This past February marked the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth. The occasion was marked by numerous tributes to his legacy as one of America’s most popular and respected presidents. But what if he never had the chance to earn that reputation?
Two months into his first term, on March 30, 1981, Reagan was shot in the lung by deranged loner John Hinckley Jr. while exiting the Washington Hilton. It is a moment well remembered from contemporary news coverage. But Wilber manages to provide a wealth of fresh information on that traumatic event. Chief among the new disclosures is how close Reagan came to dying that day. If not for a split-second decision by Secret Service agent Jerry Parr to change the destination of Reagan’s limousine after the shooting from the White House to the nearest hospital, the president almost certainly would have died. He lost almost half his blood after the shooting and, according to doctors who treated him, even a five-minute delay could have been fatal.
Wilber seems to have interviewed everyone with a story to tell about the assassination attempt and provides efficient sketches of all the major players. But he never lets his focus stray from that single day’s actions. The result is a book that’s taut and well-paced like a thriller, yet still yields numerous small facts and details both fascinating and amusing.
Among the book’s many gems are its sketches of the wild confusion at the hospital following the shooting. As doctors were fighting to save Reagan’s life, Secret Service and FBI agents were fighting over the president’s nuclear weapons launch-code authorization card. Before he is put under anaesthetic, Reagan manages to quip, “I hope you are all Republicans.” And in the operating room, the Secret Service was clearly out of its comfort zone. Parr put his green hospital scrubs on backwards while another agent took off his shoes and slipped the surgical booties over his bare feet. It’s a lively read, 30 years after the fact.