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Review: In 'Rawhide Down,' Del Quentin Wilber expertly chronicles President Reagan's near death, ascent to hero

In the prologue to Rawhide Down, Washington Post reporter Del Quentin Wilber hypothesizes that the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan and the president's grace and courage in dealing with it were the catalysts for his eight mostly successful years in office.

The public's impression of Reagan certainly changed after the events of March 30, 1981. Indeed, John Hinckley, now 55, may have created the "Teflon president" when he opened fire outside the Washington Hilton. Afterward, not even the Iran-Contra debacle could bring Reagan down. He had performed heroically after being shot, and America loves its heroes.

In Wilber's clear prose, we learn that Reagan was far closer to death than was previously thought. One paramedic, on seeing the president enter the hospital, thought, "My God, he's Code City," meaning that he was about to die. The doctors at first could not stop the internal bleeding, and Reagan ended up losing more than half his blood. Surgeons made repeated attempts to find the bullet. They had almost given up when it was discovered, only an inch from his heart. The slug was a devastator round, designed to explode on impact. Fortunately, the shot that hit Reagan had first deflected off the armored door of the presidential limo. Had the bullet exploded in his body, Reagan would almost certainly have been killed.

We also learn that a series of security lapses gave Hinckley the opportunity to shoot. Possibly the most egregious was allowing spectators to await Reagan's exit from the Hilton without screening them for weapons. An armed Hinckley stood less than 20 feet from where his target would leave the hotel.

Conversely, a series of decisions, most notably by Secret Service agent Jerry Parr, saved Reagan's life. Because he initially didn't see any blood and Reagan didn't think he'd been shot, Parr's first thought was to return to the safety of the White House. When the president complained of pain and shortness of breath, Parr thought he had either been injured when he was pushed into the limo or might be having a heart attack.

Then he saw that blood was coming from Reagan's mouth and that it appeared frothy, which meant it was coming from his lungs. Parr redirected the limo to George Washington University Hospital. If Reagan had not been taken to a hospital, he almost certainly would have bled to death, and the nation would have mourned its fifth slain president.

Yet, while reading the book, I also kept thinking of the Keystone Kops. As Wilber takes pains to point out, many things did not go well that day.

Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger apparently did not understand the military's DEFCON numbering system. He proposed raising the military readiness level to DEFCON Level 2, believing that it indicated relatively peaceful conditions, when in fact it was only one level below expecting an imminent attack. As Wilber points out, the United States had not been close to DEFCON 1 since the Cuban missile crisis.

Secretary of State Alexander Haig apparently did not grasp the succession to the presidency as outlined in the Constitution, leading to his infamous pronouncement, "As of now, I am in control here."

Hinckley had been stopped at an airport screening the previous year with three revolvers, a box of ammunition and handcuffs. Had the security officers dug deeper into Hinckley's suitcase, they would have also found a journal detailing his obsession with actor Jodie Foster and his plan to kill President Jimmy Carter, an earlier target. Instead, the guns were confiscated, and Hinckley was fined a minimal dollar amount and released.

This story, though, is really about one man: Ronald Reagan. As the late Washington Post journalist David Broder noted, Reagan "was politically untouchable from that point on. He became a mythic figure."

Just as the country once had Camelot, it now had a president who had survived an assassination attempt with grace, quotable quips and courage. Reagan was John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart rolled into one. His survival that day connected him with the American people better than any of his speeches or policy decisions did.

Thus, as Wilber sums up convincingly, a would-be budget-balancer who left behind an enormous deficit, a tax opponent who raised taxes many times, and a Teflon president whose top aides were embroiled in myriad corruption charges could rise above it all and walk into the sunset, his legacy ensured.

David Baldacci's latest novel is "The Sixth Man."

Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan

By Del Quentin Wilber

Henry Holt, 305 pages, $27

Meet the author

Del Quentin Wilber will discuss and sign his book at 6 p.m. Monday at Inkwood Books, 216 S Armenia Ave., Tampa.

Review: In 'Rawhide Down,' Del Quentin Wilber expertly chronicles President Reagan's near death, ascent to hero 05/07/11 [Last modified: Saturday, May 7, 2011 4:30am]
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