Reagan Officials on the March 30, 1981 Assassination Attempt
On March 30, 1981, barely two months into his presidency, 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. According to Political Affairs Director Lyn Nofziger, Reagan was in good spirits, at one point teasing the medical staff, "Please tell me you're Republicans." But 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 is a collection of excerpts on these officials' reactions to the assassination attempt and how they each responded to the early phase of the crisis. Click here for full interview transcripts.
Martin Anderson, Assistant to the President for Policy Development: There are some things that happened. For example, in the situation room, it's a little tiny room, the room is even smaller than this room. We had a hard time getting information. There is a little television set up on the wall, most of our information came from watching the little television set. In fact that's how we knew Al was out there. We looked around the table and said, "Where's Al?" Then someone said, "My God, there he is!" And when he said he was in control, I'll tell you what happened. People giggled, laughed, said that's silly.
James Sterling Young: Okay.
Martin Anderson: The impression that the Oliver Stone movie gives is that Al Haig was crazy with lust for power, screaming at people, using vile language, pounding, insulting people, thrashing around all excited. It just wasn't so. Didn't happen that way.
Martin Anderson: 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.
Max Friedersdorf, Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs: I went down to the situation room. I think the Vice President was traveling that day as I recall, but there was Weinberger, Haig, and Bill Clark might have been there, myself, Dick Allen. Stockman came over there. 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."
We got a call from the hospital that Jim Brady had died. They told me to call Senator Baker on the floor and tell him that, to make sure he knew it. I called Baker in the Capitol and said that we had a report from the hospital that Jim Brady had died and Baker went out on the floor to make the announcement and before the announcement was over, they called back from the hospital and recanted on that. It got on the networks and everything. We called back and told Baker that the report on Brady was not factual and he was very upset of course, that he had made that mis-announcement.
And all this time we were getting reports the President was going to make it, he wasn't going to make it, and so by the end of the day it looked pretty good that he was going to make it. I think we stayed there pretty late that night but then we went home and next day came in it was as normal. About the middle of the day I got a call from Jim Baker over at the hospital and he said, "Get over here."
I went over to GW hospital, and went up to the President's room, and Jim was outside the room with Mrs. Reagan and her secret service agent there and Jim said, "Max, I want you to stay here until I tell you to leave." I didn't understand. Mrs. Reagan was all upset, of course. He said that Senator [Strom] Thurmond had come over to the hospital and had talked his way in, past the lobby, up to the President's room--he's in intensive care, tubes coming out of his nose and his throat, tubes in his arms and everything--and said that Strom Thurmond had talked his way past the secret service into his room and Mrs. Reagan was outraged, distraught. She couldn't believe her eyes.
He said, "You know, those guys are crazy. They come over here trying to get a picture in front of the hospital and trying to talk to the President when he may be on his deathbed. You stay here until I tell you to leave. If any Congressman or Senator comes around here, make sure the secret service doesn't let anybody up, even on this floor." So I stayed there for about three days, four days, until he came out of intensive care.
Pendleton James, Director of Presidential Personnel: You're just dumbfounded. You're shocked, you're bewildered, you're scared, and you don't know what to do. I think those are the emotions that most of us had. We were glued to--I knew they were all down there in the Situation Room, but I didn't go running down there, because the last thing you need is somebody else in there.
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 had been out to lunch with some people who wanted to talk to me about politics. I came back to the office, and a guy named Joe Holmes walked in the office right after me and said, "Somebody took a shot at the President." I said, "Did they hit him?" He says, "I don't think so, but they may have hit Jim Brady and somebody else."
So I went over and turned on the television set. Every office in the White House has a television set. Of course, there was utter confusion on there. We were watching it for a few minutes, and Frank Reynolds finally says, in utter exasperation, "Doesn't anybody here know what's going on?" or "Dammit, doesn't anybody--"
So about this time I said, "Maybe I had better go on over. It looks like Jim Brady has been shot, so I better go over to Baker's office and see if there's something I can do to help." So I went over there, and there's Meese and Baker and a couple of other people standing around, talking about it. I said, "Well, thank God, Reagan wasn't shot." Baker said, "It looks like he was now." I said, "What can I do?" Meese said, "Lyn, why don't you and I go over to the hospital?"
Baker couldn't bear to be left out, so he said, "I'll go along too." So they called Baker's car. Larry Speakes, the deputy press secretary, was there, so we take him along. And I, having been around the White House longer than any of these guys, and being smarter than they are, I get in the front seat. There's more room in the front seat. These three guys crowd in the back, one of my little victories. We get out to the hospital, and it's the kind of day that's raining off and on, clouds are coming in. They've thrown up some barricades there. So the rest of these guys go in the hospital, and I go to talk to the press at the barricades. I said, "Look, we don't know anything. As soon as we know something, we'll let you know." They asked a few questions, which I couldn't answer.
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." Paul Laxalt had come over, so there was Meese-- Oh, and we had sent Speakes back to the White House to handle the press there, which was proper. Somebody had to be there. It was decided that he would do that, and I would handle the press at the hospital.
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.
