Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan

Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan

by Del Quentin Wilber

Hardcover(Library Binding - Large Print)

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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781611730425
Publisher: Center Point Large Print
Publication date: 04/28/2011
Edition description: Large Print
Pages: 509
Product dimensions: 5.76(w) x 8.52(h) x 1.09(d)

About 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.

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.

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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Rawhide Down 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 124 reviews.
seaniniowa More than 1 year ago
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.
Melissa Rose More than 1 year ago
An excellent account of a scary time in American history and an even better account of a true American hero. Very well done.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
WaneTheWizard More than 1 year ago
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.
mrtall on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Rawhide Down is a detailed account of that fateful day in 1981 when John Hinckley gunned down President Ronald Reagan and several members of his party outside a hotel in Washington DC. This was of course a momentous day, but it seems in recent years it¿s faded quite drastically into the cultural background. `Oh yeah, that¿s right ¿ Reagan got shot just after he took office . . .¿. Reagan¿s two terms were so eventful that this early incident seems far in the past indeed, and since Reagan seemed to recover so rapidly, it¿s easy to forget how very close he came to dying.This book brings back the memories of that day, vividly, and adds a great deal of fascinating detail and insight. It¿s not a macabre book at all, though ¿ in fact, strangely enough, it¿s almost a `feel-good¿ read. Not only did the President himself show remarkable bravery and savoir-faire, the medical team that saved his life was extraordinary. The sequences in the book that highlight, almost minute by minute, this team¿s actions in saving Reagan¿s life are gripping and often moving.Most of the rest of the book focuses on the goings-on in the White House, as shocked members of the administration scrambled, sometimes ineffectively, to say and do the right things in the face of the great uncertainty and confusion that accompanies a threat to the life a world leader. Wilber recounts Vice-President Bush¿s flight back from Texas to Washington, and the behind-the-scenes White House meetings that culminated in Al Haig¿s bizarre announcement to the press. I found these parts of the book more interesting than compelling. At this historical distance ¿ it¿s over 30 years ago, now ¿ I was more interested in what was happening to Reagan himself than to the ephemeral machinations of his administration. But that is no criticism of Rawhide Down. Wilber¿s account deserves to read by anyone interested in American history, in the life of one of our greatest presidents, and in human drama in general.
corgiiman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was a book thoroughly researched and rich with details. A book which described what characters in this tragedy were thinking and the professsionalism as each character did their job in saving the lives of all four men injured in the assassination attempt. This book kept me enthralled to the end. Nice job Mr.Wilber!
lindapanzo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is an absorbing, minute by minute account of that day 30 years ago, in March of 1981, when President Ronald Reagan was nearly assassinated. I was in college at the time and, prior to reading this book, had only a vague notion of what happened that day. This book superbly filled in the blanks for me. I, and many others apparently, never realized how close Reagan came to dying that day. In fact, if the lead Secret Service agent, who pushed the President into his limo, had not made a quick decision to go to the hospital, Reagan might well have died.Once started, this book is tough to put down, as the author goes into remarkable detail about what Reagan, the Secret Service agents, the medical staff, would-be-assassin John Hinkley, and others, including the First Lady and Vice President Bush, said, did, and thought that day.I'd recommend this book to anyone who likes to read about American history.
jclark88 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I received this book as an early reviewer and I can honestly say it's one of the best books I've read in the past year. As a history buff I know more about the near assassination of Ronald Reagan than maybe the average person my age but after reading this book I realize I really didn't know anything.The story of how Reagan almost died has never been told with the behind the scenes information and "can't put it down" suspense that this author has embedded in his narrative. I was thoroughly engrossed from beginning to end and came away feeling like I knew much, much more about that fateful day than I had ever known before. My greatest disappointment was that it ended too soon.
ShanLizLuv on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Well, good heavens I thought I'd already posted my review, but I guess that's what I get for thinking. Anyway, a really enjoyed this account. Of course, I'm rather fond of Reagan anyway, so this just added to my admiration. Much of the book covered what most people already knew about the assassination attempt. The most interesting parts of the book dealt with how close to death he really came and Nancy's reaction to the shooting. People always crtiticized her for being overprotective of him, but knowing how close she came to losing him makes that completely understandable. As for the political aspects of the story, none of that was terribley new, but if you are a youngster who wasn't around way back then, this would be a great place to start.
