In Rawhide Down, Del Quentin Wilber, an accomplished journalist for The Washington Post, offers meticulous detail and insight in his development of the event timeline and personalities involved in the near tragic assassination attempt and subsequent events which unfolded 70 days into the first term of President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981.
His research and interviews allow us to better know and understand the personalities of the principals and their decision making surrounding this drama. Simultaneously, we see the timeline of events unfold from multiple perspectives- the President, his staff, the Secret Service, the shooter John Hinckley, and the medical staff who provided Mr. Reagan’s care at George Washington Hospital. I was captivated in much the same way I might watch a television or movie thriller. While I watched these events unfold and knew the outcome, I still remained captivated as I learned the timeline of the events and how close we were to another American president tragedy.
He explores the personalities of the people involved with the event. This includes Mr. Reagan, his staff, John Hinckley, the attempted assassin, along with the physicians and nursing staff who cared for him. We gain insight into their personalities, backgrounds, fears and imperfections. We are introduced to the Secret Service detail, in particular Jerry Parr, the agent whose timely action to thrust Mr. Reagan into his limousine and immediately direct that he be driven to George Washington Medical Center, helped to save his life. How ironic that his favorite poem describes the responsibility of his chosen profession as an agent to protect the President of the United States, Alan Seeger’s “I Have a Rendezvous with Death”:
“it resonated so intensely with Parr, a man who relentlessly trained for a day he hoped would never come. He found the last two lines of the poem particularly powerful:
“And I to my pledge word am true. I shall not fail that rendezvous”
He details the background of John Hinckley, an obviously troubled man- what he read, he wrote, and thought, along with his obsession with a young actress and Yale student, Jodie Foster, for whom he dedicated his attempt on Reagan’s life. We see the struggle and initial chaos amongst the President’s advisers including the famous but misguided Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s: “I’m in charge here”, when he self proclaimed his role as leader, despite any constitutional change in leadership and ignoring chain of command from President to Vice President to Speaker of the House. We see the bravery of the physicians and nursing staff who cared for Mr. Reagan and ultimately save him from bleeding to death from his lung, a fact that was overshadowed by the quality of his care and remarkable 12 day hospital stay before resuming his presidential duties.
His book is an apolitical tribute to Ronald Reagan, the man as President, his skills and subsequent growth in leadership that served the remaining seven years of his presidency.
“The real hero of the day, though, was Reagan himself. In the most unscripted moment of his eight highly choreographed years in office, he gave the American people an indelible image of his character. In severe pain, he insisted on walking into the hospital under his own power. Throughout the medical ordeal that followed, he never lost his courage or his humor. The attempt on his life occurred just seventy days into his term, but more than any other incident during his years in the White House, it revealed Reagan’s superb temperament, his extraordinary ability to project the qualities of a true leader, and his remarkable grace under pressure.”
Henry Holt and Company provided a review copy of this book for this post. All opinions are my own.
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