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Revisiting the Reagan Assassination Attempt, 30 Years Later

On the 30th anniversary of the attempted assassination of then-President Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley, Jr., Judy Woodruff talks to the surgeon who operated on Reagan and an author of a new book about the day’s events.

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    Next, remembering the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan 30 years later.

    And for that, we turn to Judy Woodruff.


    President Reagan was just two months into his first term on that fateful day in 1981. He wrapped up a speech to union members at the Washington Hilton Hotel and stepped outside to leave.

    Flanked by Secret Service agents, he smiled broadly and waved at passersby who had gathered hoping to catch a glimpse of the new president. When John Hinckley Jr. opened fire from behind the nearby rope line, it took him less than two seconds to wound the president, the White House press secretary, a Secret Service agent and a D.C. police officer.

    It took much longer for the full picture of the events of that day to emerge, including how close the president came to death.

  • It’s all laid out in the book “Rawhide Down:

    The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan.”

    And joining us now is author and Washington Post reporter Del Quentin Wilber, and Dr. Joseph Giordano. He led the George Washington University hospital trauma team that operated on the president.

    Dr. Giordano and Del Wilber, thank you very much for being here.

  • DEL QUENTIN WILBER, “Rawhide Down:

    The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan”: Thank you.

  • DR. JOSEPH GIORDANO, George Washington University Medical Center:

    Nice to be here.


    Del, I’m going to start with you.

    This was a day that got a huge amount of news coverage at the time. I happen to know because I was there as a reporter. There was a television camera rolling when John Hinckley shot the president. What more were you able to learn writing this book?


    I learned that Ronald Reagan was really lucky to have survived.

    I mean, he was a total beneficiary of circumstance. There’s — you know, Hinckley unleashed six shots in 1.7 seconds. And he would have killed Reagan, he would have hit him, possibly — I mean, maybe really wounded him badly, if Jerry Parr, the lead Secret Service agent, hadn’t acted so quickly and had the training to do so.

    And he was — I’m sorry.


    Yes. I was going to — what — what did Parr do?


    Parr — the — Hinckley unleashed these six shots so quickly.

    And Parr grabbed the president — he was right next to him, Jerry Parr, the Secret Service agent — thrusting him into the car so fast. We have seen that iconic video so many times. His quick actions got Reagan out of Hinckley’s direct fire and behind the shielded limousine door.

    But that still wasn’t enough, because the sixth shot that no one knew for — for hours, or even minutes, knew that hit Reagan had ricocheted off the side of the limousine, slipped through a gap that big, and hit Reagan in the side, and he tumbled into the car.


    And there was another fateful decision Parr made in the car on the way back to the White House.


    It was — Jerry Parr on the way back to the White House with Reagan initially thinks Reagan’s OK. And he gets on the radio and says, “Rawhide is OK. Rawhide is OK.” And that’s the Secret Service code name and the title of the book.

  • Well, on the way back, Reagan starts looking not so great, ashen, complaining of pain in his chest, bright frothy blood on his lips. Parr makes that decision:

    We’re going to the hospital, not the ultra-secure White House. As Dr. Giordano will attest, that decision saved Reagan’s life.


    Dr. Giordano, how prepared — how prepared was George Washington Hospital to handle a president who had been shot? And how clear was it that he had been shot then?


    Well, it was very prepared.

    We had trained for four years, since 1976, 1980, setting up the trauma system at G.W. And everybody was well-trained at that point in time. The president was treated like any patient. We were notified right before he got there that somebody was on the way. And he came in through the main door. He collapsed.

    He was brought back to the resuscitation area. The trauma team was there. And they assessed him and treated him accordingly.


    And — and we know that there were these humorous comments that the White House put out later that he said to Mrs. Reagan, “Honey, I forgot to duck,” and that he said to the doctors, “I hope you’re all Republicans today.”

    But how — tell us a little bit more about what happened inside the E.R., and then during surgery.


    Well, I came down after he was already on the gurney being treated by my residents, and we went over things.

    They — they told me the extent of his injuries. And I examined him myself. It was clear that the president had lost a lot of blood. He had a very concerned look on his face, but he was getting better already, because we were infusing blood and I.V. fluids into him.

