by | Mar 17, 2021 | Karna Small Bodman, The Writer's Life | 10 comments

by Karna Small-Bodman

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the assassination attempt on our 40th President, Ronald Reagan…a date that is seared in my memory!  My connection began when President Reagan announced his selection of Jim Brady as White House Press Secretary and gave me the role of Deputy Press Secretary.  We stood together outside Blair House on January 6, 1981. 

from left, Presidential Press Secretary James Brady, President Ronald Reagan and Deputy Press secretary Karna Small-Bodman

I enjoyed getting to know Jim, whom we all called “The Bear” (he was like a Teddy Bear), with his friendly style and irreverent sense of humor.

Some ten weeks after the inauguration, I was scheduled to be in the staff car with Jim to accompany the President to a speech to a union group at the Hilton Hotel.  An hour before departure, I recall standing in front of Jim’s desk in the West Wing talking about how I had to return press calls and do research for his next briefing.  Jim said, “Okay. I need to go anyway, you stay here. This is just a simple speech, no big deal.  There’s another event tomorrow. You can handle the press then. I’ll see you back here after lunch.”

If I had followed the original schedule I would have been standing right next to Jim when he walked out of the Hilton Hotel with the President and the Secret Service – and that’s when John Hinkley fired six shots, “combat style,” using what he later termed “devastation bullets” he thought would explode inside the victims.  They didn’t explode for one reason: he was using a smaller gun, a .22. While other victims, including Jim, were being treated, and Hinkley was being arrested, Secret Service Agent Jerry Parr threw the President into car.

Arriving at the hospital, doctors cut away Reagan clothes for a hurried examination, and Reagan said, “Wait, that’s my new blue suit.” His famous sense of humor was evident again when, in the midst of this crisis, Nancy rushes in and he says, “Honey, I forgot to duck.” That was a phrase he remembered the famous prize fighter, Jack Dempsey, had used after a tough bout. Then, when the doctors surrounded the gurney and wheeled him into the operating room, Reagan looked up and said, “I hope you’re all Republicans.” They replied, “Today, sir, we all are.” (Some were Republicans, others were Democrats – all did a masterful job saving his life). 

What we learned later but did not announce to the nation at the time is that the bullet was lodged one inch from Reagan’s heart! When he woke up in the recovery room, once again Reagan’s sense of humor took center stage. I was told that he opened his eyes and saw a white ceiling, white walls and a beautiful nurse in a white uniform holding his hand and said, “I’m alive, aren’t I?” His next line was, “If I’d had this much attention in Hollywood, I’d still be there.”

Meanwhile, back at The White House, we were all engulfed in the crisis atmosphere. I followed some senior staff down to the Situation where members of the cabinet were gathered. I sat in a back corner and took notes during the many tense hours.

What happened? First, frantic discussion of the shooter. Who is John Hinkley? Was he a lone gunman or possibly part of a group that might target additional officials? The police and FBI were all over that one. Second, are the Allies okay? Could this be some kind of international plot against us and our friends? The State Department was checking with the protective staffs of Margaret Thatcher, Francois Mitterand, Pierre Trudeau  and others. And most important, what were the Soviets up to? The CIA and DOD had to find out if the Russians might take advantage of us during this perilous time by raising their alert levels, scrambling jets, or moving ballistic missiles? We did learn that one of their submarines was closer to our Eastern shore than it should have been.  I noted all of these developments while we also kept close watch on results from the hospital.

Two days later a memo came around ordering any staff member who had notes of the events of March 30 to turn them in so a study could be done on how we could handle a crisis better in the future. I dutifully typed mine up, quickly turned them in (without making a copy) and saw that they were classified TOP SECRET.

Fast forward 40 years! I filed a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request to the Archivist at the Reagan Library, where all those White House documents are housed, asking for a copy of my notes of March 30, 1981.  I received a very nice, but apologetic reply indicating they had located my notes but could not release them to me because, “They are not yet declassified. But remember, we have 10 million documents here – yours is in the que.”

