Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan

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A Janet Maslin (New York Times) Top 10 Pick for 2011
A Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Book for 2011
A Richmond Times Dispatch Top Book for 2011

A minute-by-minute account of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, to coincide with the thirtieth anniversary

On March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan was just seventy days into his first term of office when John ...

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A Janet Maslin (New York Times) Top 10 Pick for 2011
A Washington Post Notable Nonfiction Book for 2011
A Richmond Times Dispatch Top Book for 2011

A minute-by-minute account of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, to coincide with the thirtieth anniversary

On March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan was just seventy days into his first term of office when John Hinckley Jr. opened fire outside the Washington Hilton Hotel, wounding the president, press secretary James Brady, a Secret Service agent, and a D.C. police officer. For years, few people knew the truth about how close the president came to dying, and no one has ever written a detailed narrative of that harrowing day. Now, drawing on exclusive new interviews and never-before-seen documents, photos, and videos, Del Quentin Wilber tells the electrifying story of a moment when the nation faced a terrifying crisis that it had experienced less than twenty years before, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

With cinematic clarity, we see Secret Service agent Jerry Parr, whose fast reflexes saved the president's life; the brilliant surgeons who operated on Reagan as he was losing half his blood; and the small group of White House officials frantically trying to determine whether the country was under attack. Most especially, we encounter the man code-named "Rawhide," a leader of uncommon grace who inspired affection and awe in everyone who worked with him.

Ronald Reagan was the only serving U.S. president to survive being shot in an assassination attempt.* Rawhide Down is the first true record of the day and events that literally shaped Reagan's presidency and sealed his image in the modern American political firmament.

*There have been many assassination attempts on U.S. presidents, four of which were successful: Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy. President Theodore Roosevelt was injured in an assassination attempt after leaving office.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Nine days before Ronald Reagan became the first serving president to survive an assassination attempt, he visited Ford's Theatre. Looking up at the box where Abraham Lincoln had been fatally shot, he admitted "a curious sensation" about the vulnerability of attack. Then, on March 30th, 1981, less than seventy days into his White House occupancy, the 70-year-old president became the victim of deranged would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr. Rawhide Down (which borrows part of its title from the Secret Service's codename for Reagan) recounts the buildup and circumstances of this horrific episode. Many of its details are odd: All six of the bullets Hinckley fired in those fateful three seconds missed the president; it was a chance ricochet off the presidential limousine that felled the chief executive. New details about an unforgettable day.

Janet Maslin
…[a] revealing account of this potentially deadly attack…Rawhide Down is a fast-paced book that captures many points of view.
—The New York Times
David Baldacci
Wilber does an excellent job of putting the principal characters through their paces. Although the book ostensibly covers only one day, it actually deals with a larger historical footprint. But the chapters that detail the assassination attempt and its immediate aftermath read like a thriller.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Wilber's gripping minute-by-minute account of the day that president Reagan (codename Rawhide) was shot reveals the major players in the drama, including the president's doctors, his would-be assassin, Secret Service agents, White House staffers, Vice President George H.W. Bush, and Nancy Reagan. The first time author, a reporter for The Washington Post, writes with particular empathy for the stunned, shaken doctors and nurses who made a massive effort to overcome the challenges of locating the bullet, repairing the lung, and fighting debilitating blood loss as the 70-year-old president's life hung in the balance. Wilber explains what it's like to be in the Secret Service, the characteristics of the presidential limousine and its "foam bladder-style fuel tank that was designed to reduce the risk of an explosion," and the great urgency surrounding the attempted assassination: "they sped toward the FBI's field office, the agents knew there was only one way to find out quickly whether their suspect had acted alone. They would have to get him to crack." At the same time, advisors and staff engaged in power skirmishes and grandstanding. The author draws from a multitude of notes and sources, offering a fascinating glimpse of a pivotal moment in history. Photos. (Mar. 15)
From the Publisher

“The reporting is presented with precision and authority by Jason Culp. For the most part, his reading has few vocal characterizations, but the brief direct quotes from Reagan are delivered spot-on. Culp’s voice is easygoing and warm, and surprisingly, those characteristics are at their most gripping in the chapters that address the president’s initial care at George Washington University Hospital.” – AudioFile Magazine

