25 years ago today, President Ronald Reagan -- in office just over two months -- was shot outside the Washington Hilton by John Hinckley.
It took a week to get the picture. First came the gasps and "not agains"; then the nation assumed its old too familiar position before the tube, reluctant pros in this business by now, ready to take in the slow-motion replays, the testimony of experts, the edgy reporters, a bloody head, a shot-up limousine, another blank-faced gunman.
There was a jumble to sort out. The President was O.K. But then he wasn't. They took him to the White House. No, to a hospital. Was it serious? Not very. Yes, very. Maybe ... And so on through the long Monday afternoon, the emotions buffeted by every bulletin—sinking at the report of White House Press Secretary James Brady's death; rising warily when the report is denied; a freeze at news that the President is undergoing surgery; a thaw when someone repeats a Reagan joke. Who was that fool who asked if the operation was going to be filmed?
More questions still—the public's tensions not at all alleviated by the figure of Alexander Haig claiming "I am in control here," in a voice full of jelly.
Put your politics aside -- whether you were one of the Democrats who thought of Reagan as evil and stupid (he turned out to be neither, in my opinion) or one of the Republicans who thought he was their Franklin Roosevelt. Imagine how close our democracy came to losing another president to gunfire. At that time, it had only been 17-years since President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas.
The nation got through it quickly and moved on. Reagan joked with the doctors, showed wonderful spirit and won a lot of friends. When his wife, Nancy, showed up at the hospital, he quipped, "Honey, I forgot to duck." (He took the line from Jack Dempsey, but it will always be remembered as his.) Time noted some examples of the Reagan humor which I reprint here because they show clearly why people liked the guy.
> To surgeons, as he entered the operating room: "Please tell me you're Republicans."
> In a written note, upon coming out of anesthesia in the recovery room (paraphrasing Comedian W.C. Fields): "All in all, I'd rather be in Philadelphia."
> In another note, recalling a Winston Churchill observation: "There's no more exhilarating feeling than being shot at without result."
> In a third note: "Send me to L.A., where I can see the air I'm breathing."
> In yet another note written while surrounded by medical staff: "If I had this much attention in Hollywood, I'd have stayed there."
> Complimented by a doctor for being a good patient: "I have to be. My father-in-law is a doctor."
> To an attentive nurse: "Does Nancy know about us?"
> To a nurse who told him to "keep up the good work" of his recovery: "You mean this may happen several more times?"
> To Daughter Maureen: The attempted assassination "ruined one of my best suits."
> Greeting White House aides the morning after surgery: "Hi, fellas. I knew it would be too much to hope that we could skip a staff meeting."
> When told by Aide Lyn Nofziger that the Government was running normally: "What makes you think I'd be happy about that?"
But we know now that he almost died. That would have put President George Herbert Walker Bush in office eight years earlier. Assuming he would only have made one term as he did in our timeline, then it's possible that in 1984 Walter Mondale would have defeated him. Whether or not that happened, 1988 would not have been the first term of a Bush dynasty. Someone else would have taken office. Clinton wasn't quite ready. Bob Dole? Joe Biden? The mind boggles...