The year was 1981. Just weeks after taking over as President, Ronald Reagan was in an operating room. He was bleeding internally from an assassin’s bullet. He was close to death.
The public saw the shooting play out in front of cameras as Reagan and his entourage left a Washington Hotel. But those watching were unaware the how seriously the President was hurt.
“If he had been just a couple of minutes later (getting to the hospital), he wouldn’t have survived,” said author Del Wilber. “A 33 year old surgical intern. A guy who had woken up that morning to do a kidney operation or something, reaches into Reagan’s chest and gently cups the President’s beating heart in his hand.”
In his book Rawhide Down, titled after Reagan’s secret service code name, Wilber explains what happened behind the scenes and how the incident factors into the way Reagan is remembered today.
“At that time we were yearning for a guy who stand up, to the Soviets and the world. There were a lot of concerns during the campaign that he was an actor. Who was Ronald Reagan really?” said Wilber.
“I think we all know at a base level that when you’ve been shot and nearly killed, you can’t fake that. That’s who you really are,” he said.
Reagan famously quipped to surgical staff “I hope you are all Republicans.” He also joked to his wife Nancy about the shooting that he “forgot to duck.”
“What does that tell us about Reagan? He cares more about his wife than himself. He’s trying to calm her down in the most traumatic moment of his own life,” said Wilber. “This was a day that reshaped and recalibrated his relationship with the American people. I think the world would be a different place if he hadn’t been shot.”
Reagan was the target of John Hinckley Jr. However, he was not the only one hurt. Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy was in front of Reagan. He spread his body to protect him and was wounded. Press secretary James Brady was shot in the head and was left partially paralyzed.
Del Wilber recounts that day in 1981 and the legacy of what happened. He speaks Thursday night at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield. Doors open at 6 p.m. with a book signing and the presentation gets underway at 6:30 p.m.