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In History, Politics, Social commentary on September 5, 2012 at 12:00 am

On March 30, 1981, John W. Hinckley, a 25-year-old college dropout obsessed with actress Jodie Foster shot the President of the United States.

By doing so, he hoped to become instantly famous.  This, in turn, would put him on the same fame-level as Foster–even if his “fame” came as a murderer.

When his chance came, he ripped off six shots as President Ronald Reagan stood outside the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C.  Of those bullets, only one hit the President.

It ricocheted  off the bulletproof door of the Presidential 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.

Rushed to George Washington University Hospital, Reagan underwent emergency surgery for removal of the bullet.  Within 12 days he was back at the White House, seemingly fully mended.

The assassination attempt–coming only 69 days into Reagan’s term–shook the United States as no other act had since the murder of President John F. Kennedy 17 years earlier.

The attempt greatly accelerated Reagan’s popularity; polls indicated his approval rating to be around 73%.

Ronald Reagan

But events could easily have turned out otherwise:

  • Hinckley could have used a pistol with a bigger caliber–such as a .38 revolver, if not a .45 automatic or even .357 Magnum.

John Hinckley’s .22 caliber pistol

  • Had he done so, even the grazing wound he inflicted on Reagan would have almost certainly proved fatal.
  • Hinckley used .22 explosive “Devastator” bullets, designed to wreak massive damage on their victims.
  • But the one that struck Reagan failed to explode.
  • Had it done so as it rested about an inch from his heart, Reagan would have certainly died.
  • At the moment of the shooting, Secret Service Agent Timothy McCarthy threw himself in front of Reagan, taking a bullet–in the abdomen–meant for the President.
  • Special Agent in Charge Jerry Parr shoved Reagan into the Presidential limousine and threw himself on top of him.
  • Had Parr not reacted instantly, Hinckley’s last bullet would have likely struck Reagan in the head.
  • Then Parr ordered the driver to speed back to the White House.
  • Reagan was having trouble breathing, and assumed that Parr had broken his ribs with the shove.  At first, Parr didn’t know why Reagan was panting for breath.
  • But then Parr noticed bright red blood on the President’s lips–indicating that a lung had been punctured.
  • Had Parr not noticed this, or misunderstood its meaning, the car would have sped on to the White House.
  • Instead, Parr ordered the driver to rush to George Washington University Hospital.

George Washington University Hospital

  • Had Reagan gone directly to the White House as intended, valuable time would have been lost, and he might well have died on the way to the hospital.
  • Had George Washington University Hospital not been so close to the Hilton Hotel, Reagan might well have died en route.
  • As a result of the failed assassination attempt–and his own grace under pressure–Reagan’s public approval soared to 73%.
  • Trading on this, Reagan shoved legislation through Congress that bloated the defense budget, slashed social programs for the poor and greatly increased the national debt.
  • Using his actor’s persuasive skills, Reagan sold the nation a fairy-tale–that the country could be made immune from nuclear attack by an anti-missile shield.
  • Although reputable scientists at the time debunked such a possibility–and continue to do so–millions of Americans remain convinced that such security is possible.
  • As a result, the United States has lavished billions of dollars on such a magic “space shield”–which, to date, shows no signs of becoming a reality.
  • Even so, successive leaders of the Soviet Union were persuaded that such a “Strategic Defense Initiative” could work.
  • This, in turn, led Mikahil Gorbachev to enter into negotiations with Reagan to reduce the size of the nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union.
  • Had Reagan died, his vice president, George H.W. Bush, would have assumed the Presidency.
  • Unlike Reagan, Bush was widely considered a weakling (even by Republicans).  Moreover, Bush never possessed Reagan’s command presence and oratorical skills.
  • As a result, during his own single term as President (1989-1993) Bush never enjoyed the widespread popularity lavished on Reagan.
  • So it’s likely that Bush would not have scored the legislative triumphs Reagan did.
  • He might not have won the massive cuts in social services spending that resulted in widespread homelessness.
  • He might have also failed to persuade Congress to allow him to wage–as Reagan did–a terroristic, unprovoked war against the Nicaraguan rebels who had overthrown longtime dictator Anastasio Somoza.
  • It was Reagan’s decision to wage such a war–even after Congress refused to authorize funding for it–that led to the biggest scandal of his administration: Iran-Contra.
  • Had Reagan not been President, the United States probably would not have sold sophisticated anti-airctaft missiles to Iran to win the release of American hostages seized in Lebanon.

Thus do great events of history often turn on small incidents that seem trivial at the time they occur.

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