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Special Excerpt from Mel Ayton’s “Hunting the President”

For our special “Throwback Thursday” edition, we are highlighting this well-researched book in light of this week being the 34th anniversary of the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan.  We have a exclusive excerpt from the book for our members!

Reagan faced the greatest threat to his life shortly after his inauguration. In November 1980, after abandoning his plans to shoot President Carter, John W. Hinckley stalked the president-elect. Although Hinckley had stalked Carter and had been arrested on weapons charges at an airport the president visited, he was not on the Secret Service’s “watch list,” as he had never made an overt threat. But had the airport authorities searched Hinckley’s suitcase, they would have discovered his diary, which detailed his plans to kill Carter.

Hunting the PresidentIn February 1980, Hinckley changed his target once more, but only momentarily. He decided he wanted to be the third Kennedy assassin and kill Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the last of the Kennedy brothers. He arrived in Washington, D.C., and visited Kennedy’s Senate office. He waited in the corridor for the senator to appear. Frustrated when Kennedy didn’t walk by, Hinckley made his way to the Capitol, thinking he could attack the senator there. But he backed off when he saw the metal detector at the entrance to the building. Instead, he headed for the White House and joined a tour of theexecutive mansion.

On March 29, 1981, Hinckley checked into the Park Century Hotel on 18th Street, two blocks west of the White House and directly across the street from Secret Service headquarters. His luggage contained two .22 caliber pistols and a .38 of the type used by John Lennon’s killer, Mark Chapman, the previous December.

The next day, Hinckley wrote a five-page letter to Jodie Foster. “Dear Jodie, There is a definite possibility that I will be killed in my attempt to get Reagan,” he wrote. “This letter is being written an hour before I leave for the Hilton Hotel. Jodie, I’m asking you to please look into your heart and at least give me the chance with this historical deed to gain your respect and love. I love you forever.” Shortly afterward, he left for the Washington Hilton. He left a newspaper cutting about President Reagan’s schedule on his bed. The schedule disclosed that President Reagan would leave the White House at 1:45 p.m. to address a session of the AFL-CIO’s building and construction trades department at the Washington Hilton Hotel.

Hinckley shot Reagan as the president left the Hilton.  The chambers of his pistol contained six devastator bullets designed to explode on impact. He shot twice, paused, then fired off four more rounds— all within two seconds. Agent Dennis McCarthy said he heard a “pop, no louder than a firecracker.” It was the moment he had been training for but “dreaded.” McCarthy knew he “had to get to that gun” as Hinckley continued firing. After the third shot, McCarthy saw the gun protruding between television cameras about eight feet away. He dove for the gun and landed on Hinckley’s back just as the sixth shot was fired. The assassin offered no resistance and dropped the gun to the ground. As McCarthy pulled him to his feet, he saw two hands grab Hinckley’s throat, and it entered his mind that his role had now changed—he was no longer protecting the president but his would-be assassin.9 Press Secretary James Brady, Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy, and Washington, D.C., police officer Thomas Delahanty were also shot and seriously wounded.

As he heard the sound of shots, Secret Service agent Jerry Parr shoved Reagan into his limousine, and then, after noticing the president had been wounded, directed the car to the George Washington University Hospital. The president had been hit under his left arm by a bullet that ricocheted off his limousine. It had missed his heart by a mere inch. Although not believed to be serious at the time, Reagan’s wounds were in fact life-threatening.

“There’s a couple of times where truth and training converge, where history and destiny converge,” Parr observed years later. “I thought about that for a long time. It’s that moment—either you do it or you don’t, either you save him or you don’t.”10 Reagan underwent surgery to remove the bullet and repair a collapsed lung. Dennis McCarthy blamed himself for “not acting fast enough” after Hinckley began shooting. “I began to think that I might have acted like a coward outside the Hilton,” McCarthy said. He and fellow agents reviewed the television footage of the shooting, and his colleagues pointed out McCarthy had reacted as fast as humanly possible. Nevertheless, McCarthy became depressed about his role in the shooting.11

An internal Treasury Department review of the circumstances surrounding the attack generally praised the agents on the scene but was less than laudatory about the intelligence work of both the Secret Service and the FBI in identifying threats in advance. “The Secret Service’s protective capabilities have been impaired by the decline in the quantity and quality of intelligence collected by the FBI,” the review stated. It attributed the decline to restrictions placed by the Justice Department on the intelligence information the FBI was permitted to collect and share with the Secret Service. The review concluded that the Secret Service needed to “make use of advances in statistical methods and data processing to improve its analytic abilities.”12

The Treasury Department also criticized the poor communications among Secret Service agents during the assassination attempt; the Service’s failure to have a hospital security plan and Reagan’s medical records handy; and a lapse of duty of several agents who stayed at the crime scene instead of accompanying the president to the hospital.13

During Hinckley’s trial, prosecutors learned more about his pathologies. The assassination attempt resembled a scene in Hinckley’s favorite movie, Taxi Driver, in which actor Robert De Niro tells a woman that if she rejected him he would carry out an assassination. De Niro then goes to a political rally in New York City carrying three guns but does not get close enough to the presidential candidate to shoot him. The FBI also discovered that Hinckley had become fascinated with previous assassinations or assassination attempts. Following his arrest, Hinckley emulated Robert F. Kennedy’s killer, Sirhan Sirhan, by telling police he knew nothing about the assassination attempt. He also emulated Sirhan by asking the arresting officers if his act had been broadcast by the media. Police officers said Hinckley was excited about appearing on television.

Excerpted from Chapter 9 – “Rawhide” (Pages 145-148)


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