By: Ronald Reagan
Date: April 22, 1981
Source: Reagan, Ronald. "Question-and-Answer Session With Reporters Helen Thomas and Jim Gerstenzang on the President's Recovery Period." Available online at ; website home page: http://www.reagan.utexas.edu (accessed June 9, 2003).
About the Author: Ronald Reagan (1911–) was born in Tampico, Illinois. After graduating from Eureka College, Reagan worked as a sports broadcaster for a Davenport, Iowa radio station. In 1937, while covering spring training in California, Reagan signed a contract with Warner Brothers, a movie studio. Reagan eventually starred in over fifty films. In 1964, he retired from acting and was elected governor of California. In 1980, Reagan was elected president (served 1981–1989). After serving two terms, he retired to his ranch in California.
A little more than two months into his presidency, Ronald Reagan nearly died in an assassination attempt. At 2:30 P. M. on March 30, after the president had delivered a speech to the Building Trades Conference of the AFL-CIO at the Washington Hilton, he exited the hotel. Four secret service agents and two aides accompanied the president. Outside, a light rain was falling as Reagan headed toward the presidential limousine. Awaiting the president was John W. Hinckley, Jr., a mentally unbalanced youth. Positioned in a combat crouch with a two-handed hold on his. 22 caliber Rohm R6-14 revolver, Hinckley carefully tracked the president's movements. As Reagan passed a crowd of reporters, a journalist yelled out a question. Reagan turned to respond. In less than two seconds, six gun shots rang out.
Secret Service Agent Jerry Parr grabbed Reagan by the waist and pushed him headlong into the limousine. A bullet careened off the side of the vehicle, striking the diving president. The bullet entered his body near the left armpit, deflected off his seventh rib, rupturing the lung. The bullet lodged near Reagan's heart. A semi-conscious Reagan was wheeled into George Washington University's trauma unit. Having lost 2,100 cc of blood, much of it filling his left pleural cavity, Reagan's condition was very serious. Once stabilized, he regained enough composure to ask his nurse who was holding his hand, "Does Nancy know about us?" When the First Lady arrived moments later, he told her, "Honey, I forgot to duck." As he was hoisted up on the operating table, he looked up at the doctors and said, "I hope you are all Republicans." It took the surgeon more than thirty minutes to cut through the 71-year-old president's barrel chest to remove the bullet.
In June 1982, John W. Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the attempted assassination of President Reagan. The would-be murderer was sent to St. Elizabeth's Mental Hospital in Washington, D.C. On the day of the shooting, Hinckley had written the actress Jodie Foster, describing his plan to kill the president. Hinkley became obsessed with Foster after seeing her play a teenage prostitute in the 1976 film Taxi Driver.
Hinckley's plot to kill the president had a significant impact on Reagan's presidency. Since the 1950s, this was the fourth assassination attempt on Reagan's life. This near death experience, however, was different because he came to believe that God had spared his life for a divine purpose. A firm anti-communist for forty years, he interpreted his survival as a reminder from God to dedicate the rest of his life to defeating this godless evil.
Reagan's recovery also boosted his political fortunes. This was the fourth time in less than two decades that American presidents had become assassins' targets. Moments after Hinckley emptied his chamber, the nation was on high alert, waiting anxiously to learn Reagan's fate. Unlike in Dallas in 1963, the president survived and the country let out a collective sigh of relief. Reagan's ease and humor in the face of adversity raised him to almost folk-hero status with the American people. The year before, Reagan defeated Carter, receiving only fifty-one percent of the vote, and only fifty-two percent of eligible voters cast ballots. Reagan's election was no clear mandate for change. His newly found popularity, however, translated into political capital. Within three months of the attempted assassination, the Democratically-controlled Congress voted for Reagan's tax cuts, reduced government expenditures on domestic programs, and increased appropriations to military and national defense establishments to combat the Soviets.
Primary Source: Question-and-Answer Session with Reporters Helen Thomas and Jim Gerstenzang on the President's Recovery Period
SYNOPSIS: On April 22, 1981, twenty-three days after the attempted assassination, Reagan was backto work at the White House. At noon, he spoke of that fateful day with two veteran reporters. His casual attitude toward the ordeal, his refusal to change his daily routine, and his sympathy for his assailant's family was much admired by the American people.
Ms. Thomas: All the reports seem to be true, rosy-cheeked and—
The President [laughing]: No, I'm feeling fine.
Ms. Thomas: Can you tell us a little bit about how you felt at the time of the shooting? Did you ever feel you were in mortal danger? I know you didn't even know you were hit, but—
The President: No, that's right, and as a matter of fact, it still seems unreal. I knew there had to be shots, and my first instinct was to take a look and see what was going on from where they were. But the Secret Service man behind me had a different idea, and the next thing I knew I found myself pushed into the car. But it still seems kind of unreal.
