On March 30, 1981, a psychopath obsessed with a movie star proved that it didn’t take a sophisticated “Day of the Jackal” assassin to shoot the President of the United States.
Seventeen years after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the Secret Service felt itself transformed. It had:
- Beefed up its manpower. Whereas seven agents had protected Kennedy round-the-clock, at least a score were now assigned to the President.
- Equipped itself with the latest defensive and communications devices. Whereas agents on the Kennedy detail had been armed with pistols, now it was commonplace to see agents brandishing Uzi submachine guns.
- Added a psychological profile of a woman assassin to its roster of those most likely to attack a President. This came after two female would-be assassins in succession tried to assassinate President Gerald R. Ford in September, 1975.
But the Secret Service was totally in the dark about the intentions of John W. Hinckley, a 25-year-old college dropout who was rapidly sliding into psychosis.
Hinckley had become obsessed with actress Jodie Foster, who had starred in the 1979 movie, “Taxi Driver.” Hinckley had seen the film at least 15 times and bceome convinced that Foster was his destined lover/wife.
He identified with the film’s protagonist, taxi driver Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro. Toward the end of the film, Bickle attempts to assassinate a U.S. Senator who is running for president.
Hinckley wrote numerous letters and notes to Foster in late 1980. He called her twice and refused to give up even when she made it clear she had no interest in him.
For Hinckley, there was only one solution: To make himself her equal in fame, he would assassinate the President. It didn’t matter to him which one.
Throughout 1980 he stalked Jimmy Carter. On October 2, 1980, Hinckley attended one of Carter’s campaign appearances, but left his gun collection, now totaling three handguns and two rifles, in his hotel room.
In October, 1980, Hinckley went to Nashville–the site of another Carter campaign stop. There he was arrested at the airport when security agents detected handguns in his suitcase.
The guns were confiscated. Hinckley was fined $62.50 but not arrested.
Even worse: The FBI did not connect this arrest to the President and did not notify the Secret Service.
Unable to get President Carter, Hinckley decided to go for President-elect Ronald Reagan
On March 30, Reagan delivered a luncheon address to AFL-CIO representatives at the Washington Hilton Hotel.
Unaware of Hinckley’s intentions or even his identity, the Secret Service felt there was nothing to worry about.
The hotel was considered the safest in Washington due to its secure, enclosed passageway called “President’s Walk,” built after John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Trips to the Hilton were routine events, and its interior had been thoroughly vetted. Reagan’s walk to his bulletproof car was short.
The Secret Service had made Reagan wear a bulletproof vest for some events, but he did not wear one for the speech. His only public exposure would be the 30 feet between the hotel and his limousine.
Secret Service agents spotted Hinckley milling among a crowd of reporters and assumed he was one of them. Thus Hinckley got within 20 feet of Reagan, held back only by a rope line near the Hilton’s side entrance.
Unexpectedly, Reagan passed right in front of Hinckley. Knowing he would never get a better chance, Hinckley fired a .22 revolver six times in 1.7 seconds.
Incredibly, he missed the president with all six shots.
Even so, he left four victims in his wake:
- Press Secretary James Brady, wounded in the head;
- District of Columbia police officer Thomas Delahanty, in the back of the neck;
- Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy, in the abdomen, as he shielded Reagan’s body with his own; and
- President Reagan, when the sixth and final bullet richocheted off the armored side of the limousine and hit him in his left underarm, grazing a rib and lodging in his lung. The bullet stopped only about an inch from his heart.
Hinckley was immediately arrested and tried for trying to assassinate the President. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and has remained under institutional psychiatric care since then
The extent of Reagan’s injuries was not known at the time of the shooting, even to the Secret Service.
Special Agent in Charge Jerry Parr had shoved Reagan into the limousine, and Reagan, having trouble breathing, thought Parr had broken his ribs.
Then Parr noticed bright red blood on Reagan’s lips, and realized that a lung had been punctured. Parr had initially ordered the driver to speed to the White House, but now he gave different instructions: Head to George Washington University Hospital–fast.
At the hospital, Reagan stunned doctors and nurses by his humor and politeness in the face of possible death: “I hope you’re all Republicans.” To try to comfort his wife, Nancy, Reagan said: “Honey, I forgot to duck.”
He underwent emergency surgery for removal of the bullet. Twelve days later, he was back in the White House and seemingly in good health.
Had any of number of factors turned out otherwise, the outcome would have been very different.