Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States in November 1980, winning a landslide victory against President Jimmy Carter and independent candidate John B. Anderson. A few months later, in March 1981, Reagan was nearly killed by a would-be assassin in an ambush attack that shocked the world.
Already a famous actor and major leader of the conservative movement, Reagan’s election rang in a new dawn for American politics. He was virulently anti-communist, embraced the Christian Evangelical movement and promised to slash government and enact trickle-down economics. His strong partisan leanings, a dour economy and international crises meant that he began his presidency with a middling approval rating, but the attempt on his life outside the Washington Hilton Hotel actually had nothing to do with politics.
The assassination attempt was years in the making
As John Hinckley Jr. stood in the crowd outside the hotel where President Reagan was addressing union leaders, he wasn’t thinking about the Iran Hostage Crisis, economic policy or gas prices. Instead, as he held his .22-caliber rifle, he was hoping that he’d finally manage to impress and woo the actress Jodie Foster.
Hinckley grew up the son of a wealthy oil executive in Texas and moved to Los Angeles for a time in an effort to become a screenwriter. He had little creative success but became enamored with Foster after seeing the Martin Scorsese film Taxi Driver, in which Foster played a 12-year-old sex trafficking victim alongside Robert DeNiro’s disaffected cabbie and wannabe assassin.
He moved up to New Haven, Connecticut when Foster began attending Yale and slipped love letters under her door, though she never read any of them. When the stalking failed, Hinckley decided he’d declare his love by assassinating a president.
At the time, Carter was still in the Oval Office, so Hinckley followed him on the campaign trail throughout the fall and into the winter. Hinckley went to Washington, Chicago and Nashville, waiting for the perfect time to strike. At one point, he was caught by airport police and hit with a firearms charge, though that did not discourage him.
Hinckley was mentally unwell and unable to get better with psychiatric treatment after the arrest. Eventually, his focus shifted to the new president.
As investigators later discovered, Hinckley was obsessed with John Lennon and crushed by his assassination in December. On drunk ramblings he recorded on New Year’s Eve, Hinckley declared, “I just want to say goodbye to the old year, which was nothing; total misery, total death, John Lennon is dead, the world is over, forget it.”
They also found a letter that Hinckley wrote to Foster hours before his attack but never wound up sending. He again declares his love for the young actress, who was 18-years-old at the time, and makes clear that his shooting the president was purely a play for her heart.
“Jodie, I would abandon this idea of getting Reagan in a second if I could only win your heart and live out the rest of my life with you, whether it be in total obscurity or whatever,” he wrote in the letter. “I will admit to you that the reason I'm going ahead with this attempt now is because I just cannot wait any longer to impress you. I've got to do something now to make you understand in no uncertain terms that I am doing all of this for your sake. By sacrificing my freedom and possibly my life I hope to change your mind about me.”
Hinckley fired six shots, narrowly missing direct contact with the president
Hinckley studied Reagan’s schedule, which had been printed in the newspaper, and zeroed in on his speech at the Hilton. Reagan was famously opposed to organized labor — his firing of striking air traffic controllers signaled a new dawn in labor relations — but at the beginning of his time in office, he spent some time courting union officials. So on March 30, he delivered an address to leaders of the AFL-CIO, the country’s biggest umbrella organization for organized labor.
After the speech, Reagan exited the hotel flanked by his press secretary, Jim Brady, along with Secret Service agents and police officers. As he waved to people gathered around the scene, Hinckley took his shot, firing six bullets at the group. The first shot hit Brady above the eye and the second struck police officer Thomas Delahanty in the neck. Chaos broke out as the crowd hit the deck and scrambled for cover. Hinckley prepared his third shot, this time with a clear shot at Reagan, but he was cracked in the head and taken down by an alert labor official named Alfred Antenucci.
