Contemporary History - 1981: Reagan survived

1981: Reagan survived

Wishes for improvement cannot be big enough

Photo: Corbis Historical / Getty Images

The Republican Ronald Reagan, actor and advertising man for the General Electric company and Governor of California from 1967 to 1975, had been in office for just 30 days on March 1981, 70. He had won the presidential election on November 4, 1980 with 50,7 percent against the Democrat Jimmy Carter (41,0). Reagan came up with the promise to unleash the market economy, make America strong again, and defeat communism. The man from Hollywood made a sympathetic impression on many voters, liked to tell anecdotes and was able to give the brave cowboy. In his professionally staged performances, the flags flutter in the wind just right. This candidate loved the camera and it loved him.

The shock of Reagan's election victory in the Democrats was similar to the shock of Donald Trump's victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016. A close result had been predicted on television, but the result was clear on election evening shortly after 20 p.m. East Coast time. Democrat Carter and his Vice President nominee Walter Mondale brought in just six states, almost all of them on the east coast.

Back to March 30, 1981. President Reagan addressed the AFL-CIO at the Washington Hilton Hotel. At that time there was talk of the phenomenon of the "Reagan Democrats," white Americans from the working class who had voted Republican for the first time. The speech was a classic Reagan, it was about budget deficits, increasing violent crime, too high taxes and too many regulations. "The main task of the government is to protect the citizens and not to make them rules for their lives." Inflation - it was then at twelve percent - rob people of their savings, so Reagan, who also announced that he wants to arm himself for them Overtake the Soviet Union. Finally, he praised the fight of the Polish trade union Solidarność for “precious freedom”.

Reagan later wrote in his diary that he had left the hotel through the side entrance. Suddenly, several shots were fired. A bodyguard pushed him onto the floor of his limousine. He felt great pain and coughed blood. The Lincoln Continental car raced toward the nearby George Washington University Hospital. He could hardly breathe and prayed in the emergency room. “Yet I realized that I could not ask God for help, while at the same time hatred rose in me for the confused young man who shot me.” In conclusion, Reagan concluded, “Whatever happens now, I owe God to me my life and I will try to serve him in whatever way I can. "

The attack took place in front of the cameras. In the CNN studio sat anchorman Bernard Shaw, who ten years later would become world famous for his live reports from Baghdad during the first Iraq war against Saddam Hussein. The moderator said the situation was on the move. "But first and foremost - the President of the United States is fine." He was not wounded or injured. The shooter, a young white man, is in police custody. The White House assures that the president has not been hit. But it looks "not good for Jim Brady", the press secretary, who has a wound on the head.

CNN, founded less than a year earlier as the first round-the-clock cable news station, was quick but was wrong when it said that Reagan only went to the hospital out of concern for Brady. First Lady Nancy Reagan had also come. After about half an hour an alarming and corrective voice from the off: The President had been shot in the left chest. Shaw said there was confusion. Together with his colleague Daniel Schorr, he was clearly perplexed in front of the camera. Then the confirmation from the White House: The president was injured, but conscious. Cameras turned on Foreign Minister Alexander Haig. Vice President George HW Bush is on his way back to Washington, said General a. D. “We have informed our friends abroad about the situation.” And then the statement apparently aimed at the Soviet Union: There are no “alarm measures”, and none are planned. Who is going to make the decisions in Washington with the president in the clinic? Haig: "Constitutional, gentlemen, you have the President, the Vice-President and the Secretary of State, in that order." Until Bush returns, he will take control of the White House. That sounded officially presumptuous, the ex-military, who was used to the command, had this statement on for a long time. Haig resigned around 15 months later after top dog friction with Defense Minister Caspar Weinberger. The Foreign Minister also caused astonishment in November 1981 with a statement on the subject of nuclear war in Europe: NATO had emergency plans for a “nuclear warning shot” to make it clear to the other side that it had exceeded “the limit of tolerance” in the conventional area. The aim is to keep the use of violence “at the lowest possible level”.

On the day of the assassination, the White House quickly brought the wild flow of information under control with a message that was intended to illustrate Reagan's resilience. He said to the doctors before the operation, "Please confirm that you are all Republicans." On April 12, Reagan was back home. On the 14th, according to the diary, he was delighted to see a circus troupe parading in front of the White House. Three days later, on Good Friday, he noticed a meeting of the National Council of Churches against "our efforts to help El Salvador," meaning US support for a repressive, ultra-right government in Central America. Sometimes he thinks, Reagan wrote, "the Council of Churches believes that God can be reached through Moscow". On the same day he spoke to Baptist minister Billy Graham on the phone. “He knows the family of the young man who shot. They are decent, deeply religious people. "

The shot was taken by the 25-year-old John Hinckley, who grew up in a wealthy family. After dropping out of his studies, he was without a job and his life apparently got out of hand. "Unstable" he was, it was said in media reports. Hinckley bought the revolver legally for $ 47 from a pawnbroker in Dallas, Texas, according to the Violence Policy Center, a research group that analyzed gun violence. Hinckley had no criminal record and held a valid Texas state driver's license. The Democratic President John F. Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas in 1963, under circumstances that are still controversial to this day. Hinckley did not recognize any political motives or conspiracy intentions. In 1982 he was found not guilty of mental insanity. He was obsessed with the actress Jodie Foster and wanted to impress her with his act. This was followed by admission to St. Elizabeth's closed asylum in Washington, from which he was released in 2016 as more or less cured.

Reagan's political soaring continued when he ran for re-election in 1984 with the slogan that it was tomorrow again in America and won with a large majority. Many Americans today consider him to be the man who led the United States to victory in the Cold War. Jodie Foster, who was studying at Yale University in Connecticut at the time, had to weather a media onslaught. In your text Why me? for the magazine Esquire she wrote about death threats in 1982. Everything is possible “in a world ruled by the media”, she reckons that “a stranger will come up to me on the street and ask, aren't you the girl who shot the president?”.