If I asked Americans who were old enough to know what was going on around them at the time whether the date November 22, 1963, meant anything special to them a very large percentage would say that was the day President Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas (and tell you where they were when they heard the news).
If I asked Americans who were old enough to know what was going on around them at the time whether the date March 30, 1981, meant anything special to them a very large percentage would say, no. That was the date when President Reagan and three other people were shot outside the Washington Hilton Hotel. Of course, there are big differences – principally that Kennedy died and Reagan lived.
I am one of the Americans who remembers and thinks of this day in history. Because I was the White House Correspondent for ABC News, I was there, standing about five and a half feet from John Hinckley, Jr., what he fired the shots.
Reagan walked out of a door on the Washington Hilton hotel’s lower ground level at 2:27 pm after delivering a hum-drum speech inside to an AFL-CIO trade union. I shouted a question from the rope line behind which the news cameras, reporters and civilians (including Hinckley) were stationed. My question was, what would President Reagan do if the Soviets moved with military force to crush the shipyard freedom movement in Poland led by Lech Walesa. Mike Putzel of the AP also shouted a question and we will never know which question he may actually have heard.
Our ABC Video shot by our camera man Hank Brown shows Reagan beginning to turn toward us when six quick shots were fired from the rope line to my right. I watched the president as his lead Secret Service Agent Jerry Parr pushed him violently through the open door of the Presidential limousine. I thought I saw a surprised, quizzical look on his face but saw no indication that he had been hit. I was aware that other people were lying on the ground in front of us – I recognized press Secretary Jim Brady and saw blood flowing from his head. Also to my right, I was aware of a large pile of men on top of someone (Hinckley) and an agent with an Uzi weapon pointed skyward in his right hand. All this took place in what seemed to me as an instant.
In those days, there were no cell phones and none of us had hand radios. I ran through the doors of the Hotel in the small lower lobby which was empty looking for a pay phone but instantly spotted a tourist line desk with a regular phone on the desk top.
I called the ABC News Bureau in Washington. In those days there was still no Centrex and business phones were answered by a switchboard operator. Fortunately, our operator had not gone to the bathroom and she answered immediately.
I said “It’s Donaldson, quick give me the 320 line.”
That line rang at the telephones of major importance in our Bureau and in our New York Headquarters. As I heard many answers coming in I said “This is Donaldson and this is no drill!” Why that?
Well if you had watched the movie Tora Tora Tora as many times as I had you remember the scene when the naval officer at Pearl Harbor who had just witnessed Japanese Planes firing on his surroundings rushed into the office lobby and wrote out a message for all local commands saying “Air raid Pearl Harbor. This is no drill.” Somehow my agitated brain thought those words were needed here.
I then followed (and I don’t have the verbatim before me) with roughly these words – Shots have been fired at President Reagan outside the Washington Hilton. He was pushed into his limousine by the Secret Service and the car sped away. I did not see any evidence that the president was hit. But I do not know whether he was hit. Others appear to have been hit. I saw Jim Brady lying on the ground with blood coming from his head.
At that point the duty desk man at ABC radio in New York cut in and said – I’m, switching you to the radio line for a report. By this time it was just seconds before our scheduled 2:30 radio news brief that all ABC affiliates carried, and I, uh, well, I was the lead.
You know the rest of the story – how Secret Service agent Jerry Parr first radioed the White House that “Rawhide,” Reagan’s code name, was returning to the White House after a shooting. Parr reported Reagan did not appear to be hit. But almost immediately, Parr saw frothy blood coming from Reagan’s mouth, blood that he correctly identified as indicating a lung wound and he ordered the limousine to turn right on Pennsylvania Avenue and speed to the George Washington Hospital Emergency room. There was no time to alert the Hospital.
Imagine the scene on a sleepy Friday afternoon when a large, black limousine with two small flags flying from the front fenders rapidly pulled up . A burly young man jumps out and opens the back door and, after hitching up his pants (his man Mike Deaver said Reagan always did that before a public appearance) the President of the United States steps out under his own power then starts to collapse into the arms of Emergency Room attendants who had the good sense to figure out when the limousine suddenly appeared that something unusual was going on and they should see what it was.
Doctors said later that Jerry Parr almost certainly saved Reagan’s life by diverting when he did to the hospital. The Emergency room attendants saved Reagan’s life by quickly stabilizing him and preventing his going into shock. Then, a team of surgeons, anesthesiologists, and nurses saved his life by making correct decisions.
Dr. Benjamin Arron was the surgeon who performed the operation. First, his fingers could not locate the bullet but after looking at the x-ray realized it had flattened and in probing for it he was actually moving it around so very close to Reagan’s heart. Now he grasped it and removed it.
Of course, the next day a picture of Reagan signing work documents from his bed was released by the White House. He was in no condition to do anything like that but the effort to reassure the Country came before, what…well, we understand.
Back at the studio, I was sitting by our Anchorman Frank Reynolds discussing on live television what anyone outside the Hospital knew (which included the fact that at that time news media were still operating on the belief that Reagan was back at the White House).
While we were talking about what I had seen Frank was handed a note which he glanced at briefly while continuing the theme that we thought Reagan had – and Frank was actually saying these words – “had not been shot”- when I looked at the note closely and pointing to the note said to Frank “has been shot.”
“Has been shot,” Frank repeated in a tone of voice which said “for God’s sakes, this is something we should get right(!)” and from then on the day turned white hot.
I ran for the Hospital and therefore missed Secretary of State Haig insisting that he was in charge. Beginning with my coverage of Jimmy Carter, my rule was always to keep as close to the President except when he was “home” and completely unavailable. Years later when President George H W Bush was making an outdoor speech on a hot summer day somewhere on foreign soil many reporters were watching it on television in a cool tent about a hundred fifty yards away and his press secretary Marlin Fitzwater called those reporters a bunch of “lazy SOBs. I wasn’t covering the White House then and wasn’t there but I told everyone who would listen that Fitzwater was right!
At the hospital as he was wheeled into the operating room Reagan, so badly wounded, showed that an actor always was playing the scene he found himself in. In the operating room he said “All in all, I’d rather be in Philadelphia (a line from the commediane W C Fields)” And to his wife “Honey, I forgot to duck.” And to the Doctors “I hope you are all Republicans.” To which Dr. Aaron (a card carrying Democrat replied) “Today, Mr. President, we are all Republicans.”
Another of my favorite quips came when Reagan left the Hospital and someone asked him what he was going to do when he got back to the White House.
“Sit down,” he said.
When Reagan was shot, even though he had defeated Jimmy Carter by a large margin the public including reporters wasn’t sure about him. I believe the way he handled himself that day moved a large segment of doubters into his favorable column. And helped him go down in history as a successful president.
Where are they now?
Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Jerry Parr, Dr. Arron, Jim Brady, Frank Reynolds, General Haig and many others who played a role that day are gone.
Hinckley is still alive. Free under supervision.
As for me, I’m older, no wiser but still kicking…like many retired people, remembering the days when one was young and part of the action of life at its most vibrant intensity.
For me, March 30, 1981, is a day I shall never forget.