Friday, April 22, 2011


I remember March 30, 1981 quite well. I had come back to my dorm at Notre Dame in mid-afternoon for some reason and learned that President Reagan had been shot. On TV, the footage of the shooting was shown over and over, and there wasn't much hard news available besides that. I would have stayed to watch, but I had a physics recitation session to attend. Our professor came in at the start of the session and told us that the President was in surgery. (No, the session wasn't canceled, but, if we'd known how serious Reagan's condition was, it probably would have been.) That night was the NCAA championship game between Indiana and North Carolina, and it was touch-and-go right up until game time as to whether the game would be played. By then, Reagan was "out of danger," at least such was the story at the time.

The story of Reagan's survival of John Hinckley's assault -- which, let it not be forgotten, cut down three other men and would have claimed the President as a fourth victim had it not been for quick action by a Secret Service agent and heroic efforts by a team of medical specialists at George Washington University Hospital -- finally gets the book-length treatment it has long deserved, thanks to Wilber. This effort will likely remain the touchstone account of the shooting for some time to come. The book suffers some from the inherent "...and then X happened" weaknesses of "tick-tock" reporting, but Wilber does sketch in enough background on Hinckley and his bizarre crush on Jodie Foster, Reagan's earliest months in the White House, the key Secret Service and White House personnel, and so forth to prevent the blow-by-blow 3/30/81 narrative from seeming to exist in a vacuum. Wilbur also does a good job of depicting the chaos at the White House as the unprecedented emergency, with its serious 25th Amendment implications regarding the temporary relegation of Presidential duties, unfolded. It's unfortunate that all that people remember of that particularly controversy is the serio-comic moment of Alexander Haig declaring himself to be "in control."

If I have one specific criticism to make, it is that Wilber does not do enough to capture the broader national reaction and impact (apart from news reports, of which Frank Reynolds' on-screen blow-up over incorrect reports that Reagan's wounded press secretary James Brady had died is certainly the best remembered). The controversy over whether or not to play the IU-UNC title game was not a trivial one, raising as it did unpleasant memories of the NFL's decision to play regular-season games on the weekend of the JFK assassination in 1963. The last Final Four consolation game ever to be played, between Virginia and LSU, was also allowed to go on, though the stands were all but empty. (John Feinstein tells this story in some detail in his book LAST DANCE.) In all other respects, though, the story of what could have been a very dark day in American history is well-told. This is a valuable addition to the growing literature on the Reagan Presidency and the 1980s in general.

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