Library Journal
On March 30, 1981, the country was rocked by the shooting of newly inaugurated President Ronald Reagan after a speech at the Washington Hilton. Washington Post reporter Wilber takes us through that terrifying day. He not only covers Reagan's schedule but introduces all the players, including Secret Service agent Jerry Parr, whose quick thinking saved the President's life twice over; Press Secretary James Brady, an official in the wrong place at the wrong time; Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy and police officer Thomas Delahanty, shot in the line of duty; and, of course, John Hinckley Jr., the quiet, polite would-be assassin with no motive but a desire to impress a woman. The doctors and nurses who labored over this most important of patients are also given their due, as are the advisers who worked to keep the country running during the ordeal. VERDICT There is nothing political about this book; it is purely a human-interest story and shows how Reagan's courage and grace under pressure endeared him to the American public, who forgave much that came later. For crime and American history fans alike.—Deirdre Bray Root, Middletown P.L., OH
Kirkus Reviews

Procedural-like account of John Hinckley's 1981 attack on President Ronald Reagan.

Reagan's son Ron (see My Father at 100, 2011) has been making news with his revelation that the president began his sad decline by Alzheimer's while still in office, but this account by Washington Postreporter Wilber depicts a Reagan, in office only a couple of months, at the top of his game. The author brings news to the table: For one thing, he writes, "the White House kept secret the fact that the president came very close to dying." Even so, the public memory is of Reagan's wakeful joking and his prompt recovery—for, only a few weeks later, he was back at work, now committed, as he wrote, to doing "whatever I could in the years God had given me to reduce the threat of nuclear war." Wilber adds detail and nuance to the portrait of the would-be assassin, Hinckley, who was famously (or infamously) infatuated with the actress Jodie Foster and the filmTaxi Driver. He was also indisputably mentally ill, a point that the recent shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson will drive home, even if, as Wilber notes in closing, Hinckley has increasingly been granted "more freedom in preparation for the day when he is eventually released." Wilber's minute-by-minute account of the assassination attempt has moments of tension worthy of Frederick Forsyth, but it's also marred by patches of self-consciously noirish and clumsy writing ("getting shot by one was a bit like getting smashed with a sledgehammer, only worse"). Perhaps the best part of the book is the author's portrait of the lead Secret Service agent and his colleagues at work, which adds dimension to the phrase "unsung heroes."

A welcome addition to the literature of the Reagan era—and, for that matter, of political violence.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781250002549
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 3/27/2012
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 255,161
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.06 (h) x 0.88 (d)

Meet the Author

Del Quentin Wilber is an award-winning reporter for The Washington Post. He has spent most of his career covering law enforcement and sensitive security issues, and his work has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
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Read an Excerpt


A day before the course of his presidency was forever changed, Ronald Reagan walked to church with his wife, Nancy. Sunday, March 29, 1981, was bright and warm, and as the Reagans strolled through the White House gates and across Pennsylvania Avenue, the president held the first lady's hand. Trailed by Secret Service agents and a few journalists, the couple waved at onlookers and smiled for camera-toting tourists. As they walked through Lafayette Square, a woman pushed her young child through the security perimeter. Grinning, the president bent over to say hello.

Lately Reagan had not been able to attend church as often as he would have liked. During the previous year's campaign it had been hard enough; since the inauguration, it had been almost impossible. For obvious reasons, security requirements for any trip outside the White House were cumbersome. He also didn't want to impose on parishioners, who had to be screened by Secret Service agents and were often distracted by the presence of the president and his wife.

But that spring morning, the Reagans had chosen to attend the eleven o'clock service at St. John's Church, a place of worship as intimately connected to American history as any in the nation. The Episcopal church, just off the north side of Lafayette Square, was designed by the same architect who rebuilt the White House and the Capitol after they were damaged in the War of 1812. Its half-ton steeple bell had been cast by Paul Revere's son; a piece of stained glass donated by President Chester A. Arthur in memory of his wife hung in its south transept. Nicknamed the Church of the Presidents, St. John's now welcomed the nation's fortieth president, a man who revered both God and country.