Berkshires on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A highly detailed and fascinating look at the events of that day in March 1981 when President Ronald Reagan was shot. A real page turner for anyone with an interest in the events of that day, whether that interest be in Ronald Reagan the man, or Ronald Reagan the President. I highly recommend this book.
starkravingmad on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Well written, gripping story about March 30, 1981 when John Hinckley shot President Reagan plus three others outside the Washington DC Hilton. Very good insights into Regan's character and his political team. Some touching moments on his relationship with Nancy. Good for its purpose, but more depth would have made it better.
EMYeak on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book immediately captured my interest. It is a detailed look at the near assassination of President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981. Author Wilber provides an in depth look at the events of the day. He describes preparations made by the Secret Service and how the President started his day. Background information is given on the would-be assassin, John Hinckley.After the President was shot, he was taken to George Washington Hospital. Wilber was able to access documents and interview participants regarding the treatment given to the President. The amount of detail provided is amazing and well written resulting in a truly fascinating read.Author Wilber gives a picture of the international concerns of the day and relates the actions of the President's staff. He also covers the capture of Hinckley and steps taken to make sure nothing happened to him. I would recommend this book to anyone with any interest in history. It is an easy read and gives a thorough look at the day.
WCHagen on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
RAWHIDE DOWNDel Quentin WilberReviewed by William C. HagenAlthough filtered by faded memory and jumbled news accounts compounded by administration spin doctors at the time, many of us still remember the events of March 1981 when John Hinckley attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. Del Quentin Wilber reignites those recollections in ¿Rawhide Down¿. In the process of filling long lost gaps and providing insight into the background machinations going on during those hours while our country was leaderless and our president¿s life was in the hands of others, Wilber captures the personalities of a diverse collection of cast members as well as the tempo of the time ¿ the trance-like action of Hinckley, the steady beat of the Secret Service, the deliberate calm of the medical teams in spite of racing emotions, all against the backdrop of a chaotic White House staff with, apparently, no metronome. It is a compelling and engrossing drama worth a read in a single session.While switching from one locale and cast member to the next, Wilber maintains the clear timeline of events and captures the ever increasing sense of urgency. The focus subtly goes from setting the scene to action to personality descriptions with minimal disruption of story. Although he does so with meticulous detail with what each individual was doing and thinking, the author sometimes adds more flesh than sinew to the bare skeleton of our recollections of the event. The ending is precipitous; I expected more than a rather lame epilogue, maybe a bridge between Reagan¿s hospital room and his retaking of the reins in the Oval Office, at least a recap of Hinckley¿s adjudication, anything more to neatly wrap the package. As it is, we are left with the illusion that maybe we made more of it than was warranted ¿ one moment we are led to believe that Reagan is on death¿s doorstep and on the next page he has on his red cardigan walking into the White House. At least I needed to be taken down more gradually.The most serious criticism I have with the book has nothing to do with the narrative and is something the reader can overlook if forewarned. The book includes nearly fifty pages of notes documenting the source of every fact included in the text plus ¿ in Wilber¿s own words ¿ ¿ those [facts] that might help the reader better understand . . . ¿ That is all well and good and certainly certifies its authenticity but the text itself is devoid of citations and transfers the task of authentication to the reader. The references are reversed with the notes referencing the page instead of the more orthodox insertion of superscripts in the text referencing the notes. Reading the text gives no clue as to the fact being cited or the point needing further explanation. The mistake I made was to read his introduction to the notes section first and to focus on that phrase that hinted at the inclusion of nuggets of information not included in the text. I periodically thumbed through the notes to ensure that I wasn¿t missing something, thereby, interrupting the flow and rhythm of the narration. I don¿t know if the author or his editors were conforming to an arcane Manual of Style with which I am ignorant or that it is a monster of their own invention but it was disconcerting and should not be repeated. The general reader should ignore the notes and, if compelled, reread the book a second time with particular attention to the notes. Those with some compulsive tendencies to identify primary sources might be rewarded; the nuggets are elusive.Is it worth the read? Definitely.
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Its great! Please keep writing it!
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Great account of the day. Easy read. Well told.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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!
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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.
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