Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Iconic Wednesday: The Attempted Assassination of President Ronald Reagan

Thirty years ago today, a mentally unbalanced man named John Hinkley Jr. fired six shots from a Rohm RG-14 .22 caliber revolver, nearly killing the President of the United States. In the aftermath, a photographer would become famous, a Secretary of State would fumble a media (if not constitutional) test, and the country would once again spend a few minutes looking at astonishing pictures and wondering if perhaps something should be done about keeping guns out of the hands of lunatics.

Salgado recorded the scene outside the Washington Hilton after Hinkely's shots were fired
 On March 30, 1981, Ronald Reagan, the president for the past 69 days, gave a speech to ALF-CIO representatives at the Washington Hilton Hotel. Afterward, he left the building through its T Street NW exit, where his limousine was waiting. Hinkley, 25 at the time, was also waiting near the exit, standing in a group of Reagan admirers. Inspired by the movie Taxi Driver and obsessed with actress Jodie Foster, he had decided to assassinate the president. The Secret Service had screened the audience inside the hotel, but not the crowd on the sidewalk outside. Hinkley was standing about 15 feet away from the president when he fired, missing with each shot. He did hit White House Press Secretary James Brady, and a D.C. police officer. Another shot ricocheted off the president's armored limousine and struck Reagan under his left arm, eventually lodging in one of his lungs. Reagan's life was saved at George Washington University Hospital.

Standing on the sidewalk when it all happened was a 37-year-old Brazilian photographer named Sebastiao Salgado. A former economist, Salgado had spent the past decade documenting famine and civil war in Africa; in 1979 he joined the Magnum Photo agency; he happened to be in Washington D.C. in March of 1981 and was on hand to cover the president's speech at the Washington Hilton. He was the only professional photographer to record what happened when Hinckley fired, and his images appeared on newspaper front pages and magazine covers around the world.

It was a desperate, frightening time for Americans that day--take it from someone who spent the day watching network news anchormen (no women, no CNN) trying to piece together conflicting reports on the president's health. The situation wasn't helped when Secretary of State Alexander Haig--a former Army general and Nixon White House chief of staff--went into the White House press room to assure the country that everything was all right. In fact, he did the opposite.

The Vice-President of the United States, George H.W, Bush, happened to be travelling that day, and, quite naturally, the press wanted to know who was calling the shots while president was being operated on. Haig replied, "Don't worry. As of now I am in control here in the White House." Today it is generally understood that Haig was not in fact rejiggering the constitutional line of authority--when the president is incapacitated, the vice-president assumes control, whether he's in the White House or not--but on March 30, 1981 the statement made it sound as if Haig was unaware of such legal niceties.  At best. At worst, he was simply setting the constitution aside.

It was a moment that would haunt him for the rest of his days. When he died in 2010, the New York Times ran an obituary by Tim Weiner with three brilliant opening paragraphs:

Alexander Haig, the four-star general who served as a confrontational secretary of state of President Ronald Reaga and a commanding White House chief of staff as the Nixon administration crumbled, died Saturday at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, according to a hospital spokesman.He was 85.

Mr. Haig was a rare American breed: a political general. His bids for the presidency quickly came undone. But his amibtion to be president was thinly veiled, and that was his undoing. He knew, Reagan's aide Lyn Nofziger once said, that "the third paragraph of his obit" would detail his conduct in the hours after President Reagan was shot on March 30, 1981.

That day, Secretary of State Haig wrongly declared himself the acting president. "The helm is right here," he told members of the Reagan cabinet in the White House Situation Room, "and that means right in this chair for now, constitutionally, until the vice president gets here." His words were taped by Richard V. Allen, then the National Security Advisor.

Haig "in control" in the White House press room
It was the vision of Haig hotly addressing the press that I remember best from that day. This image of that moment--I cannot find a credit for the picture--became iconic and almost fondly remembered, once we learned to laugh about Haig's misstep. That's the way history works sometimes.


  1. Mr. David Schonauer,
    Surprising are your comments that Salgado was the only professional photographewr on the scene of the attempted assasination of Ronald Reagan. Ron Edmonds of the Associated Press won the Pulitzer prize for sopt news photography with his coverage, I was named nominated finalist in the Pulitzer competition and my photographs of the attempt won News Photograph of the year in the National Press Photographers' Association for my photographic coverage of the event while working for the old United Press International. Surprising!

  2. Excuse me, the recent comment that says Diego should say Don Rypka