Meanwhile, I have now written five political thrillers incorporating many of my White House experiences, writing about issues, settings, tension, and threats.”  All are on my website if you’d like to check them out. And since we Rogues often do blog about other author’s books, one of the most detailed accounts of the events of March 30 is in the book Rawhide Down (referring to President Reagan’s code name Rawhide), by Del Quentin Wilber. In this one, the author writes about how close the president came to dying, but also how brilliant surgeons saved his life. Publishers Weekly calls the book, “Gripping…a fascinating glimpse of a pivotal moment in history.” And indeed, it was.

Looking back, I constantly feel blessed that, somehow, I was spared being on site at the Hilton that fateful day.

Do you remember where YOU were when you learned about that event 4 years ago? Share your thoughts with us in a comment below, and thanks for visiting us here on Rogue Women Writers.

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  1. Carla Neggers

    What a harrowing time! Thank you for sharing your experience. I’m glad you weren’t at the Hilton that day, too.

  2. Gayle Lynds

    Wow, Karna, we’ve talked about this terrifying and potentially deadly attack before, but nevertheless you’ve brought it all back to me again. I agree with Carla – so glad you weren’t there, and safe back at the White House. Thank god Reagan survived, and had the surgeons gifted enough to save him. I remember the nonfiction book Rawhide, and the rave reviews it got. I hope you get your notes back! I’m so frustrated for you! Thanks for a stand-out blog!

    • Karna Bodman

      Thanks to you all for your kind comments. One last note about President’s humor in tough times — after he recuperated, he was invited to give a speech to a Joint Session of the Congress (where he got about a 5 min. standing ovation). Before he outlined his plans for his administration, he pulled out a letter he had received when he was in the hospital. It was from a 2nd grade boy who wrote, “Dear Mr. President – I hope you get well quick or you might have to make a speech in your pajamas!” (Which, of course, brought House down – literally)

  3. Lisa Black

    What a near miss, in a way! So glad you *weren’t* there… I do remember the day clearly. I’d come home from high school, turned on the TV (I think I was in a phase of watching General Hospital) and since, as now, I hate commmercials, I turned the sound down. I saw a news break was on. I started my homework, looked up, saw the news break was still on, and called, “Mom… I think something happened.”

  4. jennymilchman

    My goodness! Talk about not getting on the train at the last minute. I’m very glad you were safe, Karna.

  5. john sheldon

    Karna – what a blog! Who knows what would have happened if you hadn’t stayed in the office!? Thanks for this terrific description!

  6. Catherine Brenkus

    Great memories and experiences like these need to be shared more often, when Politicians showed humility. Thank you for sharing!

  7. Chris Goff

    I remember being frightened for our President, then shocked to hear John Hinkley’s name. I grew up in Evergreen. He and I are the same age, and the summer after his HS graduation, his parent’s moved to Hiwan, near the golf course. I remember meeting and seeing him at parties a few times. Much like Ted Bundt, he presented well and was the type most parents would be pleased to have a daughter bring home—except he seemed “off.” I just know, neither I nor any of my girlfriends wanted anything to do with him. His occasional appearance at parties and events had more to do with Evergreen being a small town than his acceptance. So glad you dodged a bullet, Karna.

    • Karna Bodman

      I’m amazed, Chris, that you “knew” John Hinkley (whom everyone later dubbed “a nut case.” And as you said, he seemed “off” — he certainly was. It was especially tragic to see what happened to Jim Brady, that wonderful guy so terribly wounded. That event is certainly one for the history books.

  8. Jacqueline Tillman Harty

    It was a terrifying day. I was working for New York City based US Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick and was in charge of her office at the State Department in Washington, D.C. She, and other Cabinet and high ranking officials, were immediately secured until the extent of the threat had been addressed. Except for her telling me she was being “secured,” to this day I do not know how and where she was taken. [Which was and still is fine with me!]
    Not knowing how severely the President had been hurt was agonizing. We Reagan political appointees at the State Department gathered together and watching tv, saw live all the agonizing and astonishing and terrifying events that ensued that day.