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The Faith of Ronald Reagan
By Mary Beth Brown
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 Mary Beth Brown
All rights reserved.
THE HAND OF PROVIDENCE
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And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. Romans 8:28
He leaned back in the luxurious chair reserved for the president of the United States on Air Force One. The two men, fortieth president of the United States, Ronald Wilson Reagan, and his grown son, Michael Edward Reagan, were deep in conversation as their plane sped onward toward Point Magu, California. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, the president sat quietly counting his fingers.
"What are you doing, Dad?" asked Michael. "I'm counting the months until I will be out of office and I'll be able to attend church again," answered the president.
This conversation with his father was relayed to me by Michael Reagan in June of 2003 during a dinner at the Mimosa French Restaurant not far from the Reagan Ranch in Santa Barbara, California. Michael recounted the story with the passion a man has for an event that has been seared into his memory. I later learned that the trip he took alone with his father on Air Force One was taken shortly before Easter of 1988. Nine months later, in January 1989, Reagan left office after having served two terms as president.
Michael continued, "My father was really looking forward to the time when he was out of office and could attend church again. The reason he had stopped going to church while president was because he didn't want to put other people's lives in danger." Michael said that his dad still remembered all too vividly the people who had been severely injured and almost killed because of the assassination attempt against him. According to Michael, "Dad was willing to stop going to church, something that was very important to him and he liked to do, to prevent risking the lives of other innocent people, if another assassination attempt was made on him." But Michael said he encouraged his father to make an exception this Easter weekend and attend church. President Reagan paused a moment, then smiled, and said, "I think I will."
Early Easter Sunday morning, after he'd eaten a hearty breakfast, Reagan called John Barletta, head of the Secret Service at the Reagan Ranch, to have the helicopter readied for a short trip to church. The president attended a small country church in the Santa Ynez valley near his beloved Rancho del Cielo. This church had been a regular house of worship for him when he was at the ranch before his presidency. Sadly, he was still attacked by the liberal press for not attending church during his presidency, when it was actually something that was truly important to him—and his reason for not going was to protect lives.
This exchange between father and son showed the power and lasting impact of the near-tragic event that had occurred seven years earlier and how this attempted assassination had radically altered President Ronald Reagan's life. Reagan never wanted to put anyone in harm's way again.
Saved for a Higher Purpose
The president walked out of the side entrance of the Washington Hilton Hotel on a gloomy, gray afternoon in the spring, wearing his new blue pin-striped suit. Smiling and waving with his entourage of aides and Secret Service agents, he was met by a group of onlookers—mostly press photographers, TV cameramen, and reporters corralled behind a red velvet rope. It was March 30, 1981, the seventieth day of his presidency, and Reagan had just given a speech to the Construction Trades Council inside the hotel. The president's schedule was routinely printed in the Washington Star newspaper, as it was that day, giving the time and place of his speech. Anyone could find out where the president would be that day simply by looking it up in the daily newspaper, and someone did just that. That person was also waiting in the crowd outside the hotel. His name was John Hinckley Jr.
Because it was a warm and muggy day, President Reagan had not worn his bullet-proof vest. It was an oversight that nearly cost him his life. The president reasoned that his only exposure to the outside would be a short, thirty-foot walk from the hotel corridor to the car, and, besides, the vest restricted the movement of his arms, which he liked to use in gestures as he gave his speech. The president was to speak to a group of 3,500 people, his largest audience since the inauguration in January. He leisurely headed toward his limousine (code-named "Stagecoach" by the Secret Service) to return to the White House. Just before reaching the car, his assailant became visible—and the history of our nation and the world was nearly changed forever.
John Hinckley Jr. carried a .22-caliber Rohm snub-nosed revolver under his trench coat. It was loaded with six specially made bullets. He was a man on a mission—fully prepared to kill the president of the United States.
Only after the assassination attempt did we learn that Hinckley had written a letter to Jodie Foster, the young actress with whom he was obsessed. He told her in a letter, "I would abandon this idea of getting Reagan in a second, if I could only win your heart and live out the rest of my life with you.... I will admit to you that the reason I'm going ahead with this attempt now is because I just cannot wait any longer to impress you." Hinckley closed the letter saying, "I'm asking you to please look into your heart and at least give me the chance with this historical deed to gain your respect and love."
Hinckley had to have the right opportunity, and this gray, muggy day in March was it. A reporter tried to get the president's attention shouting, "Mr. President!" and "Mr. Reagan!" Hinckley's moment had arrived. He shoved several bystanders out of the way, assumed a crouching position, pulled out his weapon with a professional double-grip, and took aim.
Pop, pop, pop, pop. The bullets sounded like firecrackers, and the acrid smell of sulfur filled the air. Two seconds. That's all it took to change a life ... and the world.
Down went White House Press Secretary James Brady, who was in the line of fire and hit in the forehead with the first bullet. Brady was left lying facedown in a pool of blood. The second shot went astray, but the third hit Washington patrolman Thomas Delahanty in the back of his neck causing him to fall next to Brady on the ground. With tremendous courage, Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy used his body as a human shield and took the fourth bullet intended for President Reagan. The bullet hit McCarthy in his lower right rib cage, throwing him backwards three feet onto the sidewalk beside Brady and Delahanty.
By now, Secret Service agents, police, and bystanders had tackled Hinckley, but he was still able to shoot one last bullet before he went down. This fateful bullet hit the limousine and ricocheted through a small gap between the body of the car and the door hinges. The bullet found its target, though, hitting the president's chest under his left arm and making a small hole in his skin as it headed for his heart. Jerry Parr, the head of the Secret Service detail, threw the president into the car, heroically landing on him to shield him from any more gunfire. As Parr shielded him, the president felt an excruciating pain in his chest. Reagan initially thought that one of his ribs had been broken when Parr landed on him.
Parr yelled, "Move out!" to Drew Unrue, the driver of the limousine, and told him to return to the White House. Unrue hit the accelerator and raced toward the president's home. Parr, an experienced Secret Service agent, ran his hands under the president's coat, feeling his sides and chest and running his fingers through the president's hair on the back of his head to check for blood. There was none.
But just when Parr was satisfied that the president had escaped unscathed, Reagan began coughing up pink, frothy blood—obviously, freshly oxygenated blood from the lungs. Agent Parr instantly knew that the president had been seriously injured and told the driver to head for George Washington University Hospital. By now, President Reagan was having great difficulty breathing. I remember learning in nursing school that one of the scariest feelings you can experience is when you're in respiratory distress and you can't get enough air to breathe, no matter how hard you try. You feel like you are suffocating. Time was running out. The limousine driver gunned the engine in a desperate attempt to reach the hospital before it was too late.
The presidential phone in the hospital emergency room rang. This presidential phone was to be used only in an extreme emergency. This was definitely it. The nurse who answered it was told to prepare for the presidential motorcade to arrive for immediate emergency care. The emergency room sprang to life in preparation for its incoming patient.
Mike Deaver, whose presidential control car (a mobile communications center) had pulled up to the hospital just after the president's car arrived, describes what he saw as President Reagan walked into the emergency room: "I saw Reagan get out of the car unaided, look to both sides, and give a tug to his pants. I think he actually buttoned his suit jacket. So far, so good. He walked toward the emergency room doors unassisted, with a pair of agents at his sides, but as soon as he was through the doors, out of public view, the strength in his legs abandoned him."
Reagan collapsed and was lifted onto a stretcher. The nurses quickly pulled off his jacket and cut off his shirt. Dr. Price, an emergency room physician, later recounted what happened in Paul Thomsen's Operation Rawhide, "I listened, but there was no sound in his left lung, and his blood pressure was double zero. There was no pulse." The president was hovering near death.
Blood and other fluids were being forced into his system through three IV lines while a drainage tube was pouring blood out of his side. Reagan's systolic blood pressure rose to eighty. Dr. Price rolled the president over and noticed a small slit, like a button-hole, under Reagan's left armpit. The doctor suspected that this was the bullet hole and had the area x-rayed.
President Reagan knew that doctors and nurses were working on him feverishly, fighting to save his life, but he was still having trouble breathing. His skin had turned so pale that Nancy Reagan remembers, "He was the color of paper—just as white as a sheet, with dried blood around his mouth."
Reagan later recalled looking up from the gurney, trying to focus his eyes on the square ceiling tiles, and praying. While he was lying on the gurney, half-conscious, he realized that someone was holding his hand. "It was a soft, feminine hand," he writes in his autobiography, An American Life. "I felt it come up and touch mine and then hold on tight to it. It gave me a wonderful feeling. Even now I find it difficult to explain how reassuring, how wonderful, it felt."
He goes on to say, "It must have been the hand of a nurse kneeling very close to the gurney, but I couldn't see her. I started asking, 'Who's holding my hand? ... Who's holding my hand?'" When he didn't hear any response, Reagan said, "Does Nancy know about us?"
