March 30, 1981, 40 years ago: President Ronald Reagan is shot in an assassination attempt. It happens as he's walking to his car outside the Washington Hilton.
It was 2:27 PM. A few minutes later, the news reached my mother and me, at the library in East Brunswick, New Jersey. I don't remember why I was there, instead of in school: It was a Monday, not during Spring Break (Easter wasn't until April 19 that year), and I was in the 6th grade, at a school that let out at 2:35. Maybe it was a half-day, due to parent-teacher conferences, or something like that.
No President had been assassinated since John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. My mother was in her senior year of high school; my father, in his senior year of college. Both were sent home early. There were 2 assassination attempts against Gerald Ford in September 1975, but neither came close to succeeding. So this was the first close call that I could remember, and it remains the only one.
Reagan was at the Hilton to give a speech at a luncheon of labor union executives. In his previous career, Reagan was not merely an actor, but served a term as President of an actors' union, the Screen Actors Guild. But he had turned on his fellow actors, and named names of those he suspected of Communist ties, and was never trusted by actors again. By 1965 -- at 54, hardly an age at which actors were, then as now, considered to be done -- his acting career was over.
He went into politics, and was elected Governor of California in 1966 and 1970. Supporters of his made a halfhearted effort to get the Republican Party to nominate him for President in 1968. In 1976, he nearly derailed the nomination of the incumbent President, Gerald Ford, who then lost to Jimmy Carter. In 1980, Reagan gave it one more try, and beat Carter.
Reagan was not friendly toward labor unions once he left SAG. This became obvious later in the year: Having survived the shooting, he exercised his authority as President to fire the striking members of PATCO, the union of air-traffic controllers. American organized labor has never recovered from the Reagan Years.
But that was yet to come. There was no reason to believe Reagan was shot due to his stance on labor. Secret Service Agents immediately pounced on the shooter: John W. Hinckley Jr., a mentally ill man who never should have had access to a gun. A court would find him not guilty by reason of insanity, and he remained incarcerated at a hospital for the criminally insane until 2016. He is 65 years old. With some irony, he shares his birthday, May 29, with John F. Kennedy.
Hinckley, not particularly caring that anyone other than Reagan might be hit, also shot White House Press Secretary James Brady. He was paralyzed, and an early report said that he had died. He was confined to a wheelchair, and became an advocate for gun control. He lived until 2014.
Secret Service Agent Timothy McCarthy was wounded. He remains the only Secret Service Agent ever to, as the common saying goes, "take a bullet for the President." In spite of this, he was the least seriously wounded man in the attempt. He later became his Illinois hometown's chief of police, and is still alive, age 71.
Also still alive is Thomas Delahanty, a D.C. police officer. He was there as part of Reagan's security detail because his usual duty had been interrupted: He was part of a police dog unit, and his dog was sick. The shooting happened so fast that he couldn't do much about it, and he's always regretted that. He was released from the hospital a day before Reagan was. He returned to the Pittsburgh area from whence he came, and is now 85.
Reagan was taken to George Washington University Hospital, a few blocks away. He was able to walk in, and said to the staff, "Please tell me you're all Republicans." But he was closer to death than anyone realized: The bullet had just missed his heart, and he ended up losing a lot of blood.
In the recovery room, the first people he saw were some of his staff members: White House Chief of Staff James Baker, Baker's deputy Michael Deaver, and White House Press Secretary Lyn Nofziger. Reagan looked at them, and said, "Who's minding the store?" When his wife Nancy was let in, Reagan quoted Jack Dempsey's line after losing the Heavyweight Championship of the World to Gene Tunney in 1926, when Reagan was in high school: "Honey, I forgot to duck."
He was released on April 11. He made a full recovery, although speculation on what the experience did to him, and to Nancy, psychologically has run rampant. He was re-elected in 1984, and served out his 2nd term.
In 1994, he announced that he had Alzheimer's disease. This had been suspected by the public as early as his re-election campaign. Even before that, in spite of his wit and sense of humor, Reagan was often thought of as not particularly intelligent. Certainly, he was intellectually lazy, and believed many things that were untrue, even ridiculous. He died in 2004.
March 30, 1981 was scheduled as the day of the Final of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, to be held at The Spectrum in Philadelphia. Had Reagan died -- or, perhaps, if his life were still in danger as tipoff approached -- the game might have been postponed. Instead, with the knowledge that he was in recovery, the game went forward, with a moment of silence held after player introductions.
Indiana University beat the University of North Carolina, 63-50. Bobby Knight's Hoosiers included Hall-of-Famer Isiah Thomas. Dean Smith's Tar Heels included Hall-of-Famer James Worthy. (Michael Jordan was in his senior year at Emsley A. Laney High School in Wilmington, North Carolina, but had committed to play at UNC. Laney was a prominent businessman in Wilmington.)
The Major League Baseball season had not yet begun. Opening Day would not be until April 8, so any games played on this day were still exhibitions in Spring Training, and didn't count. And the National Football League was in its off-season.
Nor were there any games played in the National Basketball Association: Its regular season had ended the day before, and its Playoffs had not yet begun. There were 2 National Hockey League games played. The New York Rangers played the Philadelphia Flyers to a 0-0 tie at Madison Square Garden. And the Boston Bruins and the Buffalo Sabres played to a 2-2 tie at the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium.