A day before the course of his presidency was forever changed, Ronald Reagan walked to church with his wife, Nancy. Sunday, March 29, 1981, was bright and warm, and as the Reagans strolled through the White House gates and across Pennsylvania Avenue, the president held the first lady’s hand. Trailed by Secret Service agents and a few journalists, the couple waved at onlookers and smiled for camera-toting tourists. As they walked through Lafayette Square, a woman pushed her young child through the security perimeter. Grinning, the president bent over to say hello.
Lately Reagan had not been able to attend church as often as he would have liked. During the previous year’s campaign it had been hard enough; since the inauguration, it had been almost impossible. For obvious reasons, security requirements for any trip outside the White House were cumbersome. He also didn’t want to impose on parishioners, who had to be screened by Secret Service agents and were often distracted by the presence of the president and his wife.
But that spring morning, the Reagans had chosen to attend the eleven o’clock service at St. John’s Church, a place of worship as intimately connected to American history as any in the nation. The Episcopal church, just off the north side of Lafayette Square, was designed by the same architect who rebuilt the White House and the Capitol after they were damaged in the War of 1812. Its half-ton steeple bell had been cast by Paul Revere’s son; a piece of stained glass donated by President Chester A. Arthur in memory of his wife hung in its south transept. Nicknamed the Church of the Presidents, St. John’s now welcomed the nation’s fortieth president, a man who revered both God and country.
The rector, the Reverend John C. Harper, had preached to every president since Lyndon B. Johnson. On this Sunday, the Reverend Harper delivered a sermon about faith and about finding God’s handiwork in ordinary things. He told a story about a sculptor who hammered and chiseled a large block of marble into a statue of Christ. When the sculptor was done, a young boy who had watched him at work asked, “Sir, tell me, how did you know there was a man in the marble?”
Then Harper made the message of his parable plain. “People have often asked that question of Christians who have seen God in Jesus Christ, in a stone statue, in a stained-glass window, in some human life,” he said. ” ‘How did you know He was there?’ ”
The answer, Harper said, was faith.
Before and after Harper’s sermon, the Naval Academy choir sang several hymns, which the president found inspiring. Later, writing in his diary, Reagan commented that the midshipmen “looked & sounded so right that you have to feel good about our country.”
Just before noon, the Reagans returned to the White House, this time traveling in an armored limousine. They ate lunch, spent a bit of time rearranging the furniture in the Oval Office, and then retired to the residence.
Only two months into his tenure, Reagan—like every president— had an ambitious political and legislative agenda. But the next day, according to his schedule, would not be especially arduous. The only event of note was a trip to a downtown hotel for a twenty- minute speech to a trade union.
The broad outlines of what happened the following day are well known. The president had just finished giving his speech when he was shot by a deranged gunman. He was rushed to a hospital and underwent surgery; by that evening, it was almost certain that he would live. In the hours and days after the shooting, Reagan’s aides worked assiduously to assure the country that the president’s life was never in real danger and that he would soon recover. Indeed, Reagan returned to the White House just twelve days after the assassination attempt and gave a stirring speech to Congress less than a month after leaving the hospital.
But much of what happened on March 30, 1981, was not revealed; most especially, the White House kept secret the fact that the president came very close to dying. Over the years, a number of details about that terrifying day have emerged, but only now—after many new interviews with participants and an extensive review of unreleased reports, closely held tape recordings, and private diaries—can the full story be told.
What is also clearer in retrospect is how crucial this moment was to Reagan’s ultimate success. Before that day in 1981, the country had suffered through two difficult decades. No president since Eisenhower had served two full terms: Kennedy was slain; Johnson declined to seek a second full term after the debacle in Vietnam; Nixon was forced to resign in the wake of Watergate; Carter served just four years after becoming identified with the country’s malaise. During the 1980 election, the nation was haunted by the Iranian hostage crisis, which spoke to deep-seated fears that the United States might be ungovernable or perhaps in irrecoverable decline. Partly out of frustration with politics as usual, voters turned to a former movie star who seemed to promise a fresh approach, even if he was sixty- nine years old when he took the oath of office.
Reagan had not gotten off to a strong start. In the two months following his inauguration, he was relentlessly criticized by Democrats for not caring about the poor, for proposing steep cuts in federal programs, and for sending military advisors to El Salvador, which, some felt, might become another Vietnam. By mid-March, he had the lowest approval rating of any modern president at a similar point in his term: during what should have been his postinauguration honeymoon, only 59 percent of Americans thought he was doing a good job. His commanding victory the previous November seemed all but forgotten, and White House officials and pollsters were preparing for more difficult days ahead.
All that changed on March 30. The news of the shooting stunned the country: teachers wheeled televisions into classrooms, praying citizens filled churches and synagogues, lawmakers darted into back rooms for updates on the president’s condition. Only eighteen years after the assassination of President Kennedy, the United States once again teetered on the brink of tragedy. Instead, the nation witnessed triumph. A team of Secret Service agents saved Reagan’s life at the scene of the shooting; in the hours that followed, a team of surgeons and nurses saved the president’s life a second time.
