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MARCH 30, 1981

On Saturday March 21, Nancy and I made our first trip to Ford's Theater in Washington to attend a black-tie gala to raise money for support of this historic building. During the performance, I looked up at the presidential box above the stage where Abe Lincoln had been sitting the night he was shot and felt a curious sensation. As you look up there, you can't help but run those events of 1865 through your mind: You imagine the figure of John Wilkes Booth bursting through the door at the rear of the box, shooting the president, then leaping onto the stage and running away before a stunned audience.

It occurred to me that until that night probably no one had ever given much thought to the possibility someone might want to kill the president. As I watched the show, I thought about all the security provided for Nancy and me and the children and how different things were now. Looking up at the flag-draped box, though, I thought that even with all the Secret Service protection we now had, it was probably still possible for someone who had enough determination to get close enough to a president to shoot him.

Monday - March 30

I put on a brand-new blue suit for my speech to the Construction Trades Council. But for some reasons I'll never know, I took off my best wristwatch before leaving the White House and put on an old one Nancy had given me that I usually wore only when I was doing chores outside at the ranch. My speech at the Hilton Hotel was not riotously received - I think most of the audience were Democrats - but at least they gave me polite applause. After the speech, I left the hotel through a side entrance and passed a line of press photographers and TV cameras.

I was almost to the car when I heard what sounded like two or three firecrackers over to my left - just a small fluttering sound, pop, pop, pop. I turned and said, "What the hell's that?" Just then, Jerry Parr, the head of our Secret Service unit, grabbed me by the waist and literally hurled me into the back of the limousine. I landed on my face atop the armrest across the back seat and Jerry jumped on top of me. When he landed, I felt a pain in my upper back that was unbelievable. It was the most excruciating pain I had ever felt. "Jerry," I said, "get off, I think you've broken one of my ribs."

"The White House," Jerry told the driver, then scrambled off me and got on the jump seat and the car took off. I tried to sit up on the edge of the seat and was almost paralyzed by pain. As I was straightening up, I had to cough hard and saw that the palm of my hand was brimming with extremely red frothy blood. "You not only broke a rib, I think the rib punctured my lung," I said.

Jerry looked at the bubbles in the frothy blood and told the driver to head for George Washington University Hospital instead of the White House. By then my handkerchief was sopped with blood and he handed me his. Suddenly, I realized I could barely breathe. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get enough air. I was frightened and started to panic a little. I just was not able to inhale enough air. We pulled up in front of the hospital emergency entrance and I was first out of the limo and into the emergency room. A nurse was coming to meet me and I told her I was having trouble breathing. Then all of a sudden my knees turned rubbery. The next thing I knew I was lying face up on a gurney and my brand-new pinstriped suit was being cut off me, never to be worn again.

The pain near my ribs was still excruciating, but what worried me most was that I still could not get enough air, even after the doctors placed a breathing tube in my throat. Every time I tried to inhale, I seemed to get less air. I remember looking up from the gurney, trying to focus my eyes on the square ceiling tiles, and praying. Then I guess I passed out for a few minutes. I was lying on the gurney only half-conscious when I realized that someone was holding my hand. It was a soft, feminine hand. I felt it come up and touch mine and then hold on tight to it. It gave me a wonderful feeling. Even now I find it difficult to explain how reassuring, how wonderful, it felt. It must have been the hand of a nurse kneeling very close to the gurney, but I couldn't see her. I started asking, "Who's holding my hand? Who's holding my hand?" When I didn't hear any response, I said, "Does Nancy know about us?"

Although I tried afterward to learn who the nurse was, I was never able to find her. I had wanted to tell her how much the touch of her hand had meant to me, but I never was able to do that. Once I opened my eyes and saw Nancy looking down at me. "Honey," I said, "I forgot to duck," borrowing Jack Dempsey's line to his wife the night he was beaten by Gene Tunney for the heavyweight championship. Seeing Nancy in the hospital gave me an enormous lift. As long as I live I will never forget the thought that rushed into my head as I looked up into her face. Later I wrote it down in my diary: "I pray I'll never face a day when she isn't there of all the ways God had blessed me, giving her to me was the greatest - beyond anything I can ever hope to deserve." Someone was looking out for us that day.

Most of the doctors who practiced at George Washington University Hospital had been attending a special meeting there that afternoon and were only an elevator ride away from the emergency room. Within a few minutes after I arrived, the room was full of specialists in virtually every medical field. When one of the doctors said they were going to operate on me, I said, "I hope you're a Republican." He looked at me and said, "Today, Mr. President, we're all Republicans." I also remember saying, after one of the nurses asked me how I felt, "All in all, I'd rather be in Philadelphia" - the old W. C. Fields line.

For quite a while when I was in the emergency room, I still thought I was there because Jerry Parr had broken my rib and it had punctured my lung. Little by little, though, I learned what had happened and what the situation was: I had a bullet in my lung; Service agent Tim McCarthy had been shot in the chest; policeman Tom Delehanty had been shot in the neck. All of us had been hit by the gun of a young lone assailant who was in police custody. When Jim Brady, a funny and irreverent man who was as talented and well liked as anyone in the White House, was wheeled by me unconscious on his way to the operating room, someone told me he was hit so badly he probably wouldn't make it, and I quickly said a prayer for him. I didn't feel I could ask God's help to heal Jim, the others, and myself, and at the same time feel hatred for the man who had shot us, so I silently asked God to help him deal with whatever demons had led him to shoot us.

As people began to tell me more about what had happened, I began to realize that when Jerry Parr had thrown his body on me, he was gallantly putting his own life on the line to save mine, and I felt guilty that I'd chewed him out right after it happened. Like Jerry, Tim McCarthy had also bravely put his life on the line for me. Some weeks later I was shown the TV shots of what happened that day. As I was being thrown into the limo, there, facing the camera between me and the gunman, spread-eagling himself to make as big a target as possible, was Tim McCarthy. He was shot right in the chest. Thank heaven he lived. I thanked God for what He and they had done for me, and while I was waiting to be taken into the operating room, I remembered the trip I had made just the week before to Ford's Theater and the thoughts I'd had while looking up at the flag-draped box where Lincoln had died. Even with all the protection in the world, I'd thought, it was probably impossible to guarantee completely the safety of the president. Now I'd not only benefited from the selflessness of these two men; God, for some reason, had seen fit to give me his blessing and allow me to live a while longer.

John Hinckley Jr's bullet probably caught me in midair at the same moment I was being thrown into the back of the car by Jerry Parr. After they took it out of me, I saw the bullet. It looked like a nickel that was black on one side; it had been flattened into a small disc and darkened by the paint on the limousine. First the bullet had struck the limousine, then it had ricocheted through the small gap between the body of the car and the door hinges. It hit me under my left arm, where it made a small slit like a knife wound. I'd always been told that no pain is as excruciating as a broken bone; that's why I thought Jerry had broken my rib when he landed so hard on me. But it wasn't Jerry's weight I felt; according to the doctors, the flattened bullet had hit my rib edgewise, then turned over like a coin, tumbling down through my lung and stopping less than an inch from my heart. As I said, someone was looking out for me that day.

On several previous occasions when I'd been out in public as president, the Secret Service had made me wear a bulletproof vest under my suit. That day, even though I was going to speak to some die-hard Democrats who didn't think much of my economic recovery program, no one had thought my iron underwear would be necessary because my only exposure was to be a thirty-foot walk to the car. I never saw Hinckley at the Hilton, only the crowd of reporters outside the hotel. In the hospital, I learned he had gone to a movie, Taxi Driver, and fallen in love with an actress in the picture and then begun trailing her around the country, hoping to meet her so he could tell her how he felt. Although I have never seen the movie, I'm told there was a scene in it in which there was a shooting; for some reason Hinckley decided to get a gun and kill somebody to demonstrate his love for the actress. I was told he'd plotted to kill Jimmy Carter and had actually stalked him, taking his gun to where Carter was going to be - but he never got the chance so he shot me instead. He was a mixed-up young man from a fine family. That day, I asked the Lord to heal him, and to this day, I still do.

After I left the hospital and was back in the White House, I wrote a few words about the shooting in my diary that concluded: "Whatever happens now I owe my life to God and will try to serve him in every way I can." I had wonderful care at the George Washington University Hospital, for which I will be eternally grateful. But it wasn't long before I was very anxious to get on my feet, go home, and get back to work, and I'm afraid there may have been times when I was not a perfect patient. Once during those first few days, when I was bedded down and fastened to an intravenous apparatus, I had to go to the men's room. I didn't want to trouble the nurses, so I got out of bed and wheeled the intravenous cart with me over to the restroom. When the nurses found out about it, they gave me a scolding, but I persuaded them to let me out of bed more often and pretty soon they were letting me go out into the corridor outside my room and walk around in a little oval to exercise. I was determined that, when I left the hospital, I was going to walk out, and I did.

On April 12, I wrote in my diary: "The first full day at home. I'm not jumping any fences and the routine is still one of blood tests, X-rays, bottles dripping into my arms but I'm home. With the let-up on antibiotics, I'm beginning to have an appetite and food tastes good for the first time." Incidentally, I did take an afternoon nap during the first three or four weeks after I came home from the hospital, but, despite reports to the contrary, that was the first and only time I'd needed one since I was a child.

On April 14, three days after I got home, the space shuttle Columbia returned to earth in triumph after its maiden voyage. The landing touched off tremendous excitement around the country, convincing me more than ever that Americans wanted to feel proud and patriotic again. I watched the landing on television in the Lincoln Bedroom, where they set up a hospital-style bed for my recuperation. While lying there, or relaxing in robe and pajamas in the solarium on the third floor of the White House, I had lots of time to think about the problems our country faced and the things we could do to deal with them.

Courtesy of Simon and Schuster