So many of life’s horrors come suddenly on dull, dark days. For Ronald Reagan, Monday lunch was just another stop on the rubber chicken circuit, followed by the chance to pitch his economic program to labor leaders—and the predictable lukewarm reception. In the drizzle outside the Washington Hilton, the President waved and grinned and moved toward his limousine. Then the all too familiar sound—”like flashcubes going off,” according to an eyewitness—and the terrible frenzy erupted. Agents slammed the President into his car and sped him away before he could see the devastation. The bodies of three men lay splayed across the sidewalk, and a swarm of lawmen had pinioned John W. Hinckley Jr.—yet another pudgy, shadowy figure who was entering the American limelight with a pistol in his hand.
Not even Reagan himself realized at first that he had become the fifth American President struck by gunfire—he arrived at the hospital thinking the pain in his left side might have been caused by the Secret Service tackle. The news came especially cruelly to the First Lady. At the White House, Nancy Reagan had just returned from a luncheon when her Secret Service aide told her that Presidential Press Secretary James Brady had been shot. She rushed to George Washington University Hospital, where an old friend, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver, tried to reassure her that the President was all right—but inadvertently raised her fears. “If he is okay, why can’t I see him?” she asked. When Deaver investigated he learned a truth he wanted not to hear: The doctors, upon removing Reagan’s clothes, had discovered a bullet wound below the left armpit. Nancy rushed in to see her husband. “Honey, I forgot to duck,” he quipped, commandeering Jack Dempsey’s excuse after Gene Tunney’s knockout punch. Despite his brave assurances, Nancy was visibly shaken. “She didn’t break down, but there were tears in her eyes and she just couldn’t talk,” recalls her assistant press secretary, Barbara Cook.
During the next two hours surgeons removed a .22-caliber bullet that was lodged in the President’s left lung and became the shot heard round the world. With Soviet troops poised on the Polish border, the prospect of the West deprived of its leader loomed catastrophically. “I am in control here in the White House, pending return of the Vice-President,” Secretary of State Haig announced as George Bush rushed back to Washington from Texas. Whether Haig’s move was presumption or a necessary attempt at stability will be debated for weeks. Meanwhile the most awesome symbol of presidential power—the black briefcase with the codes to be used to order a nuclear strike—remained at the hospital with Reagan throughout his ordeal. The possibility of an international crisis passed—but for four families and the nation, the personal agony dragged on.
As the surgery progressed, Nancy Reagan prayed in the hospital chapel, probably unaware of macabre rumors broadcast by the media that had the President undergoing open-heart surgery and his wounded press secretary, James Brady, already dead. She talked privately with the wives of the two other shooting victims at the hospital—Brady, 40, who was undergoing surgery to remove the bullet that went through his brain, and Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy, 31, who was shot in the stomach. Washington policeman Thomas Delahanty, 45, injured in the neck, was taken to the Washington Hospital Center. Nancy later visited McCarthy’s bedside to thank him personally. “Mrs. Reagan said the bullet that was meant for Mr. Reagan hit Tim,” the agent’s sister, Karen, told reporters. “She thanked Tim for saving Mr. Reagan’s life.” Mrs. Reagan and a parish priest both comforted Sarah Brady, the wife of the portly, acerbic press secretary—whose appointment Nancy had once reportedly objected to because of his unkempt appearance. But Mrs. Reagan—like the Washington press corps—had come to appreciate Brady’s professionalism and wit. “He is just a delightful guy,” said Delaware Sen. William Roth of his former press aide. “He is a sheer delight.”
As the ordeal continued, friends and family flocked to Nancy Reagan’s side. In the first hours after the shooting, she was constantly comforted by Sen. Paul Laxalt. On her return to the White House at 8:30 p.m., Nancy found her son, Ron, waiting for her—he had flown in with his wife, Doria, from a ballet engagement in Lincoln, Nebr. “You know how Nancy feels about Ron Jr.,” says her friend Mary Jane Wick. “They just adore each other and will turn to each other in this. Nancy is extremely close with her children, and this is what will carry her through.” Nancy’s other child, Patti Davis, flew to Washington on the red-eye flight from California, along with the President’s two children from his previous marriage to Jane Wyman—Maureen, accompanied by her fiancé, Dennis Revell, and Michael, with his wife, Colleen. They arrived at the White House at 5:30 the following morning. “We want to be there when my father opens his eyes tomorrow to show him we do care and we do love him,” Michael explained. “We never discussed the possibility that this would happen, because I don’t think it’s something you ever want to discuss. It makes you mad when it happens to anybody, but especially when it happens to your father.” For a visibly distraught Maureen, the shooting stirred up feelings of “fury and rage and anger that in this country, this kind of garbage still goes on.”
The national response mirrored the sentiments of the Reagan family: The first wave of anger was followed by a transport of relief. The White House was flooded with flowers—which it sent on to local hospitals with the President’s card attached. Even the stock market surged—citizens of every political stripe agreed with eloquent hospital spokesman Dr. Dennis O’Leary that it was “maybe not medically extraordinary, but just short of that” for the 70-year-old man to walk unaided from his car to the hospital after being shot in the chest. Reagan’s sickbed quips quickly entered national folklore: “All in all, I’d rather be in Philadelphia,” he joked in a note scrawled hours after surgery. (The line is a variation on W.C. Fields’ own suggested epitaph.) His banter kept up as his condition improved, and his extraordinary good spirits flagged only once: when he heard of Brady’s severe injury. “Oh damn, oh damn,” he wept, employing his strongest expletive. “Oh dear, let us pray.”
Just a day after the shooting, Americans saw their President again, in a pretaped introduction to the Academy Awards broadcast—which had been delayed 24 hours because of the shooting. “People everywhere have common dreams and emotions,” he told his fellow citizens, and they palpably agreed. For once, they shared a dream: that the violence that struck down their President might finally disappear; and an emotion: pride in his gallant demeanor. “Please tell me that you’re Republicans,” Reagan had joked as he entered the operating room, before undergoing anesthesia. The surgeon spoke for the nation when he replied, “Today, we are all Republicans.”