Today in 1981, US President Ronald Reagan was the victim of an assassination attempt. While assassination attempts, both successful and unsuccessful, have occurred in the United States since the early days of the Presidency, this attempt remains perhaps the most bizarre, not for the act itself, but for the motivation of the would-be assassin.
On March 30, 1981, Ronald Reagan had been in office for 70 days. Unbeknownst to him, a 25-year old man named John Hinckley, Jr. had arrived in town the day before and checked into the Park Central Hotel. Hinckley had no special hatred of this President; in fact, he had planned to kill the previous President, Jimmy Carter, before the 1980 election. His goal in killing the President was to create for himself a moment of fame in which the eyes of the world would be upon him. Only then, he reasoned, would the object of his obsession see him as her equal.
The unfortunate recipient of Hinckley's affections was Jodie Foster, a well-known American actress who was, at that time, 18 years old and attending Yale University. Hinckley's obsession with Foster began when he watched the 1976 film "Taxi Driver", in which Foster played the role of a 12-year old prostitute. The film's central character is Travis Bickle, a man who seeks to protect Foster's character. Bickle later tries to kill a Presidential candidate.
Hinckley began to follow Foster's movements around the country, which eventually led to him moving to New Haven, Connecticut and enrolling in a writing class at Yale. While there, he wrote letters and poems to Foster and delivered them by slipping them under the door of her dorm room. He also tried to call her repeatedly, even after Foster informed him that she was not interested in a relationship. This rejection convinced Hinckley that he needed to do something to be more worthy of Foster's attention. He thought of hijacking a plane, robbing a bank or even killing himself in front of her. He eventually decided, like the character Travis Bickle, that assassination was the needed grand gesture.
On the afternoon of March 30th, 1981, President Reagan entered the Washington Hilton Hotel to deliver a speech. Hinckley was in the crowd, but decided to wait until the President was leaving the hotel to act. Just before 2:30PM local time, Reagan walked out of the hotel. As he headed for the Presidential limousine, Hinckley rushed from the crowd and fired his .22 caliber revolver six times in rapid succession. Bullet number one hit White House Press Secretary James Brady in the head. Bullet number two hit police officer Thomas Delehanty in the back. Bullet number three hit a building across the street. The fourth bullet hit Tim McCarthy, a Secret Service agent, in the abdomen. The fifth hit the bullet-proof glass on the Presidential limousine. The final bullet ricocheted off the limousine and entered the President's body under his left arm.
Hinckley was immediately grabbed by the President's Secret Service security detail while the President himself was shoved into the waiting limousine and rushed away from the scene. It was not immediately apparent that Reagan had been shot, but upon realizing what had happened the President was taken to George Washington University Hospital for emergency surgery. It was here that Reagan made his famous quip to the surgical team, "Please tell me you're all Republicans" to which the lead surgeon replied, "Mr. President, today we're all Republicans".
It was later discovered that the bullet which struck Reagan barely missed his heart. It was a Devastator round, so called because the bullet is designed to explode on impact. Fortunately, none of the rounds worked as intended. Had they done so, it is very likely that the President and his Press Secretary would have been killed by the attack. While Reagan fully recovered from his wound, Press Secretary James Brady was left partially paralyzed for life. He was kept in the position of Press Secretary through Reagan's two terms in office, but in reality he never worked in the position again.
Secretary of State Alexander Haig garnered intense criticism in the wake of the assassination attempt because of a press conference at the White House the afternoon of March 30th. During questioning, Haig was quoted as saying, "I'm in control here", which was taken by those in attendance to mean that Haig was acting as the head of government. In reality, the Vice-President, George H.W. Bush, was next in the line of succession. However, Haig later defended himself by claiming that he only took charge of the situation at the White House until the Vice President, who was aboard Air Force Two at the time, could be contacted.