So I went to whoever it was there who was running the hospital, and said, "I need a doctor who can talk to this stuff." He got me a guy named Dennis O'Leary, who had talked to people before on other things, and who was an MD, but was doing administrative work. Dennis O'Leary, he's in Chicago now. Then I had the hospital set me aside a room. There was a kind of a large lecture hall, and I called the phone company and said, "I've got to have phones in here right away." And they were wonderful. They had phones in there within an hour. Of course, that was in the days before cell phones and all this other stuff.
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. I always say, "God bless the guy out in that audience among the press who said, 'Did he have anything to say?'" So a while later, I guess an hour or so later, they had Reagan out of surgery, and I had O'Leary come out, and he briefed them all on that, thoroughly, and did a wonderful job.
After that was over, by this time I'd talked to Nancy briefly, and she had gone back to the White House. She had come over there, and she had spent a lot of time comforting Sarah Brady. O'Leary and I went up to meet with the doctor who had operated on Brady, and he was elated. He said, "You know, when I first looked at the X-rays, I thought this guy at most would be a vegetable if he lived. I got inside there, and it wasn't as bad as it looked in the X-rays. Now I think there'll probably be something wrong, but it's possible he could recover entirely."
We got to talking about it, and he said, "You know, the interesting thing about this is, if they recover, and they begin to improve, you can never tell how far they're going to go toward complete recovery. But if they ever stop improving, they don't start again. That's the end of it. He could still be a vegetable, but he could still be completely well."
A number of years later--seven or eight years later, because I had been over at Georgetown Hospital to see a friend--I ran into this doctor in the hallway. We got to talking, and I said, "Is Jim Brady still improving?" He said, "Yes, he's still improving."
Obviously, he has probably stopped now, but I thought that was interesting, that over all those years Jim kept getting a little bit better and a little bit better. And you know, the tragedy of that is, the only thing Jim Brady ever wanted to be was the President's Press Secretary. And he'd have been a very good one. He was smart, he was sharp, he was witty. He got along well with the press. He was experienced.
I got home that night--we were still living in an apartment over in Skyline--and I walked into the apartment. Bonnie was there with one of her close friends, and I noticed she'd been crying. And me, in my soft, sweet way, said, "What have you been crying for? Nobody shot me." And she said, "I've been thinking of how many times you were standing where Jim Brady was standing." I said, "Oops, I never thought of that." It never even occurred to me.
Anyway, I went back to the White House after the last briefing, and I said to Baker, "Jim, I've got to go talk to the press now," about Brady and so forth. He said, "I don't want you to." I said, "Well, I've got to do it." He said, "I don't want any television." He was afraid I was going to get some publicity, honest to God. It took me a while to figure that one out. So I went and talked to the press, told them about Brady, and the next day Speakes took over, and I went back to my job.
Stuart Spencer, Campaign Advisor: I was in the Irvine Coast Country Club. I had just walked in the locker room when it came on the TV. I had to sit down. I thought I was going to fall down. I lost the blood in my head, almost passed out. It was terrible.
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.
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.
Reagan recovered from his wounds over the next several weeks. Barely a month past his 70th birthday, doctors were impressed by his physical constitution and his ability to bounce back from such a traumatic event. To what extent the shooting affected Reagan beyond the physical recovery is a matter of debate among historians and former administration officials. Some contend that the event had little long term effect, while others argue that the shooting led Reagan to devote the remainder of his presidency to God's cause.
On April 28, 1981, less than a month after the shooting, the President delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress on his economic program. After receiving a rousing welcome from both sides of the aisle, Reagan delivered a powerful address which won the respect and admiration of everyone in the room. In the weeks that followed, the immensely popular President succeeded in gaining congressional approval of most of his economic package, signing into law the basic principles of Reaganomics. Many analysts contend that without the assassination attempt, the package would never have passed through Congress.
Below is a series of excerpts on Reagan's convalescence from the shooting, the lead-up to the address before Congress, and how the assassination attempt affected Reagan's mission for his presidency.
Richard Allen, National Security Advisor: He never lost his sense of humor or whatever. The President's first day back after the assassination, back in the White House. I had two days advance notice that I was going to brief the President for the first time since the shooting. I was going to brief the President, and I had something here, maybe I do, maybe I don't. I told our youngest daughter, Kimberly, "Hey, Kim, I'm going to go brief the President on Wednesday morning," or something similar. We were basically going to fake a full briefing, just make it short to demonstrate he was back in the saddle.
She said, "Is that right?" I said, "Yes, that's right." So she went off to kindergarten and came back with a passel full of get-well cards. They'd all made get well cards for the President. I was taking the national security briefing, I knew I wasn't going to leave them. So inside the briefing folder I had these cards. I just carried them up. I wanted to tell them I'd carried the cards to the President and back again. I thought maybe I might have had one or two of them in front of him. Anyway, so I said, "Mr. President, we're having a national security briefing today," and he said, "Okay" [low weak voice] so weak. I said, "There it is, and you've had your national security briefing, congratulations, Mr. President." Deaver was in the room, I forget who else was in the room.
