Monday, September 5, 2011

Rawhide Down by Del Quentin Wilber

Chronicling the events surrounding the assassination attempt on the life of President Ronald Reagan, Rawhide Down by Del Quentin Wilber, is a quick and easy read. It's a fascinating behind-the-scenes look both into the events from the President's perspective and also the surrounding actors. He treats us to an inside look into the tormented mind of John Hinckley Jr. as well.

I love the picture of Reagan that Wilber paints. Here is a man who effortlessly steps into the role of his life. Reagan was the consummate actor and he knew he was born to play this role. Literally. He had been taught from an early age that God has a plan for our lives and he firmly believed this was God's plan for him. Because Ronald Reagan played the President as a role, he was able to keep his personal self private and still be gregarious and outgoing. It made him the "Teflon President." The ability to stick to a pre-determined script contributed greatly to his ability to weather and survive such a devastating attack.

Hoping to finally convince Jodi Foster of his love, John Hinckley Jr. believed shooting the President would do the trick. While he had contemplated and nearly shot at Carter, he lost his nerve. Now the new president would have to do. Standing outside the Hilton Hotel with the crowd of greeters, Hinckley opened fire on Reagan. Wounding three others instantly, it was unclear at first that the President had been hit. Shoved into the waiting limo by his alert and reactive Secret Service agent, it appeared that a broken rib caused the pain and inability to breath that Reagan experienced. Making a split decision to risk another shooter at the nearest hospital, Agent Jerry Parr ordered the limo to change course away from the White House.

Clearly hurt and fading rapidly, Reagan insisted that we walk on his own power into the hospital.

It's what a President, hoping to inspire his country would do. It's the way Hollywood would do it.

He collapsed immediately inside.

Although the hospital had had a few minutes of a heads up that the President and others were on their way, some of the personnel who went right to work on him didn't know who their famous patient was. Those who did trembled and prayed that he wouldn't die on their watch. Assuming it was a heart attack and knowing preventing shock was the most important first response, they pumped him full of fluids and blood.  Not recognizing the suit he had memorized earlier in the day on the bodies on the ground at the hotel, Reagan's personal doctor sped towards the hospital. He and the eventual supervising surgeon agreed. No VIP treatment. Treat the President of the United States as any other emergency room patient. Often the VIP treatment killed those to whom it was given.

Although Reagan tried to joke with those around him, as any good Hollywood President would do, it was obvious he was in a lot of pain. Draining blood from his lung was not easing his ability to breath and the blood kept flowing. Worse, it was warm, indicating it was coming from deeper within. Knowing he had just turned 70 and seeing his gray complexion, most at the scene thought he was at death's door.

Finally recognizing Reagan had not suffered from a heart attack or a broken rib, a small incision was found under his right arm. Those with experience knew: gunshot wound. There was no exit wound and it was unclear, even from x-rays where exactly the bullet was. Surgery became the only option to stop the bleeding and remove the bullet. Even though he had pledged no VIP treatment, the doctor could not bring himself to leave a bullet in the President. If it should ever cause future damage, he would never forgive himself. The harrowing surgery was almost a disaster as the bullet could not be found. Continuing to poke around for it was causing further damage. Finally in exasperation, the surgeon ordered another x-ray. Realizing how close he was, he went in again. The bullet and all the damaged tissue removed and after being sewn up, Reagan headed to recovery.

A desperate Nancy was there for him. Their special bond revived him and gave him hope. After she went back to the White House to sleep on his side of the bed, curled up in his t-shirt, Reagan regaled the nurses with one-liners and jokes. To a nurse who sat holding his hand all night, he wrote, "Does Nancy know about us?" (Being intubated, he couldn't speak.) As the actor that he was, playing his most important of roles, he knew it was important to keep their spirits up as well as his own. Finally an exasperated nurse put a warm cloth over his eyes and told him to get to sleep.

Meanwhile, Reagan's cabinet and the rest of the country struggled to keep up with the latest news. The VP, Bush, raced on a plane back to Washington DC from Texas and Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, took it upon himself to declare himself in charge. He wrongly assumed he followed the VP in the line of succession. Although they tried to put on a brave and under-control face to the country and the world, their most skilled PR man, James Brady, was lying on a gurney next to Reagan.

Reagan emerged weeks later looking whole and healthy. Knowing he had beat the odds and survived a gunshot, he governed with renewed confidence. He had played his part superbly, even asking those in the operating room if they were all Republicans! The country loved him, and his hotly contested economic planned passed. Years of economic growth followed.

I can't help but long for such a self-assured President. One who is comfortable in his own skin. Who knows who he is and what he believes. One who knows he sits in destiny's chair and must live up to the role he has been given to play. Reagan was such a man.

One day, I will meet him and shake his hand.

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