Seconds after Secret Service agent Jerry Parr wrestled Ronald Reagan into the presidential limousine outside the Washington Hilton on March 30, 1981, he had to make a critical decision: Should the car rush them back to the White House, or to George Washington University Hospital, just a few blocks away?
The 50-year-old agent did not know how badly Reagan was hurt, or exactly what crisis was on his hands. What he did know was that a deranged gunman had begun firing at very close range outside the hotel on that grim, gray day, 70 days into Ronald Reagan’s first term as president, and that at least two men were down outside the hotel, including James Brady, the presidential press secretary.
As the limo sped away from the hotel, Parr looked at the president, who was 70 years old then. His face seemed gray and his lips were a little blue. But nothing else seemed overtly, seriously wrong. Weighing his options, Parr was concerned that if they took the president to the hospital and he hadn’t been seriously injured, “it might trigger a financial crisis,” according to a new book by Del Quentin Wilber, Rawhide Down (Henry Holt, $27).
“I think Parr was worried that if he’s wrong and the president goes there, the world would start reporting, ‘Oh my God, there’s something wrong with the president,’” Wilber said in an interview with The Fiscal Times. “Then the stock markets would tank—that’s what was going on in his mind. He did not want to be wrong and cause a panic.”
Suddenly, blood—frothy red blood—appeared on the president’s lips. Reagan thought he had cut his lip and began mopping the blood with a handkerchief, but Parr knew better. This was a sign of a lung injury, as his Secret Service training had taught him. He knew, now, exactly what to do.
“I think we should go to the hospital,” Parr told Reagan. “Okay,” said the president.
They were about a mile from GW, and with “lights flashing and sirens screaming,” they sped over. The president, in duress, insisted on walking into the hospital. It was 2:30 p.m. Shortly thereafter, he collapsed and was taken into trauma care.
The bullet inside the president’s body came within an inch of his heart—and Parr’s quick actions and the decision to drive to the hospital helped save Reagan’s life, as did the extraordinary actions of the doctors and nurses that day. That afternoon, as the world reeled, John W. Hinkley, Jr., a 25-year-old from Texas, was identified as the shooter.
To write a complete account of the assassination attempt, Wilber interviewed more than 130 people (including Jerry Parr, who later became a pastor) and gained access to Secret Service and FBI reports, diaries, transcripts, court records, and other documents. Wilber, a Washington Post reporter, found the following:
In the years after Reagan was shot, trauma care in the United States steadily improved, despite the elimination of a federal program that oversaw the development of trauma centers and emergency response systems around the country. In 1981, there were 145 Level I and Level 2 trauma centers. Today, there are more than 450 such centers, as well as 392 Level 3 centers. About 80 percent of the country’s population is within an hour of a trauma center center.
After John F. Kennedy’s death, the ranks of the Secret Service swelled. By 1973, there were 1,238 agents and by the time of the Reagan shooting, there were about 1,750 agents. “Over the years,” writes Wilber, “the Secret Service has steadily grown. In 2010, it had 3,500 agents—double the number in Jerry Parr’s day—and its budget was nearly $1.5 billion.”
“After the [Reagan] shooting, the Secret Service changed a number of procedures for the better… They installed magnetometers at the White House (and discovered that a surprising number of guns were being toted in the purses of elderly ladies taking the official tour).”
“Before I began working on this book, I didn’t realize that trauma care in the ‘60s and ‘70s was really the backwater of medicine," Wilber said. "GW only became a certified trauma center in 1979. Combine that with the recent Secret Service training that taught Parr to react in a split second, and Ronald Reagan was lucky to have lived."