As a result, the third shot went wide, allowing the Secret Service an opportunity to protect the president. An agent named Jerry Parr grabbed Reagan and shoved him into the limousine, with help from another agent. Meanwhile, agent Tim McCarthy put himself in the line of fire, splaying out to shield Reagan from Hinckley’s next round. The bullet instead hit McCarthy in the abdomen, puncturing his lung and sailed through his liver.
"If Tim's not there, I'm sure that either I or the president would have been hit (by the third shot) that day," Parr said years later. "The only thing between the president and this guy was (McCarthy's) big Irish body."
Parr initially called for the limousine to return to the White House, but he changed directions when Reagan started to cough up blood. Instead, he ordered the driver to take them to George Washington University Hospital. Hinckley, meanwhile, fired two more shots before being taken down by another Secret Service agent and subdued by a flurry of punches from labor officials who were standing nearby.
Reagan had a 'life-threatening' injury from the shooting
As it turned out, while the president was never hit by a direct shot, a bullet ricocheted and hit him in the chest. It pierced through his lung, putting him in grave danger — not that aides knew it at the time.
“The notion that they knew all along that something was seriously wrong is not correct. They found out when they arrived at the hospital, but they didn’t know in that immediate response. But the president was quite ill. It was a life-threatening thing, remembered James Miller, the director of the Office of Management and Budget. “The assassination attempt was a big setback. When I met with the president a few days later, I was really alarmed at how weak his voice was.”
Reagan later recalled the panic he began to feel when he started coughing up blood in the limousine and it’d dawned on him that he’d been struck by a bullet.
“No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get enough air,” he later said. “I was frightened and started to panic a little. I just was not able to inhale enough air. We pulled up in front of the hospital emergency entrance and I was first out of the limo and into the emergency room. A nurse was coming to meet me and I told her I was having trouble breathing. Then all of a sudden my knees turned rubbery. The next thing I knew I was lying face-up on a gurney and my brand-new pinstriped suit was being cut off me, never to be worn again.”
The nation was on edge as TV newscasters interrupted soap operas and other daytime programming to report on the assassination attempt. Their reporting was so rushed that they made several grave mistakes, including initially announcing that Reagan had not been hit with a bullet and that he had sustained no more than a bump while being pushed into the limousine. They also showed a video of the attack without vetting it, broadcasting extreme violence at a time when those things were largely censored.
In fact, Reagan was not only shot, he was in grave danger. The bullets that Hinckley fired were explosive and the one inside the president could have detonated at any time. Reagan underwent successful surgery, but recovery was not easy. It took him 11 days to return to the White House, where he resumed rehabilitation. McCarthy too underwent emergency surgery to remove the bullet from his neck.
Hinckley was found not guilty
Reagan went home to the White House on April 11, where he continued to recover and rehabilitate.
“The first full day at home,” he wrote in his diary on April 12. “I'm not jumping any fences and the routine is still one of blood tests, X-rays, bottles dripping into my arms but I'm home. With the let-up on antibiotics, I'm beginning to have an appetite and food tastes good for the first time.”
Sadly, Brady suffered severe brain damage from the attack and was partially paralyzed, losing control of his left arm, weakening his left leg, crippling short-term memory and inhibiting his speech. He underwent multiple surgeries after the shooting, then more a year later, and rehabilitation options were limited given the injury.
He would go on to become a leading advocate for gun control, and though Reagan opposed much of it in the ‘80s, he endorsed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993. The bill ultimately passed and was signed by President Bill Clinton. It created background checks and waiting periods to buy guns. Brady's 2014 death was ruled a homicide because it was a direct result of the shooting.
As for Hinckley, he was found not guilty for reasons of insanity when tried in 1982. The decision created an uproar, though Hinckley was confined to a psychiatric hospital for nearly 20 years after the event. He still harbored an obsession with Foster in the early years of his psychiatric treatment, but over time his mental state improved enough that he was allowed visits with his parents, who had moved nearby. He was ultimately released in 2016.