On March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan became the only president to survive being shot while in office, and in the process taught the nation something about meeting a crisis with grit, grace, and humor.
It happened sixty-nine days into Reagan’s presidency, while he was leaving a speaking engagement at the Washington Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. As the president walked toward his waiting limousine, a deranged young man fired six shots, grievously wounding White House press secretary Jim Brady and hitting a police officer and Secret Service agent. Another agent shoved Reagan into the limo, and the car sped away.
At first no one realized the president had been shot. Reagan, who felt an excruciating pain, thought he’d broken a rib. He soon began coughing up blood, and the limo headed for the hospital. As he walked into the emergency room, his knees turned rubbery, and he went down.
It would be years before Americans learned how close Reagan came to dying. “He was right on the margin,” one of his doctors later recalled. The assassin’s bullet had ricocheted off the limo, pierced his side, and lodged close to his heart. But that night a relieved country laughed as it learned Reagan’s first words to First Lady Nancy: “Honey, I forgot to duck” (a line borrowed from
boxing great Jack Dempsey a half century earlier when he lost the heavyweight championship).
Reagan’s sense of humor never lagged. “I hope you’re a Republican,” he cracked to a doctor as they wheeled him into the operating room.
The 70-year-old president returned to the White House a few days later, temporarily weakened but resolved to rededicate himself to his country. A few words in his diary speak volumes of his determination and faith. “Whatever happens now, I owe my life to God and will try to serve him in every way I can,” he wrote.