Monday, August 4, 2014

"Rawhide Down" by Del Quentin Wilber: A Review

Colo asked whether he had ever seen a doctor. Hinckley told him that his parents had urged him to seek psychiatric help the previous year and that since then he'd been seeing a psychiatrist regularly.

"What was wrong?" Colo asked.

"I have no direction in life," Hinckley said simply.

After about twenty-five minutes of questioning, Hinckley went quiet for a moment and then told Colo that he didn't want to say any more until he consulted a lawyer.

"Is this on television? Hinckley asked him. . . .

"Will this affect other people? Hinckley asked. "Will they be pulled into it?"

Something about Hinckley's question caught Colo's attention. Earlier, watching as FBI agents inventoried the contents of Hinckley's wallet, Colo spotted a note with a phone number scribbled on it - the kind of note a man jots down after meeting a woman in a bar.   The number had a Connecticut area code, and Colo recalled that Hinckley had said that he'd visited new Haven several times and attended Yale's "riding school." Colo also remembered that the wallet's plastic sleeve contained several photographs of a pretty girl. Investigators had initially assumed these were just filler photos of the kind that often come with a new wallet, but not Colo wondered whether they were pictures of a real women in Hinckley's life, perhaps a girlfriend.

"Yes, others will be pulled into it," Colo replied. "Are you talking about your parents and your friends?"

"and others," Hinckley said.

"I know about the telephone number in your wallet, the one that goes to Connecticut," Colo said, bluffing.

"Well," Hinckley shot back, his face tightening, "if you know about that, you know everything." Then he slumped his shoulders and took a deep breath.

It was the first time Colo had seen his suspect show any emotion. . . .

At last Colo understood. The assassination attempt wasn't about politics or the presidency or even Ronald Reagan. It was about impressing a movie star. (196-198)

According to the Tecumseh Curse, every President since 1840 (William Henry Harris) elected in a year ending in zero died in office. Think about it. Harris was elected 1840 and died shortly thereafter. The next three Presidents Abraham Lincoln (elected in 1860), James Garfield (elected in 1880), and William McKinley (elected in 1900) were assassinated while in office. Presidents Warren G. Hardin (elected in 1920) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (elected in 1940) died of natural causes. John F. Kennedy, elected in 1960, was assassinated.

This pattern of tragic deaths miraculously ended by the 1980 election of Ronald Wilson Reagan. But barely. Early in his first term, President Reagan was almost killed by a troubled young man obsessed with a Hollywood actress.

Do I believe in the Tecumseh Curse? No. But it is fascinating nonetheless.

Recently I picked up the fascinating book Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan by Del Quentin Wilber. The book does exactly what the title and subtitle suggests. The author walks the reader through the story of the near-assassination of our fortieth president. Americans were told, and most believed at the time, that Reagan's assassination was not very serious. But over the past decades it has become clear, Reagan almost died.

Reagan's survival comes down to a decision made by the Secret Service. After being shot, Reagan was shoved in the limousine (making his wounds worse). At first, it was believed that he had not been hit. Soon thereafter, however, it was clear that he was, in fact injured (credited to being shoved in the limousine). This is the moment that saved the President's life. Either the Secret Service rush to the White House away from danger or to the George Washington Hospital. It was decided to take him to the hospital. That one decision saved his life and, some say, the Tecumseh Curse subsided.

This is a fascinating book. The author brilliantly chronicles the story highlighting the various players involved including many of their biographies. The author takes us into the world of the would-be assassin revealing that his motivation was simple, but morbid. This directionless rich kid was so infatuated with an actress he stalked so much that he thought killing the President would make her love him.

No doubt the best part of the book regards Wilber's chronicling of Reagan's humor. On two occasions, for example, Reagan told his doctors, "I hope your all Republicans." On another occasion, he asked members of his administration "Who's minding the store?" (144) Among his first words to his wife Nancy, Reagan explained "Honey . . .I forgot to duck." (138) While recovering from surgery, unable to speak, Reagan jotted down on a piece of paper, "All in all, I'd rather be in Phil" (200), a quotation from comedian W. C. Fields. Later he asked, "Could we rewrite this scene beginning about the time I left the hotel?" (200) More examples could be given, but you get the point.

Two brief comments. First, studying any assassination or assassination attempt on any president reveals something about human nature. Whether it be Lincoln, killed by a disgruntled Confederate, Kennedy, killed by a deranged communist, or Reagan, shot by a psychotic loner, the thought that a lone gunman or an insignificant citizen could take down the most powerful man in America seems preposterous. I believe this is what lies behind the endless conspiracy theories and the rest. How can it be possible that Oswald (who?) could bring down Camelot? Reagan's experience is no different.

Secondly, one could make the case that this single event plummeted Reagan to becoming the mythical man he is today. Reagan became a star following his near-assassination. Much of it, already noted, is due to how he handled the situation. No doubt his administration had been struggling during its first few months. All of that changed the minute Reagan left George Washington hospital.

Overall, however, this is a fascinating read. Those who find history more fascinating than fiction will love this book. For the second time in less than twenty years, Americans were close to suffering through another assassinated President.

With that, I will give Wilber the final word:
When campaigning and after becoming president, Reagan often quoted Thomas Paine, the Englishman who inspired the citizens of the thirteen colonies to fight for their freedom during the American Revolution. Paine once wrote, "I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection." That man was the Ronald Reagan who survived an attempt on his life and so made possible his historic presidency. (6-7)
For more biographies on the Presidents
President Barack Obama - "The Audacity of Hope" by Barack Obama: A Review
President George W. Bush - "Decision Points" by George W. Bush
President Bill Clinton - "The Natural" by Joe Klein: A Review 
President Ronald Reagan - "Ronald Reagan" by Dinesh D'Souza 
President Gerald Ford - "Gerald R. Ford" by Douglas Brinkley: A Review
President John F. Kennedy - "Killing Kennedy" by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard: A Review
President Dwight D. Eisenhower - "Ike: An American Hero" by Michael Korda: A Review
President Abraham Lincoln - "Abraham Lincoln: A Man of Faith and Courage"
"The Preacher and the Presidents" by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy: A Review

American Experience Documentaries:
Woodrow Wilson: An American Experience
Dwight Eisenhower: An American Experience
Richard Nixon: American Experience
Jimmy Carter: An American Experience
Ronald Reagan: An American Experience
HW Bush: An American Experience  
Clinton: An American Experience
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