Remembering Reagan with Del Quentin Wilber

It's been thirty years since the assassination attempt.

On a spring day in 1981, outside a Washington, DC, hotel, a young man from Texas fired six shots from a 22-caliber blue steel revolver. Only the sixth struck the shooter’s intended target: President Ronald Reagan, code name Rawhide.

Too young to have witnessed that scene, Washington Post reporter Del Quentin Wilber was covering a federal court hearing decades later in which Reagan’s would-be assassin, John Hinckley Jr., was requesting more freedom from the hospital where he had lived since 1982, when he was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

“I was just amazed that I was sitting fifteen feet from a man who nearly took the life of one of the most revered presidents in recent history,” Wilber remembered. “And he showed absolutely no emotion — his face was a blank mask.”

The memory haunted Wilber until “I went to the library and looked up books about the assassination attempt and didn’t find any that satisfied my curiosity. Amazingly, there wasn’t a book that told the story of that dramatic day.” The reporter started making calls — to retired Secret Service agents, to the physicians whose famous patient lost more than half of his blood that day, and to others. Drawing on never-before-seen documents, exclusive interviews, and well-guarded recordings, Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan tells the story its own author once yearned to read.

“This story has been incomplete for the last thirty years, and I wanted to get it on the record before memories faded,” said Wilber, who will be at Books Inc. (1760 Fourth St., Berkeley) on Wednesday, April 6. “A lot of people and historians have begun to more closely scrutinize Reagan and his presidency in recent years.” This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the assassination attempt — which “played a sizeable role in what led to Reagan’s ultimate success.”

Reagan, an avid rancher, loved his code name, for it signified Wild West toughness. And he must have been tough indeed to survive the shooting, Wilber said. After all, Reagan was seventy years old when Hinckley’s bullet ricocheted off the president’s waiting limousine, penetrated his left side, and lodged in his lung.

Writing about this still-controversial, love-him-or-hate-him head of state was “a daunting challenge,” Wilber said. “As an author, you cannot have a better character at the center of your story than Ronald Reagan. He started with nothing, became a radio personality, a movie star, the president of the actors’ union, a two-term governor of California, and a three-time presidential candidate. Even in his late sixties, he didn’t give up on his dream to win the presidency, and in 1980 he became the oldest man ever elected to the office.

“Regardless of what you think about Reagan’s politics, his story — and the story of that harrowing day in March 1981 — makes for a very dramatic narrative,” Wilber continued. “I also found him to be more intelligent than many people gave him credit for. For example, he took the time to completely rewrite the speech he delivered on the day he was shot — and he did a great job of it.” 7 p.m., free.

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