by Timothy Lane 10/23/15
Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard continue their Killing series with this look at the lives of Ronald Reagan and (to a much lesser extent) his would-be assassin, John Hinckley. He starts with Reagan’s death, proceeds to his election in 1980 (with a primary focus on his debate with Jimmy Carter), and then looks at Reagan’s long Hollywood career.
Reagan was becoming an important actor when Japan upset his plans (as it did for so many people). An Army reservist despite his poor vision, Reagan spent the war doing propaganda and educational movies and such. (At one point, he sent photographer David Conover to take pictures of the women at a nearby war plant — one of whom turned out to be the winsome young Norma Jean Dougherty.)
For various reasons, Reagan’s movie career foundered after the war; he wasn’t offered a spot in the sequel to Bedtime for Bonzo, for example, despite its good sales. After a brief stint on stage in Las Vegas (not Reagan’s kind of town), he went into TV, hosting (and sometimes starring in) GE Theater. He also made appearances all around the country for GE, which incubated the conservatism that was a natural for a staunch opponent of Communist influence in the entertainment industries (though, like so many younger people, he briefly flirted with them in 1938).
Reagan’s conservatism cost him his job with GE (he believed that this happened because Bobby Kennedy threatened the company with the loss of any federal business), though he would host Death Valley Days for a while. But he really became more involved in politics, finally switching openly to the GOP and campaigning for Republican candidates. Included in this was his famous speech, “A Time for Choosing”, that goosed last-minute fundraising for Goldwater in 1964 and jumpstarted Reagan’s political career (and influenced many people toward the right — including me, an LBJ supporter before I heard it).
From there, Reagan went on to win election as governor and best Bobby Kennedy in a televised debate, though he and Nancy were already being influenced by astrologers. Having campaigned for Richard Nixon in 1960,1968, and 1972, Reagan was on the list of possible candidates to replace Spiro Agnew as VP when the latter was forced to resign because of his corruption as a Maryland office-holder (which was normal behavior in that state). But Nixon didn’t like Reagan, partly out of envy (no doubt over Reagan’s popularity — nothing ever came easy for Nixon, and he really resented those for whom anything did). Nor did Gerald Ford consider him. Republican leaders tended to consider Reagan a lightweight due to his acting background — unlike Margaret Thatcher. She and Reagan hit it off immediately.
Meanwhile, John Hinckley grew older. Born (aptly) in a sanitarium in Ardmore, Oklahoma, Hinckley was a normal, well-liked boy, active in sports and other activities — until his growing schizophrenia gradually turned him into a loner, friendless and disconnected from society. He obsessed over Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver (though not, sadly, in The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane), and then joined the Nazis — who kicked him out as too radical. Eventually he decided to kill Carter to impress Foster — and when Carter lost before Hinckley could hit him, he switched targets — though until the last he was variously considering shooting Teddy Kennedy (to join up with Oswald and Sirhan), kill himself in front of Jodie Foster, open fire on a session of Congress, or shoot Reagan.
Reagan followed up his gubernatorial terms with a form of punditry, but it wasn’t long before he decided to challenge Ford for the presidency. (Nancy Reagan, his closest adviser, was especially eager to rise to the top. The authors discuss her influence on Reagan — not always good; she lacked his winning personality.) That effort failed, but his proven popularity made him the favorite for 1980, and he eventually won the primary and then the general election.
The authors present the movements of both Reagan and Hinckley on the day of the assassination attempt. Hinckley chose to use explosive bullets with his cheap pistol in order to maximize the damage. But he remained hesitant, failing to shoot on Reagan’s entry to the hotel where he was making a speech. It was also raining, so Hinckley decided to limit his waiting time. Unfortunately, Reagan and entourage exited before the wait was up. Also unfortunately, the reporters shouting out their questions made a nice distraction — no one was paying attention to a possible assassin. He got off all 6 shots, hitting Reagan (by a ricochet) with the last (James Brady was hit with the first, and a policeman and a Secret Service agent were also hit) — just 1.7 seconds after he started shooting..
Agent Jerry Parr (who had been inspired to join the Secret Service by a 1939 Reagan movie) shoved Reagan into the limousine and — when it became clear Reagan was hurt, either from a bullet or being shoved in — had him taken to the hospital. Close to death (partly from the borken rib and damaged lung, partly from heavy internal bleeding), Reagan was operated on by a team of doctors as a distraught Nancy Reagan (who had been at a luncheon) joined him. Meanwhile, the Soviets were moving forces into position for a possible attack — though in the end they did nothing, perhaps because of Alexander Haig’s confident (if legally incorrect) assertion of authority.
Since Reagan wasn’t actually killed (unlike the subjects of the other books in this series), a third of the book covers his life afterward. He was much weakened by his injuries physically, and probably also mentally, though he did recover well enough to hide this weakness in public( except for a few lapses, such as the first presidential debate in 1984). Two of his fellow victims were even worse off and had to retire (though none died, despite an incorrect report that James Brady had). Interestingly, all four were of Irish descent (no surprise that Bill O’Reilly would point that out).
Meanwhile, John Hinckley was acquitted on grounds of insanity (a dubious verdict despite his schizophrenia), and has been at Saint Elizabeth’s (a mental hospital, famed for some as the place where Fred Van Ackerman sent dissenters in Come Nineveh, Come Tyre, where he was treated far better than in jail. He remained there as of the writing of the book, but was on the verge of release.
But there was still the question of how tough a leader Reagan really was (the Soviets were especially interested) — until he stood up to the PATCO strike by firing every one of the illegal strikers (and quoted Calvin Coolidge’s comment about the 1919 Boston police strike). On the other hand, Margaret Thatcher was unhappy with his eagerness to negotiate some compromise over the Falklands (she also wasn’t happy when he invaded Grenada without notifying her in advance). In the end, he played a key role in the fall of the Soviet Evil Empire, though it didn’t happen until his successor came in.
Eventually, Reagan was afflicted with Alzheimer’s, which was diagnosed in 1994 but was evident at a party the year before when he gave a nice speech — and then, forgetting he had done so, gave it again. How much effect the trauma of the shooting (and the operation to save his life) affected this cannot be known, but it probably did contribute (as no doubt other incidents, such as a fall from a bucking horse in 1989, did as well). Reading about his later decline is painful, muck like seeing my paternal grandfather at the wake for his wife’s funeral 30 years ago. (I decided not to go back again and see him like that.) It’s a pity that Reagan was unable to be unaware of one wedding anniversary gift — Nancy’s christening of the USS Ronald Reagan in 2001.
Timothy Lane writes from Louisville, Kentucky and publishes the FOSFAX fanzine.
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