Friday, March 12, 2010

Ann and Mike on the Reagan Assassination Attempt

Mike - "I was in the press pool the day of the assassination attempt on Reagan. We had four people at the Associated Press covering the White House. We would rotate and it just happened to be my turn that day. I was sitting in the basement listening to his speech, which did not divert from the release given to us beforehand. Reagan spoke for a few minutes and then went to the VIP suite and holding area, which had an unmarked door that exited onto the street where his motorcade was waiting. I was standing with the rest of the press pool in a rope line outside of the VIP entrance.

"The story of the moment was the Solidarity Movement in Poland and whether the Soviets were going to clamp down on them. There had been some development in the story, and I wanted to get the President's comment. When the door opened and he stepped out, I shouted at him, 'Mr. President. Mr. President.' At the same time, I turned on my tape recorder to get his answer. I had barely said 'Mr. President' the second time when there was this loud pop,pop...pop,pop,pop,pop. Just like that.

"I knew it was gunshots, but I didn't see Reagan get hit. The Chief of Detail, Jerry Parr, grabbed Reagan and hurled him into the limo. Another agent slammed the door and the car took off. When I saw the wheels of the limo start to spin, I realized that now that the President was leaving, the story had stopped happening. I ran into the hotel to find a phone to call into work. I then went on to report that, 'Several shots were fired at President Reagan today as he left a downtown Washington hotel. There was no indication that the President was hit.' 

Ann - Mike, my husband, called me and said, 'Get over to George Washington University Hospital. That's where they are taking him.' When I got there, the Presidential limousine was in front and there were gunshot marks on the window. There were quite a few people outside and people were arguing about whether he had been hit or not. Some said Reagan was carried in and some said he walked in. Both were actually true. While we were waiting, I went running down Pennsylvania Avenue and took the microphone out of the closest phone booth and put it in my pocket, so no one else could use it. After 30 minutes, I saw Shelia Tate, who was Nancy Reagan's Press Secretary and yelled, 'Sheila, get someone out here to tell us what's going on! The stock market is going up and down. We need to know what's happening.' A few minutes later, Lyn Nofziger, one of Reagan's aides, came out and said, 'The president has been wounded. He is not in surgery at this time.' Meanwhile, the gurney was racing to the operating room, so he was technically right, but still misleading. I went running back to the phone booth with my microphone in my pocket. There was a drunk in the booth, so I went to a bar and screamed, 'Telephone!' I dictated a story that President Reagan was shot today and would be going into surgery. Mike and I were first on the story and we were right. I was especially pleased that my bulletin beat Sam Donaldson's.

"After Nofziger spoke, they informed us of additional briefings that would take place. I remember running down G Street with the other reporters because we wanted to get a good seat for them. The thing is that none of us knew exactly where we were going, but everyone was running in the same direction. We could have been running into the Potomac River! We eventually went into an auditorium at George Washington University Hospital, and they started briefing us on his developing medical condition. By that time, the most exciting part of the story was over and you had to fill it in with the boring little details. But so much of a story like that is about the stakeout and waiting for things to develop.

Mike - "I was still at the Hilton while this was going on. At the time, I knew that Jim Brady and a secret service officer had been wounded, and was telling a colleague what I knew. As I was describing this to her, an FBI agent asked me to come with him, as I was going to be held as a material witness. The United Press International guy, Dean Reynolds, who was our arch competition at the time, saw me being escorted into the building and followed me because he didn't want to miss anything. He also ended up getting arrested! After I was released and eventually got back to the office, I was told to write a first-person account of the story. We had computers at the time, but I was not yet comfortable using them. I was just about done writing, when everything disappeared from the screen. There was nothing to do, but start over. I got home about 2 a.m. By then, Reagan was out of surgery and there was a statement made that he was out of danger and things he said like, 'Honey, I forgot to duck.'

"As Reagan's recovery began, it was one jolly briefing after another. No one gave any clue as to how close he was to bleeding to death. Months later, we found out that we almost lost him on the operating table. The very dramatic story was of Jim Brady, Reagan's Press Secretary, because he was seriously injured and suffered brain damage. He was really well-liked by the press and had a good sense of humor. He survived and didn't lose his sense of humor, but, sadly, he was never the same again.

Ann - "One of the things that has always bothered me since that time is Jim Brady has a son who was the exact same age as our son. It could have been Mike who had been hit and not Jim Brady. It was just dumb luck. I know how this kid has been affected all of his life. Jim Brady is still alive, but has had a very tough time."

Mike - "By sheer dumb luck, we were so often in the right place at the right time during our careers in journalism. From Vietnam to Watergate, to the Reagan shooting to Reagan having cancer, to going to Moscow just as Gorbachev took power and the Communist Party was beginning to lose control, we were there and reporting. It made for a very exciting career!"

Ann Blackman is the author of "Seasons of Her Life: A Biography of Madeleine Korbel Albright," "Wild Rose" about Civil War spy Rose O’Neale Greenhow, and co-author of "The Spy Next Door," about the traitorous FBI agent Robert Hanssen. In her long career as a news reporter with Time magazine and the Associated Press, Blackman covered American politics, social policy, and the powerful personalities that make up Washington society. Mike Putzel covered the war in Vietnam, Watergate, the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, and the fall of Communism during an award-winning career with The Associated Press. He also served as Washington bureau chief of The Boston Globe, covering the Clinton White House.


Bainca said...

Amazing! I live next door to the Hinckley Hotel and have never taken the time to look up this history. Thanks for posting this. Now, you need to get a story from Brady and Hinckley!

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