When Ronald Reagan stepped out of the Washington, DC, Hilton on March 30, 1981, he still carried himself like the Hollywood star he once was: A big grin stretched across his face as he raised his hand high and waved to the crowd of journalists corralled behind a rope-like barrier.
The new president had just finished speaking before AFL-CIO leaders, but the press was hoping to get a quote about rising tensions with Russia before Reagan stepped into his bulletproof limousine.
Among the ranks was Associated Press reporter Michael Putzel. “I took a position near the right rear wheel of the limo,” Putzel told The Post. “It was the best place from which to shout a question.” His tape recorder running, Putzel called out: “Mr. President! Mr. President!”
Reagan turned to him. “I was right at the end of saying, ‘Mr. President’ when there came pop, pop,” Putzel recalled. Photos show “the smile washing from the president. His hand came down. [Secret Service agent] Jerry Parr pushed him toward the limo.”
Press secretary James Brady stepped toward the rope and was shot in the head. A second bullet hit police officer Thomas Delahanty in the back. A third went high, while a fourth might have hit Reagan had Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy not moved in and taken it himself. The fifth shot landed in the car’s bulletproof window. One last shot went off as Parr pushed Reagan into the backseat, hitting a rear panel.
Within 1.7 seconds of the first shot, a baby-faced spectator in the crowd, soon identified as John W. Hinckley Jr., had emptied the chamber of his .22 caliber Röhm revolver.
Almost immediately, he found himself under Secret Service agents. One, standing and brandishing an Uzi, protected the pile-up.
The limo sped toward the White House as Parr felt under Reagan’s clothing for signs of a bullet strike. The agent’s hands emerged clean. Then he noticed blood at the president’s mouth. Reagan figured that he had bit his lip. He dabbed it with a napkin. Parr saw more blood — now frothy.
“Parr knew that frothy blood comes from the lungs,” Del Quentin Wilber, author of “Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan,” told The Post. “If it was a cut lip and [Parr] took Reagan to the hospital and that caused the stock market to dive, he would be blamed. But he also knew that it would be worse if the president died.
”Parr shouted for the driver to reroute to George Washington University Hospital. As Reagan hobbled out of the car — insisting on walking unaided — his blood pressure was so low that nurses could not get a reading. Upon hitting the limo, the last bullet had compressed to the size of a dime and ricocheted through a small gap in the door — hitting Reagan, who hadn’t realized it at first.
“Parr saved Reagan’s life twice in one day,” said Wilber. “First, he got Reagan into the limo and out of Hinckley’s line of fire . . . And had they not gone to the hospital, Reagan would have died.”
Meanwhile, back at the Hilton, paramedics tended to the other three victims. Struck in the head, Brady sustained a brain injury. Delahanty had a bullet lodged near his spine. McCarthy’s right lung and diaphragm had been pierced by a bullet that ended up in his liver.
Hinckley was handcuffed and arrested. “There was never any question about who shot Reagan,” said Putzel. “But the first question was whether or not he acted alone. The second question was whether or not he was sane.”
Sane or not, Hinckley, 25 years old and acting solo when he tried to kill President Reagan, was a madman on a mission: to impress actress Jodie Foster.
He was a product of privilege, the youngest of three kids raised near Dallas by an oil-man father and a doting mother. A college dropout, he had failed to get music and writing careers in motion but hungered for fame.
Hinckley was staying in a dive motel in Denver, Colo., where, according to forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz, who interviewed him some eight times, “his mother brought him money while his father tried to provide tough love.” In his room, Hinckley obsessed over the 1976 movie “Taxi Driver” and the 12-year-old prostitute played by Jodie Foster.
Dietz said that socially isolated, awkward Hinckley thought he had a chance with Foster because she was “approachable.”
The actress had begun attending Yale University in September 1980. That month, Hinckley traveled to New Haven, Conn., where he slipped notes and greeting cards under Foster’s dorm-room door. Dressed in a dirty fatigue jacket, he informed a bartender that he was in town to see his girlfriend and showed magazine pictures of Foster.The bartender later described him as “ticking” — presumably, like a time bomb.
Hinckley managed to somehow get Foster’s phone number. During his first call, he introduced himself as “the person who’s been leaving notes in your box.” In a later exchange, recorded by Hinckley, she said, “Oh, seriously, this is really starting to bother me. Do you mind if I hang up?” His response: “Jodie, please.”
On another call, after Foster told Hinckley that it is “dangerous” to talk to strangers, he responded, “Well, I’m not dangerous.”
