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Thirty-three years ago today, on March 30, 1981, mad gunman John Hinckley shot President Ronald Reagan and several others outside the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. Reagan and his press secretary James Brady were the most seriously wounded but two Secret Service officers were also injured. Brady was disabled for life. Reagan recovered–much more slowly, in fact, than press reports and some historical accounts record–and went on to serve two full terms. The 1981 incident was the last up-close-and-personal Presidential assassination attempt in U.S. history, meaning, the last one where the would-be assassin was face to face with his target, and the last assassination attempt with a reasonable chance of success.
Hinckley, a 25-year-old ne’er-do-well from Texas, was mentally ill. He became obsessed with the 1976 Martin Scorsese film Taxi Driver, strongly identifying with the antihero, Travis Bickle, played by Robert DeNiro. In the movie Bickle becomes infatuated with a 12-year-old prostitute, played by then child actress Jodie Foster. By 1980 Foster was in college at Yale. Hinckley followed her there, wrote her letters and tried to call her. She rejected him. Refusing to take no for an answer, Hinckley continued to stalk her. Then he hit on the idea of assassinating the President to show Ms. Foster just how far he’d go to win her heart. I’m not sure how killing the leader of the free world would cause a person to fall in love with you, but he was nuts. The President at that time was Jimmy Carter. Hinckley kinda-sorta planned the murder of Carter in the fall of 1980, but by the time he was ready to go Carter had been replaced as President by Ronald Reagan.
Hinckley saw in a newspaper–while eating breakfast at McDonald’s–that Reagan had a speaking engagement at the Hilton that day, Monday, March 30. Hinckley had come to Washington a few days before to carry out his plans and decided this was the time. He wrote another letter to Jodie Foster, then loaded up his revolver–a cheap “Saturday Night special”–with exploding bullets and staked out the entrance to the hotel. Reagan and his entourage arrived about 2:30 PM. The President walked right past him. Hinckley took out his piece and started blasting away.
The Secret Service immediately pushed Reagan into the limo, and they were off to the hospital. At first neither Reagan nor the agents around him realized he’d been hit. However, he started coughing up blood and everyone knew there was a serious problem. Although the Reagan White House issued cheery bulletins claiming the President wasn’t hit that badly, in reality the wound was extremely dangerous. Reagan lost half the blood in his body. During emergency surgery the bullet was removed. Reagan’s recovery lasted several months; he wasn’t truly back to form until he addressed Congress in January 1982.
Hinckley, in the meantime, was kept carefully under guard. He was among the very last high-profile criminals to successfully plead not guilty by reason of insanity. Legislators in many states and the federal level were outraged and quickly rewrote the laws to limit or eliminate the defense. His legal victory meant little in reality, though; for the last 33 years he’s been a ward of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington. Some doctors claim he poses no danger to society, and he’s allowed extended visits outside the hospital, but he will probably never live as a free man again.
Jodie Foster was quite understandably traumatized by these events. She refuses to speak about Hinckley or the incident in public and has been known to cut short interviews and walk away if it’s ever brought up. She has gone on to lead an extremely productive and creative life, winning two Oscars and directing various films and TV episodes (most recently an episode of House of Cards).
U.S. Presidents live their lives, at least while in office, in a curious bubble of security and danger. They’re surrounded by Secret Service agents at almost all times, but as leaders of a democratic nation by definition they have to mingle with the people too. It’s really a miracle of fate that Ronald Reagan did not become the fifth U.S. President to die by assassination. If he had, the history of the world since 1981 would be very different.