Ms. Thomas: It's unreal to us, too, because we've come out of that hotel so many times and—
The President: Yeah.…
Mr. Gerstenzang: What were your first thoughts when you realized that you had been hit?
The President: Actually, I can't recall too clearly. I knew I'd been hurt, but I thought that I'd been hurt by the Secret Service man landing on me in the car. And it was, I must say, it was the most paralyzing pain. I've described it as if someone had hit you with a hammer.
But that sensation, it seemed to me, came after I was in the car, and so I thought that maybe his gun or something, underneath, when he had come down on me, had broken a rib. But when I sat up on the seat and the pain wouldn't go away, and suddenly I found that I was coughing up blood, we both decided that maybe I'd broken a rib and punctured a lung. So, that's when we headed for the hospital. And I walked in and gave them my own diagnosis, and the next thing I knew I was on a cart and it was then, I guess, that they found the wound and that I actually had been shot.
Ms. Thomas: Then, you were awake and everything? I mean—
The President: Oh, yes.
Ms. Thomas:—but had lost a lot of blood and—
The President: Yes. And my main concern, even as
I was getting to the hospital, was that—and I voiced this several times to them—that the more I tried to breathe and the deeper I tried to breathe, it kept seeming as if I was getting less air—and you know that panic that you can get if you're strangling on something. I almost had the feeling that it was going to diminish to the place where I wouldn't be getting any. And then they shut me up by sticking a pipe down my throat and oxygen on, and that's when I had to start writing notes—[laughter]—because I couldn't talk with that pipe in there.
Ms. Thomas: But you always felt that you were alert enough to know what was going on and—
The President: Oh, yes. Yeah, I knew that in the manner in which I was unclothed that I probably wouldn't wear that suit again.
Ms. Thomas. Do you have any feelings about going out again? I mean, are there any—is there trauma or instants that you say, "Oh, God, do I have to face this again?" Or do you feel that, you know—
The President: I have a hunch I'll be more alert in going again.
Ms. Thomas: We will, too.
The President: That's the other thing.
I look back now in some of these reviews that they've shown of the first few months and so forth. I see some of the milling in crowds and so forth that we've done, and I find myself wondering, "Well, why didn't this happen 27 times before?" But, no, there's not going to be any change in the way we do things.…
Ms. Thomas: How do you actually feel? I mean, do you hurt at times and you feel good at times?
The President: Well, as the doctors will tell you, I have never had a chest injury before. They will tell you that it is one of the longest enduring discomforts, and it doesn't go away. There is just that kind of pain or discomfort there constantly that you hope day by day is getting less, and I think is getting less and less. But other than that—I've resumed at a little slower pace my regimen of exercises that I've always done for keeping fit. And I don't think I'm going to hurdle any tables in the room here for a while, but, really, the recovery is astonishing to me as I think it is, in the reaction, to the doctors, because the only comparison I have to go by is I once had pneumonia, and that was 36 years ago when I was making a picture. And I lost 17 pounds at the time and was months in regaining strength or anything. And I'm so far ahead in this than I was then, that I have to—
Ms. Thomas: You are. I know we keep pushing because we keep forgetting what a short time it's actually been.…
Ms. Thomas: When do you think you'll be feeling well enough to go back to the Oval Office, or do you like working in the family quarters or—
The President: Well, actually, I don't think I'd be doing anything different. And I'm just going to, you know, I'm going to do it my way. It's convenient this way, because there still are calls by the doctors who want to come and check. There is the convenience of being able to get up and, for example, the telephone calling that I've been doing, which I'd be doing from the office, but I can get up in the morning without bothering to get dressed yet, put on a robe, and sit and do the calls.
So this, you know, with the Congress on recess, I don't think there'd be anything different or I'd be doing anything different than I've done other than possibly some appearances that have been scheduled and which had to be canceled or which George Bush substituted for me. But other than that I've been doing what I'd be doing. Remember, the schedule actually called for me to be in California for a few days.…
Mr. Gerstenzang: Could you, maybe in describing how you are working up there each day, sort of show how your day goes?
The President: Well, they vary from day to day.
Usually we start with a staff meeting, and we do that—which was normal before. Yesterday I had a series of meetings, finishing up with almost an hour's meeting with those Governors who came to see me. We have security briefings.
So, that some days—now, today, for example, has been—well, there's been some sizeable amount of paper signing and so forth that went on, and then mainly after the staff meeting, the telephone calling, which I've been doing. And that will continue, because you don't get them the first call.
Ms. Thomas: You might find them at a radio station. [Laughter]
The President: And believe me, that was a total accident. They didn't make it sound exactly that way. Usually I say to them, "Where did we find you?" And I'll tell you why I say that, because early in the calls, I called a Congressman and we'd found him in New Zealand at 4 a.m. [Laughter]
Ms. Thomas: You mean recently?