Foster was only part of his plan. “His goal was to get on the cover of Time magazine; the Jodie Foster thing was real; but if it was not her, it would have been somebody else,” said Dietz. “He considered what would make him more famous: skyjacking, assassination of a president, mass murder, murder/suicide with Foster, kidnapping [her].”
In 1984, I interviewed Hinckley, by mail, for Oui magazine and asked him what he felt when he pulled the trigger. “Love, hate, despair,” the failed killer responded.
Prior to Reagan being elected, Hinckley attended two Jimmy Carter campaign rallies — including one in Nashville, where he was arrested at the airport for possession of a concealed weapon. Three guns were confiscated and he was fined $62.50. He had on him a ticket to New York, the next stop on Carter’s tour.
Asked why he trailed Carter, Hinckley told me: “For some crazy reason.”
After John Lennon was shot by Mark David Chapman on Dec. 8, 1980, Beatles-loving Hinckley went to New York City and mingled with mourners outside the Dakota apartment building. “He learned [about getting famous via a high-profile murder] from Chapman,” said Dietz. “He hit the street to find a 12-year-old prostitute. I don’t remember if he found one.”
Per Wilber, Hinckley was en route to New Haven in March 1981 when he made a stop in DC. “He planned on killing himself or Foster or both,” said the author. “He wrote a note to Foster” — which said that he’d be assassinating Reagan to impress her — “and left it in his room . . . He thought he would go down in a hail of gunfire.”
After the shooting, Reagan was taken to an emergency-room bay, where a tube was inserted into his chest. Dr. Benjamin Aaron, who was overseeing the situation, told The Post that an X-ray showed “a metal fragment at the margin of his heart. It was prime time to explore his chest and get the bleeding stopped.”
Reagan lost some 40 percent of his body’s blood and received infusions to stabilize his pressure. A distraught Nancy Reagan came quickly to her husband’s bedside. He told her: “Honey, I forgot to duck.”
It’s an old line cribbed from the boxer Jack Dempsey after a lost match. But “who cracks a frigging joke [after being shot]?” asked Wilber. “The nurses never saw anything like that … He was so cognizant of keeping people calm and keeping Nancy OK.”
Before going into surgery, Reagan quipped to the staff, “I hope you are all Republicans.”
Dr. Joseph Giordano, head of the trauma team and a fifth-generation Democrat, replied, “Mr. President, for today, we are all Republicans.”
Once the bullet was removed, the first non-family member to see Reagan was Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, a Democrat. “They cried and prayed together, reciting the 23rd Psalm,” Wilber said. “He kissed the President’s head.”
After 11 days, Reagan was back at the White House. Others were less lucky. Delahanty had a bullet removed from near his spine and suffered enduring nerve damage. Brady spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. McCarthy made a full recovery and last year retired as the Orland Park, Ill., chief of police.
According to “Dateline,” Reagan forgave Hinckley.
And the would-be assassin later told Dietz, “I got everything I was going for.”
“This was just business: Make me famous,” Dietz said. “One of [Hinckley’s] favorite things was being transported in a helicopter [for questioning]. He said he was being treated like the president.”
Elizabeth Sherrill, author of the book “Breaking Points,” written with Hinckley’s parents, told The Post, “They thought he lost his mind. [Hinckley’s father’s] reaction was to wade in with all the power that money could buy. They got a bunch of lawyers and John was acquitted.”
In fact, he was acquitted for reasons of insanity. This shocked Dietz, who thought Hinckley “was not impulsive” and should have been found guilty. But he recalls that the defendant did not get everything: “For trial, [Foster] testified by video, which really ticked Hinckley off. He threw a pencil at the screen. What’s the point of doing this if you’re not even going to get her in the same room with you?”
Hinckley spent 34 years in St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, DC, where he had a relationship — even getting engaged — with fellow inmate Leslie deVeau, who had murdered her 10-year-old daughter. Hinckley also counted Ted Bundy as a pen pal. (“I think we’ve got something going . . . It’s always a pleasure to find somebody I feel comfortable writing,” the serial killer penned to Hinckley in one letter).
In 2016, Hinckley was released to the Williamsburg, Va., home of his then-90-year-old mother — a place on the 13th hole of an exclusive golf course where former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have teed up. Hinckley, according to Wilber, volunteers at a church and sells antiques at a flea market. In 2019, his lawyer said that Hinckley was interested in moving to California to pursue a music career; prosecutors said this would give the government “great pause.” Hinckley and deVeau broke up, and he has a new girlfriend, according to a report on “Dateline.”
Since his release, Hinckley has not shown public remorse. But in 1984, when I interviewed him for Oui, he told me, “I cried for Nancy . . . I regret the shooting.”
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