And he said, "Wait a minute, wait a minute, what's that in there?" And I had a big stack of these cards. He said, "What's that?" I said, "These are cards from the kindergarten class of Oakridge Elementary School in Arlington, Mr. President." He said, "Let me see them." I handed them over and he started to go through them, one by one. He went through, read every card. There must have been 25 cards in there. So he said, "Which one's your daughter's?" I said, "It's one that's in there." So that was the card that she had written. She wrote two actually, and then she wrote this one, "Dear President Reagan, get better." So he said, "Give me your pen." . . .
Russell Riley: [reading] "President Reagan, Please get better, Love, Kim Allen." And then, in his handwriting below: "Dear Kim, forgive me for using your card for my answer, but I wanted to let you know how very much I appreciate your good wishes and your lovely card, Love, Ronald Reagan, April 15, 1981."
Martin Anderson: There was a lot of speculation. The speculation that he had an epiphany and he saw God and his whole life had changed and he did things differently and so on. It's not what I saw. What I saw was that for a period of months, he was sick. I mean, he got a tremendous shock and he was in recovery. He didn't come back in a couple of days with the same vigor, but gradually came right back up.
One of the things he did, I remember talking to him, he had a gym built in the mansion. He was always very strong in terms of exercise, so he started exercising very systematically. I remember one day I asked him, he said something about how he was so pleased with himself because--you know he was over 70 then--that he'd exercised and he had put on so much muscle that he had to get new suits. Increased his suit size, I think it was two sizes. He thought that was really terrific.
In terms of his policies, there was no change at all. He had been working on these for a long time; they were set in place. We knew what he wanted to do. He basically had laid it all in place and we just proceeded to try to get it done, but he never changed any policies that I saw.
Max Friedersdorf: So Tip came down, he did go in, and it was rather poignant. I stayed in the room. Mrs. Reagan, I think she slipped out. I don't think she was in there. But Tip got down on his knees next to the bed and said a prayer for the President and he held his hand and kissed him and they said a prayer together. . . . The 23rd psalm. The Speaker stayed there quite a while. They never talked too much. I just heard him say the prayer, then I heard him say, "God bless you, Mr. President, we're all praying for you." The Speaker was crying. The President still, I think, was a little, he was obviously sedated, but I think he knew it was the Speaker because he said, "I appreciate you coming down, Tip." He held his hand, sat there by the bed and held his hand for a long--
Max Friedersdorf: He stayed in the hospital about ten days. Other members came later, a very, very few. Howard Baker came. I think Mrs. Reagan made an exception with Tip and probably Howard Baker--those are the only two I can remember when I was there.
Then I think he went home after ten days, but he couldn't come downstairs in the White House. He stayed up in the residence for a long time recuperating. So we'd have to have meetings up there. Bless his heart, he'd be riding an exercise machine trying to get his strength back. He'd have a pair of jeans on with a T-shirt. He was about 70 then, maybe 71. He had a physique like a 30-year-old muscle builder--he really had big shoulders and chest, and I think his physical condition saved his life. He was up there lifting weights and riding the bike, trying to get built back up. Incredible constitution. It wasn't too long before he was back in the office, going about his business. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it.
Pendleton James: I had a couple of meetings with him upstairs in his pajamas after he recovered. He was still in his pajamas upstairs. I'm sure there was a change. Being shot changes you. It makes you think about life, so I'm sure there is a change. It wasn't manifested, anyway. He didn't go "boo" every time the door slammed, or something like that.
Lyn Nofziger: He told Deaver after he was shot that he felt that God had saved him for a specific purpose, and that he would try to remember that. I think he thought that that purpose was to stand up to and get rid of communism, because he certainly became determined.
Stuart Spencer: The only change I saw--he had an energy level problem for a while coming back. He almost died. There was a big change in her. She was scared to death after that. She even lobbied not to run again. She had real qualms. If she asked me once, she asked me fifteen times whether he should run again or not. It wasn't the fear of winning or losing. Every time he went out after that, she had a fear of him getting shot.
Why did she talk to Joan Quigley and all these astrologers? She was looking for help. She might have gone in to see the priest to try to get help. It was that sort of a grasp. You and I can understand it. He was very fatalistic about it, but she was scared to death. Big change in her.
Caspar Weinberger: He had huge physical development. After he was shot, the next morning, I asked the surgeon, "Did he have a pretty good night?" The doctor said, "No, as a matter of fact, he didn't. First of all, he felt it incumbent upon himself to entertain his nurses all night with jokes. Secondly, we had a terrible time extracting the bullet because this was an explosive bullet. We had to get it out very delicately. I've never seen the chest development on anybody that President Reagan had."
They had to work their way through that to get down to get this bullet. He said it was incredible, the physical development and the strength that was there. Getting an explosive bullet out under any circumstances is a reasonably hazardous enterprise, but his recovery was very complete and very quick--amazingly quick--although I didn't think it was going to be. I saw him a couple of days after the operation, and he looked completely deflated. I thought it would be months or years before he would ever be able to regain his capabilities. It was a matter of a few weeks.
Photographs Courtesy Ronald Reagan Presidential Library