The rector, the Reverend John C. Harper, had preached to every president since Lyndon B. Johnson. On this Sunday, the Reverend Harper delivered a sermon about faith and about finding God's handiwork in ordinary things. He told a story about a sculptor who hammered and chiseled a large block of marble into a statue of Christ. When the sculptor was done, a young boy who had watched him at work asked, "Sir, tell me, how did you know there was a man in the marble?"

Then Harper made the message of his parable plain. "People have often asked that question of Christians who have seen God in Jesus Christ, in a stone statue, in a stained-glass window, in some human life," he said. " 'How did you know He was there?' "

The answer, Harper said, was faith.

Before and after Harper's sermon, the Naval Academy choir sang several hymns, which the president found inspiring. Later, writing in his diary, Reagan commented that the midshipmen "looked & sounded so right that you have to feel good about our country."

Just before noon, the Reagans returned to the White House, this time traveling in an armored limousine. They ate lunch, spent a bit of time rearranging the furniture in the Oval Office, and then retired to the residence.

Only two months into his tenure, Reagan—like every president— had an ambitious political and legislative agenda. But the next day, according to his schedule, would not be especially arduous. The only event of note was a trip to a downtown hotel for a twenty- minute speech to a trade union.


The broad outlines of what happened the following day are well known. The president had just finished giving his speech when he was shot by a deranged gunman. He was rushed to a hospital and underwent surgery; by that evening, it was almost certain that he would live. In the hours and days after the shooting, Reagan's aides worked assiduously to assure the country that the president's life was never in real danger and that he would soon recover. Indeed, Reagan returned to the White House just twelve days after the assassination attempt and gave a stirring speech to Congress less than a month after leaving the hospital.

But much of what happened on March 30, 1981, was not revealed; most especially, the White House kept secret the fact that the president came very close to dying. Over the years, a number of details about that terrifying day have emerged, but only now—after many new interviews with participants and an extensive review of unreleased reports, closely held tape recordings, and private diaries—can the full story be told.

What is also clearer in retrospect is how crucial this moment was to Reagan's ultimate success. Before that day in 1981, the country had suffered through two difficult decades. No president since Eisenhower had served two full terms: Kennedy was slain; Johnson declined to seek a second full term after the debacle in Vietnam; Nixon was forced to resign in the wake of Watergate; Carter served just four years after becoming identified with the country's malaise. During the 1980 election, the nation was haunted by the Iranian hostage crisis, which spoke to deep-seated fears that the United States might be ungovernable or perhaps in irrecoverable decline. Partly out of frustration with politics as usual, voters turned to a former movie star who seemed to promise a fresh approach, even if he was sixty- nine years old when he took the oath of office.

Reagan had not gotten off to a strong start. In the two months following his inauguration, he was relentlessly criticized by Democrats for not caring about the poor, for proposing steep cuts in federal programs, and for sending military advisors to El Salvador, which, some felt, might become another Vietnam. By mid-March, he had the lowest approval rating of any modern president at a similar point in his term: during what should have been his postinauguration honeymoon, only 59 percent of Americans thought he was doing a good job. His commanding victory the previous November seemed all but forgotten, and White House officials and pollsters were preparing for more difficult days ahead.

All that changed on March 30. The news of the shooting stunned the country: teachers wheeled televisions into classrooms, praying citizens filled churches and synagogues, lawmakers darted into back rooms for updates on the president's condition. Only eighteen years after the assassination of President Kennedy, the United States once again teetered on the brink of tragedy. Instead, the nation witnessed triumph. A team of Secret Service agents saved Reagan's life at the scene of the shooting; in the hours that followed, a team of surgeons and nurses saved the president's life a second time.

The real hero of the day, though, was Reagan himself. In the most unscripted moment of his eight highly choreographed years in office, he gave the American people an indelible image of his character. In severe pain, he insisted on walking into the hospital under his own power. Throughout the medical ordeal that followed, he never lost his courage or his humor. The attempt on his life occurred just seventy days into his term, but more than any other incident during his years in the White House, it revealed Reagan's superb temperament, his extraordinary ability to project the qualities of a true leader, and his remarkable grace under pressure.