The real hero of the day, though, was Reagan himself. In the most unscripted moment of his eight highly choreographed years in office, he gave the American people an indelible image of his character. In severe pain, he insisted on walking into the hospital under his own power. Throughout the medical ordeal that followed, he never lost his courage or his humor. The attempt on his life occurred just seventy days into his term, but more than any other incident during his years in the White House, it revealed Reagan’s superb temperament, his extraordinary ability to project the qualities of a true leader, and his remarkable grace under pressure.
As the presidential limousine raced to the hospital on that terrible Monday in March, the Secret Service agents attending Reagan remained calm and methodical. Even in all the chaos, they never broke protocol by using the president’s name when speaking over their radios. Instead, they referred to him by his code name, Rawhide. They used other code names as well: the limousine was Stagecoach; the command post at the White House was Horsepower; Nancy Reagan was Rainbow. At a time when radio traffic wasn’t scrambled and anyone with a police scanner could eavesdrop on the movements of the president, the codes were an essential precaution.
Every modern president has been given a code name by the Secret Service. Some code names have been apt; some have not. John F. Kennedy was Lancer, a clear effort to evoke Camelot, the legend often associated with Kennedy. Reagan’s predecessor, Jimmy Carter, was Deacon, an appropriate code name for a former Sunday school teacher and devout Christian. But neither Timberwolf (George H. W. Bush) nor Eagle (Bill Clinton) had any particular resonance.
Reagan’s code name fit him well. It was first given to him in 1976, when the former California governor was assigned Secret Service protection during his unsuccessful attempt to win the Republican nomination. Because the military—which manages communications for the White House—is responsible for drawing up a list of potential code names, a
U.S. Army master sergeant was charged with the task of reviewing an inventory of available military call signs that could be used for Reagan. He thought Rawhide was suitable because the former actor had appeared in several westerns and was known to be a rancher. The sergeant chose a few other potential names and passed the list to the Secret Service, which made the final selection.
By all accounts, Reagan adored the moniker. For one thing, he saw himself as an outdoorsman; he spent much of his free time riding horses, cutting brush, and chopping wood on his picturesque California ranch. For another, he loved westerns. To his regret, he had rarely been given an opportunity to carry a six-shooter in a motion picture; years later, describing his conversations with the powerful head of the Warner Bros. studio, Reagan wrote, “I did wish Jack Warner would think of me on the back of a horse wearing a cowboy hat. . . . But when I’d ask Jack to put me in a western, he’d cast me in another movie in which I’d wear a gray- flannel suit.”
Over time, Reagan’s code name seemed to become ever more appropriate. As conjured by Hollywood—and there can be no discussion of Reagan’s presidency without reference to the movies—the ideal cowboy is a tough but good- hearted loner who fights only when he has to and always for the right reasons. More than two decades after his time in office, Reagan fits that description remarkably well. Exuding rugged individualism, he helped spark the modern conservative movement with his passionate belief that the role of government in American life should be diminished. In the eyes of many, he was the nation’s resolute warrior, a leader who waged a sometimes lonely battle against the Soviet Union because he knew his cause was right. But he was never overly impressed with himself; he was kind to ordinary citizens and surprisingly modest about his accomplishments. At the same time, he could seem strikingly distant, even from friends and family. He loved being president, but as the years went on he yearned more and more for his beloved ranch, where he could ride horses and spend time with his wife.
During his eight years in office, Reagan viewed the presidency as a great role to play, and from the start that role was well scripted. His advisors gave him a briefing book every night that mapped out the next day’s schedule and outlined what he was expected to say. They carefully crafted speeches and orchestrated photo opportunities calibrated to convey an image of Reagan—the oldest man ever to hold the office of president—as a strong and vibrant leader. They released countless pictures of him on his ranch and even arranged to have him ride a horse during a visit with Queen Elizabeth, thus producing a convincing image of an American icon.
But Reagan never played his role with greater authority than on the day of his near assassination. For that singular moment, Americans perceived a president’s character as something separate from his politics. In the months and years that followed, Reagan’s courage and grace on that day helped shield him from the effects of mishaps and scandals that would have crippled other administrations. After March 30, he was no longer simply a staunch conservative who advocated an aggressive and controversial agenda. He was Rawhide—the good kind of cowboy and the brave face of America.
When campaigning and after becoming president, Reagan often quoted Thomas Paine, the Englishman who inspired the citizens of the thirteen colonies to fight for their freedom during the American Revolution. Paine once wrote, “I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection.” That man was the Ronald Reagan who survived an attempt on his life and so made possible his historic presidency.
Excerpted from Rawhide Down by Del Quentin Wilber
Copyright 2011 by Del Quentin Wilber
Published in 2011 by Henry Holt and Company
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
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