He continues, "Although I tried afterward to learn who the nurse was, I was never able to find her. I had wanted to tell her how much the touch of her hand had meant to me, but I never was able to do that."
Angels Watching over Him
Reagan had experienced a similar event when he was critically ill with viral pneumonia many decades before. He had written about this encounter in his earlier autobiography, Where's the Rest of Me? At the time, he was working on a movie with Shirley Temple that he admits he was "less than happy about doing," when he became deathly ill. He writes, "But while the studio was sleuthing around the hospital to see if I was really there, my next of kin were being notified that the hospital might be my last address."
"Days and nights went by in a hazy montage in which I alternately shivered with chills or burned with fever," says Reagan. He was lying in bed wrapped up in blankets waiting for the fever to end, but instead his temperature just kept getting higher. He describes his touch-and-go situation in this way, "Finally I decided I'd be more comfortable not breathing. I don't know what time of night it was when I told the nurse I was too tired to breathe. 'Now let it out,' she'd say. 'Come on now, breathe in once more.'
"This went on, over and over, with her arguing me into another breath when all I wanted was to rest and stop making the effort. Wherever she is and whether she remembers our midnight contest or not, I don't suppose I'll ever know, but the memory is vivid to me. She was so nice and persistent that I let her have her way, and kept breathing out of courtesy. The sweat came and washed me back down the divide I'd been climbing."
Were these mysterious nurses whom Reagan never could find actually angels sent by God to help him survive in his hours of desperate need? Were they there to save him so he could carry out God's plan for his life?
In Angels Don't Die, President Reagan's daughter, Patti, recounts seeing her father in the hospital the morning after the assassination attempt in 1981. "He actually didn't look frail; he looked almost ethereal. There was a light in his eyes that made me think, then and still, that he saw something—visited with God, listened to the counsel of an angel—something. My mother has since told me that he woke up at one point after the doctors had operated on him, unable to talk because there was a tube down his throat. He saw figures in white standing around him and scrawled on a piece of paper, 'I'm alive, aren't I?'
"When my mother first told it to me, we discussed how logical it is to assume that the figures in white, standing around my father, were the doctors and nurses who were tending to him. But maybe not, we said; maybe he did see angels. We left it with a question mark. Then I repeated it to a friend—a nurse—who pointed out to me that no one in a recovery room or in intensive care is in white; they're all in green scrubs. I phoned my mother and told her, and her reaction was, 'I didn't even think of that, there was so much that day—but you're right.'"
Michael Reagan, speaking to students at a Young America's Foundation Summer Conference in July 2003 about the same incident, told the group, "Patti believes they were angels, and so do I."
Stories of the presence and guidance of angels can be powerful. In his classic book, Angels: God's Secret Agents, Billy Graham writes many wonderful, comforting things about angels and, after a lifetime of extensive research on the topic, comes to these conclusions: "Both angels and the Holy Spirit are at work in our world to accomplish God's perfect will. God uses angels to work out the destinies of men and nations. He has altered the courses of the busy political and social arena of our society and directed the destinies of men by angelic visitations many times over."
Angels are mentioned in the Bible over three hundred times. According to Scripture, they have helped the children of God in difficult circumstances and are prepared for any emergency. And, when necessary, they can become visible. Graham says,"God uses both men and angels to declare His message to those who have been saved by grace," and has ordered angels to minister to men. As proof, he quotes from the Bible, where in Hebrews 1:14 the writer says: "Are they [angels] not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?"
Angels have faithfully carried the message of God's will in times of oppression, discouragement, and failing endurance. Graham says God's restoring servants, His "heavenly messengers," have encouraged, sustained, and lifted the spirits of many discouraged saints and have changed many hopeless circumstances. Angels have ministered the message, "All is well," to fully satisfy the physical, material, emotional, and spiritual needs of His people.
Billy Graham says the most important characteristic of angels is that they work on our behalf. "They are motivated by an inexhaustible love for God, and are jealous to see that the will of God in Jesus Christ is fulfilled in us."
God assigns angelic powers to watch over us "for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men" (1 Corinthians 4:9). Graham notes, "They superintend the events of our lives and protect the interest of the Lord God, always working to promote His plans and to bring about His highest will for us."
Excerpted from The Faith of Ronald Reagan by Mary Beth Brown. Copyright © 2011 Mary Beth Brown. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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