|Del Quentin Wilber|
Del Quentin Wilber, a Washington Post reporter, is the author of Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan.
Q: Why did you decide to examine the assassination attempt on President Reagan, and what surprised you most about your findings?
A: I was covering a hearing in federal court involving the would-be assassin, John Hinckley, who was asking for more freedom from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. He had been held there since being found not guilty by reason of insanity at his 1982 trial.
It was fascinating to be in the presence of someone who nearly took the life of a U.S. president.
A few days later, I was summoned to the FBI field office to talk about a potential story I was chasing about an undercover investigation. An agent, trying to convince me not to write the story, pulled something out of his desk and slapped it in my hand. It was Hinckley’s gun!
This stunned me and made me very curious -- how could this important historic artifact be in a desk drawer? So I went to the library and looked up books about the assassination attempt and didn’t find any that satisfied my curiosity. So I began making phone calls to former agents and doctors.
Q: How willing were people to talk to you about the events of March 30, 1981, and how were you able to amass your detailed account of what happened that day?
A: It took a lot of plugging, but I eventually interviewed more than 125 people (I stopped counting) to help me recreate the scenes in the book. Sometimes I had to interview as many as 10 people who were in the same room to cobble together what happened. I also filed several Freedom of Information Act requests and obtained never-before seen records about the assassination attempt kept by the FBI and the Secret Service. Some sources gave me critical medical records, too.
Q: You write that the assassination attempt had a lasting impact on public perceptions of President Reagan. What about his actions that day would help shape his presidency?
A: Reagan had one of the most scripted presidencies in U.S. history. On this day, the script got thrown out the window when Hinckley fired his six shots in 1.7 seconds at precisely 2:27 p.m. Reagan was stoic and brave. That was communicated to the public, and it allowed the president to form a special bond with the American people.
What they saw is what they got because we all know the one day you can't fake it -- when you have been shot and nearly killed. This bond allowed Reagan to get his agenda through Congress and made it very unlikely that any scandal -- Iran-Contra, for example -- would end his presidency because the public simply would not have stood for it.
Q: What impact did the assassination attempt have on presidential security?
A: Presidential security grew much tighter. Magnetometers became omnipresent; perimeters were expanded; presidents rarely ever entered or exited their cars in public. The idea that a deranged would-be assassin could get within 15 feet of the president and get off six shots before being tackled is utterly astonishing.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: People curious about the Reagan assassination attempt can visit the book's website, www.rawhidedown.com, to learn more about the day. I have posted interviews with key players, documents, photos and video that help explain what occurred on March 30, 1981. "Rawhide," by the way, was Reagan's Secret Service code name.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb