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New light on the near assassination of Ronald Reagan

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June 21st, 2011

Rawhide down. These were the two worst words for a Secret Service agent on the afternoon of March 30, 1981. After delivering a speech to members of the AFL-CIO, President Ronald Reagan emerged from the Washington, D.C., Hilton waving to the crowd, aglow with the same charismatic smile that moviegoers had known for decades. Suddenly, six loud cracks rang out from the president's left, each one a bullet from John Hinckley, Jr.'s .22 caliber revolver. The 25-year-old assassin emptied his pistol in less than two seconds, severely wounding White House Press Secretary James Brady, police officer Thomas Delahanty, and Secret Service Agent Timothy McCarthy. As Hinckley fired his rounds, Special Agent in Charge Jerry Parr shoved the president into his limousine and sped off. Inside the limo, Parr asked Reagan if he was injured. "I don t think so," Reagan answered. "I think you hurt my chest when you landed on top of me." But Parr wasn't to blame. The president had taken a bullet fragment to the lung near the pulmonary artery and was bleeding internally.

Twenty-four hours

So began 24 horrifying hours in American history a day that New York Times bestselling author Del Quentin Wilber recounts for the first time ever in Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan (Henry Holt, 2011). "When I started plotting the book, I planned to tell a story that unfolded over a two-week period," recalls Wilber. "Originally, it would have run all the way through Reagan's recovery. Then it clicked that the real story was about a single day that spanned from the moment the president woke up in the White House to those critical hours at George Washington University Hospital, where doctors and nurses worked feverishly to save his life." AWashington Post reporter who covers law enforcement, Wilber spent a year and a half researching and writing the book, poring over Secret Service and medical records, as well as thousands of pages of court transcripts and psychiatric evaluations related to Hinckley. This on top of interviews with key figures such as Agent Parr and Drs. Benjamin Aaron, Joseph Giordano, and David Adelberg (the surgeons who operated on Reagan) makes for a meticulous minute-by-minute narrative of a dramatic day in presidential history. "Many people don't realize how close Reagan came to dying," says Wilber. "Most know the bare bones of the story that he got shot and lived, and that John Hinckley, Jr., pulled the trigger. It really didn't even hit me until I interviewed David Adelberg, the 31-year-old surgical intern who held the president s beating heart in his hands." And as Reagan's life hung in the balance, so did the nation's seat of power. While doctors searched for the wound that cost the president half of his body's blood, White House officials grappled with the event's political implications. The book's carefully selected details are hard hitting and cinematic in a way that reinforces the gravity of a situation that, until then, Americans had faced only four times in two centuries. One scene in particular puts readers inside a White House janitor's closet where Reagan's chief advisors James Baker and Edwin Meese huddled in conference, debating whether to risk world panic and transfer power to Vice President Bush or stall the public and hope for the best as the surgeons worked.

Code City

Wilber lays bare countless other new facts about this day, including the presidential motorcade's wild race to the hospital, the quips that a barely conscious Reagan made in the emergency room, and the grim prognosis of several medical personnel who treated the president, one of them convinced that he was Code City. "There was very little about this story that didn't surprise me," Wilber recollects. The Secret Service agents were incredible in their ability to react and protect, the doctors and nurses equally so in their discipline and coolness under pressure. Rawhide Down is an object lesson in just how fragile the course of fate can be. Had agent Parr reacted a split second later, had the doctors and nurses not been so cool under pressure, history might have been very different. Though you know how the story ends, you'll feel as though you've lived it when you read this book. 

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