Sunday, June 5, 2011

#31: Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of President Reagan by Del Quentin Webber

2011, Henry Holt. 296 pages

I remember when Reagan was shot in 1981. I was in 2nd grade at Herbert Hoover Elementary in Iowa City, Iowa. Our teacher, Ms. Petty, told us about it in class and told us that everything would be OK. I thought then, and still think now, that Ms. Petty was cool.

Webber, a reporter for the Washington Post, pieces together what happened that day, along with short biographies of the main characters in the drama. "Rawhide Down" refers to the code name that Reagan had with the Secret Service. What other name could Reagan have had? He "absolutely loved it" according to Webber. His limo was called stagecoach, for God's sake. BTW here are some others, which Webber lists in his prologue:
1. Kennedy -- Lancer, "invoking the image of Camelot." I have to admit, to have the code name "Lancer" is awesome. Seeing as how Kennedy was a well known Ladies Man, this could have other connotations as well. Happy Birthday, Mr. President!
2. Carter -- Deacon, "because he was a former Sunday School teacher"
3. Clinton -- Eagle. There is really no reason for this.

Anyway, back to Reagan. This text reads like a detective novel, which in some ways it is. Through interviews and source research, Webber gets to some rather astonishing stories coming out of this day. Here are the five things I took away from this text, in no particular order.

1. Secret Service: a fascinating group that I want to know more about. The agent that shoved Reagan in the car that day was well known for reading Greek Philosophers and Romantic poetry. Another made himself big and took a bullet in the chest, just on reflex and instinct. Very impressive, no matter what you think of the President.

2. Hinckley was/is a complete fucking head case. Webber delves in detail into the gunman's obsession with Jodie Foster, and it is just weird. Even my thick skin was slightly punctured by his movements and writings. "Troubled" does not even begin to get to the depths of that guy's problem. As Reagan, in his first statement to his nurses after being taken off a respirator, said "What was this guy's beef?" Find out in this book.

3. Reagan, however much I am not a fan, remains someone who I would have liked to meet. The man is 70 years old, loses nearly 40% of his blood during the course of the day, and has the ability to crack jokes throughout and walk into the ER on his own two feet after taking a bullet in the chest. That, as the kids say today, is Beast. I mean, the first communication he makes with his doctors after he wakes up is to write the famous W.C. Fields quote, "On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia."

4. Perhaps the most frightening part of the book, besides the description of the terrible head wound to Jim Brady and its aftermath, was the scramble at the White House among Jim Baker, Richard Allen and Al "I am in control here" Haig. There really was no precedent for a President to have been injured in an assassination attempt and be in that gray area of the discharge of presidential duties. Webber's writing is particularly strong in this part of the text.

5. The descriptions of the surgeries made me think:
a) under no circumstances do I ever want to be shot, or to shoot at someone, or see someone get shot.
b) under no circumstances could I have ever gone to med school. My poor ass would have keeled over from shock. I would have run screaming from the ER. I don't know how those people do it.
c) under no circumstances do I ever want to have chest surgery. EVER. Good God. Just the mere mention of "Rib Separator" made me queasy. Of course, where are most of my health problems located? You guessed it, the ol' ticker. Lousy genetics; of course my caffeine and beer consumption do not help matters. Oh well, at least I know what to look forward to.
d) this was a book I did not expect to like, but I could not put it down.

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