The Day Reagan Was Shot
by David Goodloe

On this day in 1981, the president of the United States was shot by a would–be assassin — a (thankfully) rare occurrence as it is, but this time was unique in American history.

This president lived to tell the tale.

That president, Ronald Reagan, wasn’t the first to be the target of an assassination attempt, but he became the first president to survive being shot.

There were many reasons why that probably should not have been so, but it was.

Fortunately, Americans have been spared the agony of the shooting of their president for three decades now — and you just about have to be in your mid–50s (at least) to remember the last such attempt that succeeded.

I don’t know why that is so. Are protection methods so much better now?

Surely, the Secret Service’s methods must have evolved, but they would have to have done so quietly, wouldn’t you think? I mean, I presume the changes that have been made in presidential protection have not been publicized — sort of like the policy that prevents most police departments from revealing certain details of high–profile cases.

They know that, many times, the guilty party will reveal himself because he has knowledge that only the person who committed the crime would have.

It is the same sort of thinking (in a kind of reverse fashion) that tells me that anything law enforcement knows and prepares for without the knowledge of any would–be assassins improves the chances that such an attempt will fail.

That would make sense to me. I played some poker in college. I wasn’t very good at it, but I knew there was a lot of value in bluffing and keeping your opponents in the dark.

And I also know (or, at least, I think I know) that the murders — or attempted murders — of public figures were far more commonplace when I was growing up than they seem to be today. Presidential assassinations have been rather infrequent in our history, but there was a time when I was growing up when two attempts were made on the life of a president within a month of each other.

I can only conclude that presidential protection methods must have improved in the last 30 years, but italso seems to me that — with the exception of the recent shootings in Arizona — the methods for protecting most public figures have improved as well.

It may not seem like attacks have declined appreciably — maybe the preferred targets have shifted, from public figures to private (or, at least, less public) ones — but the atmosphere seems entirely different today than it was when I was growing up.

If anything, the political dialogue is more venomous, more toxic than I can recall at any other time in my life — and, for all I know, actual death threats may be more numerous than they have ever been, as well — but actual attempts on the lives of public figures are way down from what they once were.

When I was small, two of the most admired men in America, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, were assassinated within a couple of months of each other. A few years later, political firebrand George Wallace was paralyzed in an assassination attempt.

In the years that followed, John Lennon was murdered, and Pope John Paul II was shot but survived.

Sometimes it seemed like the world was a shooting gallery, but even the attempts on Gerald Ford’s life in 1975 didn’t spark the chaos that Reagan’s shooting did on this day in 1981.

On a day that was as confused and bewildering and filled with uncertain moments as any I have witnessed in my life, perhaps the most noteworthy was Secretary of State Al Haig’s pronouncement that “I am in control here” in spite of the fact that the vice president, the speaker of the House and the president pro tempore of the Senate are ahead of the secretary of State in the constitutional line of succession.

Haig insisted that he was not speaking of presidential succession but rather of the chain of command in a crisis. But, even on that point, he was on shaky ground.

In addition to loopholes in the chain of command that were exposed by the shooting, there were problems in presidential protection that were uncovered as well.

Lead Secret Service agent Jerry Parr told Ari Shapiro of NPR that “we still took a defensive posture” on March 30, 1981.

“With this event we realized that wouldn’t work anymore, and we did it in a flash. That’s what came out of it.”

Perhaps the four presidents who followed owe their lives to the lessons that were learned that day.

And what of the man who tried to kill Reagan 30 years ago today?

John Hinckley Jr. is “moving closer to the day his doctors may recommend he go free,” CNN’s James Polk reported a few days ago.

The assessment of the doctors at the mental hospital where he has been held for nearly 30 years is that he is no longer a threat to anyone.

And, because Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity — even though video and still photographs taken at the scene show beyond any doubt that he was the man who pulled the trigger — his case is handled differently. He has received privileges for which he never would have been eligible if he had been found guilty of attempting to assassinate the president — and, consequently, may one day be set free.

I remember people complaining about that very thing when the verdict was announced — it was quite controversial at the time — and the knowledge that such a thing still is possible — however improbable it may be — continues to bother some people.

One of those people is Reagan’s daughter, Patti Davis, who writes movingly in TIME of the damage that is still present in the lives of those who were shot — and the people around them.

“Time is a matter of perspective,” Davis writes. “Sometimes 30 years isn’t so long. There are times when the American legal system works brilliantly. There are times when it fails.”

The presiding judge and Hinckley’s defense lawyer, she suggests, have made this case one of the latter.

Davis, like Ron Reagan Jr., has a record of supporting progressive causes, but on this issue she sounds more like their father.

I’m not saying she is wrong. She is entitled to her pain and suffering, just like the other victims and their families.

But Reagan lived for nearly a quarter of a century after being shot and did not appear to suffer any lingering effects from the experience — unlike the others who were shot that day.

Or most of the nameless, faceless Americans who are shot every day in America. Many are killed, but some survive and must adapt in whatever way is made necessary by the injuries that have been sustained.

They continue to pay the price, but Davis’ father turned an enormous profit.

Not quite 10 weeks into his term, suggests Jonny Dymond for BBC, Reagan was handed a priceless opportunity to connect with the voters — and he seized it. With his gentle, good humor when faced with personal peril, Reagan’s presidency was “lifted … out of the mere normal.” He went on to become the first president since Eisenhower to serve two complete terms.

“Just a few weeks ago, what would have been Reagan’s 100th birthday was commemorated with a slew of rosy retrospectives,” writes Dymond. “But the legend that was celebrated was arguably born 30 years ago today.”

David Goodloe got his bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Arkansas in 1982, and his master’s degree in journalism from the University of North Texas in 1991. He publishes the thoughtful weblog Freedom Writing. This post is cross posted from his website.

Also be sure to read Taylor Marsh’s take on the anniversary of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan HERE.

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