    He had a small opening just below his left axilla, or armpit. And we had no breath sounds on the left side of the chest. So, we would put a chest tube in…


    No breath?


    No breath sounds.

    And the reason is, of course, is that he has an enormous amount of blood that was going into the thoracic cavity and compressing his left lung. That was causing him difficulty breathing and also a continued loss of blood, which can’t be tolerated, obviously, for a long time.

    So, the way you treat that is to put a chest tube in. You put a chest tube in the area and you draw out all the blood and the air, and the blood — and the lung usually re-expands. It did. But it didn’t stop the bleeding. Ninety percent of the time, that maneuver stops the bleeding, because the pulmonary circuit is a low-pressure circuit.

    And — but it didn’t for that time.


    And — and kept working and were able to find the bullet that…


    Right. Well, that was — yes, that was…


    And that was — that was later.


    That was after, right, right.

    And so, once we kept — a rush of blood came out, and then we expected it to stop, but it didn’t. It kept coming in a very rapid case. That’s when I called Dr. Aaron, who was the surgeon who did the thoracotomy and the definitive operation.


    And was able to actually get the bullet out.

    Del Wilber, what about John Hinckley? We learned he didn’t do — have a whole lot of advanced planning to do this. And it was all about this fixation he had on the actress Jodie Foster.


    He did.

    You know, he wasn’t even planning to go see Reagan that day. He was just coming through Washington on his way up to Connecticut, where Jodie Foster was a student at Yale University, to go possibly kill himself, kill her, or kill them both together in dramatic fashion.

    But somewhere, he had in his mind for quite some time — because, remember, he had stalked Carter, too, in 1980 and Reagan during the transition.


    President Carter.


    President Carter — and if he shot the president, that would earn her affection for him.

    And so he’s in this hotel that’s now been destroyed. It’s been torn down since. And he was writing a note to her, saying, “I’m off my way to the Hilton, and you will hear about me now.”

    And so he went there with his little gun and he pulled it out and unleashed those six shots in 1.7 seconds. And the president’s life — literally, Ronald Reagan’s life came down to a split-second decision by Jerry Parr and one inch, because that’s how far the bullet was from his heart.


    And, Dr. Giordano, we know at the hospital, not only were you treating a president. You were treating two other people who had been shot, the press secretary and the Secret Service agent.


    Right. That’s correct.


    How hard was that, to handle all this? What was that like?


    Well, our resuscitation area could handle two patients at the same time. We were set up for that.

    And Mr. Brady was brought in the resuscitation area right next to Reagan. Tim McCarthy, the Secret Service person, wasn’t as seriously injured. He was put in a regular room. And we had a team set on him also.


    And then — but Jim Brady, much more serious.


    Jim Brady, right, much more serious, he was taken care of by the neurosurgical team.


    And — and has recovered today, but it was a long process…


    It was a long process.


    … and a grievous brain injury.

    Del Wilber, the efforts by the senior aides to President Reagan to keep from alarming the public and to try to present an orderly sense who have was in charge, it told us something about the way that team operated, didn’t it?


    No, it did.

    Reagan’s three top advisers went — rushed to the hospital. Well, one was already there. But two other top advisers went to the hospital. The rest stayed in the White House, including Alexander Haig, the secretary of state, who we all know he got on the podium and said, “I’m in control,” and then mangled presidential succession.

    And what it showed was — Dick Allen, the national security adviser, let me listen to four-and-a-half-hours of never-before-heard audiotapes that he had made in the Situation Room that day, this most secure room in the government.

    And it really revealed that Haig was trying to exert this control, and he didn’t really have it. And the others just kind of played along with him. And they had these terrible miscommunication problems with George Bush, the vice president, who was flying back from Texas on a plane without secure voice communications, so unsecure that two graduate students in Alabama intercepted those calls. So, that made it much more difficult to respond to this crisis.


    Well, in so many ways, it’s a day that I know we will never forget, the country will never forget — a lot of lessons learned. And we’re grateful to both of you for bringing it back to us.

    Dr. Joe Giordano, thank you very much.

    Del Quentin Wilber…


    Thank you.


    Thank you. Thank you very much.

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