The President: Yes.
Ms. Thomas: Oh, my God.
The President: I wanted to tell him that I was somebody else. [Laughter] It was too late. He knew who it was. [Laughter]
Ms. Thomas: Was he awake?
The President: Yes, I must say he was most pleasant about the whole thing. So, I usually ask that. And yesterday I asked that question, "Where'd I find you?" and he told me, "In Beaver Falls, at this radio station." He said, "I'm on a talk show here." And I said, "You mean, we're on the talk show now?" And he said, "Well, no, they've put me on another phone for this call." But he said, "I think they'd appreciate it very much if you'd say hello to their"—well, his forum. "They know you're on the phone." And I said, "Well, okay."
So, they put him on the other phone, the one that is audible to the radio audience, and we carried on our conversation there on the talk show.
Ms. Thomas: Do you go to bed earlier now? Do you take naps? Do you sort of try to ease into it?
The President: The only routine that I'm continuing is an afternoon nap. And that was never—in spite of some stories to the contrary—that was never a habit of mine. As a matter of fact, I've never been one who naps very well in the daytime. Everybody else sacks out on the plane and everything else, and I don't.
But I have found that I do go to sleep and sleep for a brief period. So, I guess that is part of the recovery.
Ms. Thomas: Do you think your life has changed?
The President: Only temporarily, such as not getting on a horse for a while yet.
Ms. Thomas: It's not like in the movies.
The President: Oh, I thought you meant just changed in—
Ms. Thomas: I mean the impact itself, of everything that's happened in terms of the Presidency, yourself—
The President: Well, of course, you know, I had 8 years of a job that was similar enough that there hasn't been any great surprises to me in this. But I'm enjoying it, to be able to deal directly with the things I've heretofore talked about. I enjoy doing that.
Ms. Thomas: You don't want to hang up your cleats or anything because of this incident?
The President: No, no.
Ms. Thomas: Does it give you any kind of new sense of—I mean, I think the country's kind of worried about your security and—
The President: Well, again, you get—maybe this is part of it—that you get a little used to it. In all those 8 years and those hectic times when I was Governor, I was aware that there were constant threats. And I could usually tell when there was a slight difference in the security precautions and the normal—something new must have been suggested. And in the two campaigns, having had national-type security, Secret Service, no, I've been—you're aware of that. And you sometimes wonder in your mind when and how it's going to happen or any attempt or what it would be like.
You remember '76; there was that fellow with the toy gun. Well, I never saw that; I was busy saying hello to someone. And I didn't see this.
Ms. Thomas: Do you have any feelings about your assailant? Of course there's nothing you can really feel, I guess. It's something that's senseless.
The President: Well, yes, the feeling is I hope, indeed I pray, that he can find an answer to his problem. He seems to be a very disturbed young man. He comes from a fine family. They must be devastated by this. And I hope he'll get well too.
Ms. Thomas: That's very kind of you. You don't have any feelings of real anger, then, or—
The President: Well, I don't know how I could ask for help for myself and feel that way about someone else.
Mr. Gerstenzang: If you were to speak to his parents, what would you tell them?
The President: Well, I think I'd tell them that I understand and—[pause]—hope for a good outcome there, to end their problem.…
Mr. Gerstenzang: Has this in any way changed your thinking on gun control at all?
The President: No, and let me explain why. I'm not just being closed-minded or stubborn.
We have the laws now. Granted that all States aren't uniform. But I don't know of any place—there may be some—but I don't know of any place in the country where it is now not against the law to carry a concealed weapon. Now, we've found that that can't prevent someone. Your District of Columbia here has such a law. But a man was carrying a concealed weapon. So, I don't see where we believe that adding another law that probably will be just as unenforceable as this one is going to make a difference.
In fact, if anything, I'm a little disturbed that focusing on gun control as an answer to the crime problem today could very well be diverting us from really paying attention to what needs to be done if we're to solve the crime problem.
Ms. Thomas: Which is?
The President: Well, I do think we're showing the results of several decades of growing permissiveness, unwillingness to hold individuals responsible for their misdeeds, blaming society instead. In other words, quicker, more effective justice.
Mr. Deaver: One more.
Ms. Thomas: One more. We've got to make this one good. [Laughter] In terms of [Press Secretary] Brady, will he continue on? Are you going to keep the slot open for him?
The President: Oh, you bet. And I think all of us—as I say, when I finally did learn that three others had been hit, including the agent who deliberately placed himself between me and the gunman—but Jim, of course, was the most serious, and I am so gratified by the optimism about his recovery that that's a daily prayer.
Ms. Thomas: A miracle.
The President: Yes. For him.
Ms. Thomas and Mr. Gerstenzang: Thank you very much.
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