Footnote: The 30th Anniversary of the Reagan Assassination Attempt

Steven Hayward notes that today is the 30th anniversary of John Hinkley's attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan. Not only does this make me feel old, it's also a reminder of how easily history has forgotten that the Reagan Revolution nearly died that day. In fact, Al Haig's "I'm in charge here" gaffe was probably its lasting legacy.

The shooting and near death of President Reagan on that March afternoon provides another occasion for reflection on the radical contingency of human affairs and for counterfactual "what-if" speculation. What if Winston Churchill had been killed when he was struck by a taxi on Fifth Avenue in New York in 1932? What if Oswald had missed his target in Dallas? Most such speculations are ultimately fatuous, but in the case of Ronald Reagan one can speculate with confidence that the "Reagan revolution" as it came to be known would not have been consummated under the presidency of George H.W. Bush. . .

One of the quips Reagan scribbled on a note pad after waking up after surgery was Winston Churchill's famous line from his autobiography My Early Life that "there is no more exhilarating feeling than being shot at without result." But the bullets missed Churchill. While Reagan survived his bullet, it was not without "result." In addition to the severe pain of his wounds (whose treatment required strong medication including morphine), Reagan contracted a staph infection in the hospital that was as life threatening as the bullet wound. He had to be placed back on oxygen and given powerful antibiotics. Three days after the shooting House Speaker Tip O'Neill was the first outsider to visit Reagan in the hospital. "He was in terrific pain, much more serious than anybody thought," O'Neill said. In an extraordinary moment, O'Neill, in tears, knelt next to Reagan's bedside, held the president's hand, and recited the 23rd Psalm with Reagan in prayer.

Although Reagan returned to the White House after 13 days in the hospital, his working hours were severely curtailed for weeks. Al Haig, one of Reagan's first visitors back at the White House, said "I was shocked when I saw him. He was a shell of his old self." It would be two months before he worked a full day. His personal physician said that he didn't think Reagan fully recovered until October, seven months later. Reagan never mentioned his discomfort. His only complaint was that he wouldn't be able to ride a horse for a while.

One thing that sticks in the craw is how Hinkley was able to get off relatively lightly after shooting the president, along with three other men, one of whom - James Bradey - was left permanently brain damaged. The guy got off on an insanity claim and has been living out his days at St. Elizabeth's in DC. Not only that, there are occasional flurries of legal activity as he and his wealthy family seek out ever increasing freedoms, including weekend passes and unsupervised visits to his parents' homes. I recall reading a while back that Hinkley even managed to have a couple girlfriends, although Jodie Foster is apparently still playing hard to get.

Squeakey Fromme and Sarah Moore took shots at Gerald Ford, which missed their target, but were enough to send them to prison for decades. Why the soft treatment for Hinkley? Surely his parents' wealth is a factor. They could get the best defense money could buy, after all. It wouldn't take much effort for a hustling defense attorney to look through the detritus of Hinkley's pathetic life, find some odd ramblings about Jodie Foster, and use that to put on a show. This was the era of the "Twinkie defense" and an overall soft-on-crime approach to crime, and Hinkley took full advantage.

Still, you can't help feel like Hinkley was spared a real prison sentence because of who he shot. I can remember people being shocked by the shooting, but within a few months it was back to "Reagan = dumb cowboy." A short time later, Saturday Night Live broadcast an (admittedly funny) satire of presidential assassinations, which included a lot of Reagan elements. And, of course, a DC jury found Hinkley not guilty by reason of insanity despite the fact that he seemed to have put a certain amount of planning and forethought into his efforts. It's damn hard to imagine a similar reaction if, say, Bill Clinton was shot. But, because it was the hated Reagan, it didn't seem to matter so much.

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