As the presidential limousine raced to the hospital on that terrible Monday in March, the Secret Service agents attending Reagan remained calm and methodical. Even in all the chaos, they never broke protocol by using the president's name when speaking over their radios. Instead, they referred to him by his code name, Rawhide. They used other code names as well: the limousine was Stagecoach; the command post at the White House was Horsepower; Nancy Reagan was Rainbow. At a time when radio traffic wasn't scrambled and anyone with a police scanner could eavesdrop on the movements of the president, the codes were an essential precaution.

Every modern president has been given a code name by the Secret Service. Some code names have been apt; some have not. John F. Kennedy was Lancer, a clear effort to evoke Camelot, the legend often associated with Kennedy. Reagan's predecessor, Jimmy Carter, was Deacon, an appropriate code name for a former Sunday school teacher and devout Christian. But neither Timberwolf (George H. W. Bush) nor Eagle (Bill Clinton) had any particular resonance.

Reagan's code name fit him well. It was first given to him in 1976, when the former California governor was assigned Secret Service protection during his unsuccessful attempt to win the Republican nomination. Because the military—which manages communications for the White House—is responsible for drawing up a list of potential code names, a

U.S. Army master sergeant was charged with the task of reviewing an inventory of available military call signs that could be used for Reagan. He thought Rawhide was suitable because the former actor had appeared in several westerns and was known to be a rancher. The sergeant chose a few other potential names and passed the list to the Secret Service, which made the final selection.

By all accounts, Reagan adored the moniker. For one thing, he saw himself as an outdoorsman; he spent much of his free time riding horses, cutting brush, and chopping wood on his picturesque California ranch. For another, he loved westerns. To his regret, he had rarely been given an opportunity to carry a six-shooter in a motion picture; years later, describing his conversations with the powerful head of the Warner Bros. studio, Reagan wrote, "I did wish Jack Warner would think of me on the back of a horse wearing a cowboy hat. . . . But when I'd ask Jack to put me in a western, he'd cast me in another movie in which I'd wear a gray- flannel suit."

Over time, Reagan's code name seemed to become ever more appropriate. As conjured by Hollywood—and there can be no discussion of Reagan's presidency without reference to the movies—the ideal cowboy is a tough but good- hearted loner who fights only when he has to and always for the right reasons. More than two decades after his time in office, Reagan fits that description remarkably well. Exuding rugged individualism, he helped spark the modern conservative movement with his passionate belief that the role of government in American life should be diminished. In the eyes of many, he was the nation's resolute warrior, a leader who waged a sometimes lonely battle against the Soviet Union because he knew his cause was right. But he was never overly impressed with himself; he was kind to ordinary citizens and surprisingly modest about his accomplishments. At the same time, he could seem strikingly distant, even from friends and family. He loved being president, but as the years went on he yearned more and more for his beloved ranch, where he could ride horses and spend time with his wife.

During his eight years in office, Reagan viewed the presidency as a great role to play, and from the start that role was well scripted. His advisors gave him a briefing book every night that mapped out the next day's schedule and outlined what he was expected to say. They carefully crafted speeches and orchestrated photo opportunities calibrated to convey an image of Reagan—the oldest man ever to hold the office of president—as a strong and vibrant leader. They released countless pictures of him on his ranch and even arranged to have him ride a horse during a visit with Queen Elizabeth, thus producing a convincing image of an American icon.

But Reagan never played his role with greater authority than on the day of his near assassination. For that singular moment, Americans perceived a president's character as something separate from his politics. In the months and years that followed, Reagan's courage and grace on that day helped shield him from the effects of mishaps and scandals that would have crippled other administrations. After March 30, he was no longer simply a staunch conservative who advocated an aggressive and controversial agenda. He was Rawhide—the good kind of cowboy and the brave face of America.

When campaigning and after becoming president, Reagan often quoted Thomas Paine, the Englishman who inspired the citizens of the thirteen colonies to fight for their freedom during the American Revolution. Paine once wrote, "I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection." That man was the Ronald Reagan who survived an attempt on his life and so made possible his historic presidency.

