Book gives new details about Reagan shooting

Former Sun reporter and author of 'Rawhide Down' to give talk at Pratt

April 22, 2011|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

Del Quentin Wilber, author of "Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan," says that people often ask him, "Why do the book now? Don't we know that he got shot and lived?"

What they won't know until they read the book is how close the country came to losing the president outside the Washington Hilton on March 30, 1981. It isn't just that Reagan lost half the blood in his body or that the bullet lodged in his left lung proved maddeningly difficult to find.

Astonishingly, the Secret Service had started training its members for an immediate response to gunfire and injury only after the shooting of George Wallace in 1972, in Laurel — not after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

The wounded Reagan's destination was the George Washington University Medical Center — a hospital that the District of Columbia did not designate an official trauma center until 1979.

On critical matters of governmental continuity, Reagan's Cabinet floundered. When Secretary of State Alexander Haig took over a news conference and declared that he was second in the line of succession, after the vice president, it was not a momentary slip.

A former Baltimore Sun reporter now at The Washington Post, Wilber made these discoveries through a combination of shoe-leather journalism and archival research. He wove them together into a tense yet elastic narrative reminiscent of Walter Lord's "A Night to Remember" — and he'll be discussing how and why he did it at the Pratt's Central Library on Wednesday.

Two men who performed heroically for Reagan as young residents at the hospital will join Wilber — Dr. Paul Colombani, now a top children's surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and Dr. David Gens, now top attending surgeon at Maryland Shock Trauma Center. Sun columnist Dan Rodricks will moderate the discussion.

Wilber's book reflects the immediacy of its initial inspiration. In July 2008, the Post sent Wilber to cover the first day of hearings to determine whether would-be assassin John Hinckley should have a driver's license and increased amounts of unsupervised time with his mother.

"I'm just 15 feet away from this guy," Wilber recalled in a recent interview. "I'm watching him, and he has no emotion. His face is like a mask, as if someone had take an impression of him sleeping and put it on his face. Even when they got into aspects of his sex life — no emotion. And that image stuck with me."

A few days later, the top agent in the FBI's Washington field office, Joseph Persechini Jr., called Wilber into his office to dissuade him from writing an article that would ruin an undercover operation.

"He goes to his desk, rummages through his drawer, and slaps something down in my hand. It's a gun. And I'm thinking, whoa — why would he put a gun in my hand? It turns out to be Hinckley's gun."

More than anything, the experience of handling something historic hooked Wilber. "When we go to museums, we want to touch things, feel things," he said. "And there I was, holding the actual gun that almost changed world history."

Wilber ultimately concluded that it did change world history, creating an unshakable bond between Reagan and most Americans. And he acknowledges that during his research for the book, he came to admire Ronald Reagan as a leader and a person.

"On the day he was shot — the most unscripted day of his presidency — we got an unvarnished look at the man," Wilber says. "When he sees his wife, his first instinct is not to complain, cry or whine, but to reassure her with a joke: 'Honey, I forgot to duck.' Who does that?"

The book's on-the-run portrait of Reagan's marriage manages to be detailed and moving. No wonder that after Wilber spoke in early April at the Reagan Library, Nancy Reagan told him, "I liked your talk and I liked your book."

Reagan scholars and biographers agree with Wilber that the president's behavior on that near-fatal day made the American people "see him as a real person and like him."

But what really impresses Reagan experts about the book is Wilber's finding that Reagan rehearsed his most famous humorous line — looking around the operating room and saying, "I hope you are all Republicans." (It dissipated tension in the OR, but it had flopped earlier in the ER.)

"No one knew that before the book," Wilber says, "And that's a huge deal for Reagan scholarship. Think of how his mind must have been working to be able to do that."

If you go

Del Quentin Wilber will discuss his book, "Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan," Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. in the Poe Room of the Enoch Pratt Central Library.

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