I just finished reading a review copy of Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan, by award-winning reporter, Del Quentin Wilber. Although the events occurred 30 years ago, people are obviously still interested, as the book is now #19 on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction list, and #265 on Amazon.com. Personally, I found it to be well-researched, informative, and enjoyable to read, whether on the attempted assassination itself, on the Secret Service and law enforcement’s operations and procedures, or on the confused situation at the White House (including shaky performances by spokesmen David Gergen and Larry Speakes, as well as the classic meltdown of Alexander “I am in control here, in the White House” Haig). Probably most interesting, in my opinion, were the scenes in the operating room, such as Dr. Benjamin Aaron finally figuring out why the bullet kept eluding him as he felt around Reagan’s lung tissue for the “small piece of metal.”
A few key takeaways from the book: 1) as effective as the Secret Service is, sometimes things go wrong, and not necessarily for reasons that anyone foresaw happening at the time (but which often seem so obvious in 20/20 hindsight); 2) President Reagan came within minutes of dying, something we really didn’t know at the time (he would have certainly died if the presidential limo had gone to the White House first, which was the original plan until agent Jerry Parr made a fast, and crucial, correct decision to divert to GW Hospital stat!); 3) in times of extreme stress, you really find out who rises to the occasion (President Reagan certainly, some of his other top advisors) and who fails miserably (Haig was a complete disaster; Defense Secretary Weinberger wasn’t much better, completely confused about DEFCON levels); 4) it was then, and is now, far too easy for some crazy person to get hold of a powerful gun (with “Devastator” bullets in this case) in order to injure and/or kill people, whether we’re talking about Reagan, James Brady, Gabby Giffords, whoever; and 5) the shooting changed the entire course of Reagan’s presidency, and thus history, forging a strong bond with the American people and making him – in David Broder’s words – “politically untouchable from that point on…a mythic figure”).
In sum, if you’re interested in the story of President Ronald Reagan’s near assassination at the hands of John Hinckley, I strongly recommend this book. Also, courtesy of National Journal, check out the Secret Service audio from the moment President Reagan was shot (note: Del Wilber was the one who got those tapes released – nice job!).