Excerpted from Rawhide Down by Del Quentin Wilber

Copyright 2011 by Del Quentin Wilber

Published in 2011 by Henry Holt and Company

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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Table of Contents

Prologue 1

1 Rendezvous with Destiny 8

2 The Man 25

3 Without Fail 39

4 "I'm Not Dangerous" 54

5 The Rope Line 64

6 2:27 p.m. 77

7 "I Can't Breathe" 88

8 The Trauma Bay 102

9 STAT to the ER 115

10 "My God. The President Was Hit?" 129

11 Operating Room 2 142

12 A Question of Authority 154

13 "I Am in Control Here" 169

14 The Waiting Room 185

15 "What Does the Future Hold?" 199

Epilogue 213

Notes 231

Bibliography 279

Acknowledgments 291

Index 297

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 111 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 113 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 26, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    A detailed recap of an eventful day in 1981

    I found this book to be a very good and somewhat detailed review of the events that took place one dreary day in March 1981. I can still recall that day, and remember hearing the news on the radio that Brady had passed away. Overall, I enjoyed reading this book, and would recommend it to anyone interested in President Reagan.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted March 21, 2011


    An excellent account of a scary time in American history and an even better account of a true American hero. Very well done.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 9, 2013

    Highly Recommended

    If you are a Ronald Reagan fan like I am, this is a must. There are other books about President Reagan but this gives an in depth picture of John Hinkley's assassination attempt.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 30, 2011

    Great read. Fast and informative

    The book reads real easy with a pace that is quick and organized. Characters are developed only as far as they need to be - but their backstories are also interesting. Good incite into the workings of government and the Secret Service.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 13, 2014


    Great account of the day. Easy read. Well told.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 5, 2013

    Highly Recommended - great account of the day of the attempt!

    The author went to a great deal of effort to provide a very in-depth account of what happened on the day of the attempt to assassinate President Reagan. I couldn't put the book down. Definitely recommend reading!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 16, 2013

    So so 

    So so 

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 14, 2012

    Wilber On Reagan's Near Assassination

    It's an interesting story involving the handgun sitting in an evidence bag in drawer of an FBI office. It was a story that was supposed to be about corruption involving Ethiopian taxi cab drivers and turned into a story about the day Reagan was shot.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 14, 2012


    I read this book liked it as i rememberd when that happened they cut in on general hospitalit goes to show youuthat the nutsare not all inthe psycho ward theyshould reviwe the ones that are running around loose this book got theevents of thatday correct regina from nj

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  • Posted May 7, 2012

    great read- very well written

    very compelling, definitely worth reading

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 2, 2012

    Good read

    A page turner good reading

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted April 22, 2012

    A VERY GOOD READ. This book is well researched and written. Goo

    This book is well researched and written. Good writing - very paced and engaging. I highly recommend.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 28, 2012

    Wellworth the read.

    What you never knew and have forgotten. Easy read full of information.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 24, 2012

    Was there

    Was less than 15ft. From the shooter. This book tells it like it was. No frills just the way it happened

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted October 8, 2011

    A must read

    Well written, informative account of a time many of us remember. There things I had forgotten about and others I didn't know about. An easy read.

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  • Posted September 20, 2011

    Great read

    Easy read explained alot about all the confusing reports bac then

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  • Posted September 4, 2011

    Very good read.

    As one who usually reads supermarket schlock, I bought this book after hearing the author give an interview to The Preston and Steve Show on WMMR. I could not put this book down! As a forty something who truly believes that Reagan was the best president in my lifetime, this account of those days was a true testament of who our president was. I highly recommend this to history buffs and even to those who just want to delve into something a bit different.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 20, 2011


    Quite readable and detailed. Very few questions unanswered. Unknown parts of the story told here.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 26, 2011

    Great book!!!

    This is definitely worth reading if you enjoy modern history and true crime books.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 15, 2011

    Great historical read

    A nicely paced book and interesting look at the behind the scene events of the assination attempt.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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