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Del Quentin Wilber

Del Quentin Wilber, author of Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald ReaganWhere did you get the idea for Rawhide Down?

I was covering a hearing in federal court involving the would-be assassin, John Hinckley. He was asking for more freedom from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, where he had been held since being found not guilty by reason of insanity at his 1982 trial. I was just amazed that I was sitting 15 feet from a man who nearly took the life of one of the most revered presidents in recent history. And he showed absolutely no emotion—his face was a blank mask. I wrote my story of the hearing and thought little more about it until a few days later when I was summoned to the FBI field office to talk about a potential story I was going to write about an undercover investigation. An agent, trying to convince me not to write the story, pulled something out of his desk and slapped it in my hand. It was Hinckley’s gun! I was shocked. What was this infamous gun doing in a desk drawer? I went to the library and looked up books about the assassination attempt and didn’t find any that satisfied my curiosity. Amazingly, there wasn’t a book that told the story of that dramatic day. So I began making phone calls to former agents and doctors, and that is where the book began.

Where did the title come from?

“Rawhide” was Ronald Reagan’s Secret Service code name. And he loved it. He was given the code name in 1976 and asked to keep it in 1980. Reagan always thought of himself as a cowboy and as a rancher and he loved riding horses. Heck, he took off the Wednesday afternoon before the shooting to ride horses at Quantico Marine Base. This name is quintessential Reagan and perfectly describes his actions on this day — the day that made him a legend and forever separated the man from his politics. I mean, the guy was cracking jokes in the face of death. Rawhide indeed!

Why do you think the detailed story of the day of the assassination attempt is important to tell now, 30 years after the attempt?

This story has been incomplete for the last 30 years, and I wanted to get it on the record before memories faded. Fortunately, I was able to obtain a number of never-before seen documents and closely held tape-recordings from that historic day and then merge that material with interviews I conducted with more than 125 people. I also think that a lot of people and historians have begun to more closely scrutinize Reagan and his presidency in recent years — 2011 is the Centennial of his birth and the 30th anniversary of the assassination attempt — and this day played a sizeable role in what led to Reagan’s ultimate success.

What surprised you the most in your reporting?

I discovered that Ronald Reagan was even luckier than I knew. If this shooting had occurred a few years earlier, he probably would have died, for two reasons. First, not until the mid-1970s did the Secret Service adopt the cutting-edge training regimens that made it possible for the lead agent, Jerry Parr, and other agents, including Tim McCarthy, to react so swiftly. Second, trauma care was the backwater of the medical establishment until just a few years before the assassination attempt, and George Washington University Hospital became a certified trauma center only two years before the shooting. Without the advanced trauma care provided by GW, Reagan would not have been treated as quickly or competently, and the outcome of that day might have been very different.

In the course of your research, did you learn anything about Reagan that changed your view of the former president?

It is a daunting challenge to sum up the life of a president. But after reading many, many biographies and memoirs (including Reagan’s), I came to admire him as a leader and a person. As an author, you cannot have a better “character” at the center of your story than Ronald Reagan. He started with nothing, became a radio personality, a movie star, the president of the actors’ union, a two-term governor of California and a three-time presidential candidate. Even in his late 60s, he didn’t give up on his dream to win the presidency, and in 1980 he became the oldest man ever elected to the office. Regardless of what you think about Reagan’s politics, his story—and the story of that harrowing day in March 1981—make for a very dramatic narrative. I also found him to be more intelligent than many people gave him credit for. For example, he took the time to completely rewrite the speech he delivered on the day he was shot—and he did a great job of it.

I believe you used the term “Reaganaut” to describe those close to Reagan. Do you have to be a Reaganaut to like this book? Do you even have to like Reagan?

I don’t think you have to like Reagan to enjoy the book, in part because the story of his near assassination is such a riveting tale. But it’s also much more than a book about Reagan — it’s also about the Secret Service, medical care, Washington politics, and the Cold War. That is one of the reasons I enjoyed writing it. I had to become an expert in so many different things — presidential protection, mental illness, trauma care, surgery, Washington intrigue. My hope is that readers of all political stripes will enjoy the book.

You actually got to hold the notes Reagan wrote to the nurses at GW hospital that day. What was that experience like? Did seeing the notes help in reporting the book?

Holding those notes in my hand made the hair on the back of my neck stand up—they made the day so real. They also reminded me that Reagan was an incorrigible entertainer. It was astounding to me that he could have so much fun with the hospital’s doctors and nurses when he was clearly so uncomfortable and in so much pain. Just before his surgery began, he lifted himself up on the operating table and threw out that great line, “I hope you are all Republicans.” Later, a machine was breathing for him as he jotted amusing notes to the nurses attending him.

Of the book’s central characters, who did you come to admire most and why? And what characters in the “unsung category” did you come to admire most and why?

You cannot spend even 10 minutes with Jerry Parr and not come to deeply respect and admire the guy. He saved Reagan’s life twice that day — by shoving him quickly into the limousine and then by making the gutsy call to go to GW hospital instead of the White House. In researching Rawhide Down, I also really came to admire the surgeons — including Joseph Giordano and Benjamin Aaron — for being such professionals. In the unsung category, I came to deeply respect the nurses, who were the first to treat the president and later comforted him during his worst distress.

What are you hoping readers will learn from the book?

My goal in writing this book was to tell a story that has been incomplete for the past 30 years. I wanted to take readers into the presidential limousine, into the operating room, into the interrogation room, onto Air Force Two and even behind the most secure doors in the White House to reveal the true tension of that day. The saving of a president’s life is a historic event, and I wanted Rawhide Down to provide a behind-the-scenes look at what was nearly a tragedy.