't me. It was the fact that Reagan had said these things.

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