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Judy Woodruff on Covering Reagan Assassination Attempt

woodruffbook.jpgNormally I keep the word “I” out of my reporting. That’s what we were taught as journalists in the early 1970s. But if there’s one episode that caused me to break with that precedent, it’s what happened 30 years ago today, on March 30, 1981, when John Hinckley tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan.

I was covering the White House for NBC News then, and my television crew and I had been assigned to the “travel pool” that followed the President any time he left the building that day. It couldn’t have been a more routine Monday: President Reagan, in office less than two months, had just one outside event on his schedule, a speech to the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades conference.

It was a rainy, dreary afternoon when we pulled up at the Washington Hilton hotel, and members of the “pool” had to rush to get to the ballroom for the president’s short address, then back to the motorcade, to be ready for it to return to the White House. I stood about 15 or 20 feet away from the presidential limousine, under a concrete canopy and next to the press van, to be in a position to ask him a question about something that had happened in Poland. But I never got the chance.

Seconds after he walked out the private VIP door, there was a “pop, pop, pop” sound echoing everywhere. In an instant, people were yelling, “get down!” and I could see the president being shoved into his car. I made a split-second decision not to go with the motorcade, because I saw several people were on the ground, and knew I needed to get to a phone.

One of those down, lying in a pool of blood around his head, was a large man who appeared to be press secretary Jim Brady, someone I knew well. I felt sick to my stomach as I asked anyone I could grab if they thought President Reagan had been hit. A White House staffer said he didn’t think so, but couldn’t be sure. This was long before the cell phone era, and I went running in search of a land line.

Photo: Judy Woodruff, March 1982. (Penelope Breese/Liaison)

The phone in the hotel lobby was tied up, so I ran across the street to an office building, asking frantically to borrow a phone. It seemed like an hour — but it was only a minute or two — before I reached the NBC news desk, and they had heard the news. I reported what I knew, then raced with my camera crew to find a taxi to take us the short distance back to the White House.

The rest of the day was a blur – I spent much of it standing on a chair in the White House press briefing room, doing a stream of live TV reports, now common, but then unusual – and trying to sort out fact from fiction about the president’s condition. There were several mistakes made that day — among them, reports that the president was undergoing heart surgery. A bullet had punctured his lung, however, and he came much closer to death than anyone outside the hospital realized at the time. And another report that Jim Brady had died — he hadn’t, but he was gravely wounded by the devastating bullet that pierced his brain.

As I look back on it, the whole thing seems unreal, there is a slow-motion reel of all that happened outside the Hilton that plays in my head when I start to think about it. But of course it happened; it changed lives and the course of the Reagan presidency. I was part of it, probably more than any other news story I’ve covered, and as I wrote in a book published the next year, I learned how important it is that reporters keep doing their jobs, even when they’re swept up in an event. But it didn’t come naturally.

Every time I tried to describe what happened that day, the image of Jim Brady lying on the ground kept coming back to me. That’s a reminder that for all our efforts to stay out of the stories we cover, reporters are human too, and there are occasions when it’s more honest to talk about that than to pretend we’re simply observers, standing by, taking notes.

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