That Was Only Yesterday

Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan by Del Quentin Wilber (Picador, $16.00, 320 pages)

On March 30, 1981, I was at the Orange County (California) airport – waiting for my return flight to Sacramento when it became clear that something had happened back east.   The then-new president of the U.S. and former governor of California, Ronald Reagan, had been shot in an apparent assassination attempt.   Three other persons were shot and it was not then known whether Reagan, at his advanced age, would survive.   It appeared that a hundred or so persons jammed into the airport’s pub-restaurant to watch the 19-inch RCA color TVs broadcasting the dramatic events.

On that day – back in the day – I assumed that a book about the near assassination of an American president would appear within 6 to 18 months, clarifying exactly what happened.   But years and then decades passed by and the book did not appear.   This, finally, is that book.

Del Quentin Wilber takes a micro-level look at the events of 03/30/81 in a style that recalls books like The Day Lincoln Was Shot, The Day Kennedy Was Shot and The Death of a President.   It is an immediately engaging narrative which begins by looking at the schedules of Reagan (whose Secret Service code name was Rawhide), his Secret Service detail members and of the highly disturbed and bizarre individual who sought to impress a Hollywood starlet.   The language and mood become more tense and dramatic as the hour of the assassination attempt draws near.

Wilber very properly sets the stage by reminding us that this shooting came just three months after the killing of John Lennon, and followed the history-altering assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, and of Martin Luther King, Jr.   Wilber’s sadness in recalling these events is palpable, and informs the reader that this is a non-partisan account – one need not have been a political supporter of Reagan’s to fear for his safety (and for the country’s future) while revisiting that period.

“If Jerry Parr hadn’t decided to redirect the limousine from the White House to the hospital, Reagan would likely have died…”

“(The) doctors had been keeping pace with Reagan’s bleeding by pumping donated blood and fluids into his system.   So far, the tactic was working…  But this compensatory approach couldn’t continue forever.   They would have to stop the bleeding surgically.”

In these pages, Ronald Reagan is a likeable and courageous man who was able to joke with his emergency room physicians.   (He wondered what the gunman had against the Irish as all those shot on this day happened to be of Irish heritage.)   But he was also a man who wondered if he was about to meet his maker.   It was an open question because, as we now know, Reagan lost fully half of his blood volume as surgeons sought to remove the bullet that lodged a single inch from his heart.   Those of us glued to the TVs in early 1981 had no idea that the president came this close to dying.

Once the danger period had passed, the president was advised by the medical professionals to rest and convalesce for several months.   But he was a uniquely physically fit and strong elderly man.   Twelve days later he was back at the White House, and just a month later a visibly thinner president addressed a joint session of the Congress.

There’s more, much more, in this telling that disappoints only in that it seems to end too soon.   The courage of the Secret Service agents who saved the president’s life on this day is close to being incomprehensible.   “(Agent) Parr’s training had taught him one thing above all:  when faced with an actual threat, he could never freeze.   Not for three seconds, not for one second.   Without fail, he had to respond instantly.”

This is a fascinating and unique account, and it constitutes a worthwhile addition to the historical record.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Rawhide Down was released as a trade paperback book on March 27, 2012.  

“Full of spectacular, original reporting.”   Bob Woodward

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