The day Reagan was shot: an exclusive first-hand account

Editor’s Note: Richard V. Allen is Visiting Scholar at The National Constitution Center and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, 2010-11. He was Ronald Reagan’s Chief Foreign Policy Adviser 1977-1980, and served as his first National Security Adviser, 1980-82. Allen is Senior Fellow at The Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, Stanford University. March 30 marks the 30th anniversary of the day President Reagan was shot. Allen wrote this first-hand account of the events of the day exclusively for Constitution Daily.

Ronald Reagan’s 70th day in office – March 30, 1981 — began like most others. He arrived at the Oval Office for a preliminary staff meeting outlining the day’s events and then settled in with a bit of paperwork, before I would arrive to deliver his national security briefing.

My day had begun at 6 AM — a brief chat with our seven children and then into the waiting car for the eight-minute drive to the White House.

There I began preparations for the final draft of the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), the top-secret distillation of the most important intelligence items and trends. It contained the most sensitive overnight intelligence from all domestic and foreign sources and was available only to the President and a few other select officials.

After working on the PDB, I presided over a National Security Council Staff meeting, then conferred with the senior Middle East specialist, Geoff Kemp. I returned to my office and took a call from Sen. Bill Bradley (D-NJ) about the Strategic Petroleum Reserve; the issue was levels of funding.

This morning with the President would be different. He had scheduled a call with German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, whom he’d met twice before becoming President. The call would be about a range of matters, including the increasingly volatile situation in Poland at the Gdansk shipyard, where the Solidarity Labor Union movement was making important inroads against the Polish communist regime. The conversation with Schmidt went on l0nger than expected, as Schmidt’s chief aide, Manfred Lahnstein, made a separate call to me.

At 9:57 AM we were back with the President, joined by Secretary of State Alexander Haig, this time discussing a prospective phone call with Mexican President Lopez-Portillo about arms flows into Central America. We then launched into the subject of the proposed sale of AWACs Early Warning planes to Saudi Arabia, F-15s for Israel, and other compensatory measures to allay Israeli fears.

By 11:45 AM I went into a meeting with Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige, his Deputy Lionel Olmer and Assistant Secretary Larry Brady. I had known Olmer and Brady and strongly urged Baldrige to put them on his team, where they served him well.

Joe Bullock, grabbed my hair, saying, “Something has happened at the White House.”

I worked through the normal lunch hour. At 2:05 PM I departed for a meeting with former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, whom I knew very well and considered a friend. He had been sent by the Japanese government to attempt to negotiate the then thorny subject of Japanese auto imports. He had met with the President. My follow-up meeting was a courtesy to a distinguished friend who had come to see my Boss. The meeting was at the L‘Enfant Plaza Hotel, a mile or so from the White House.

Concluding about 2 PM, I faced a choice—either run over to the Hilton Hotel to hear the President’s AFL-CIO address, or have a late lunch. I decided instead for a midday swim at the University Club and told my driver to take me there. I’d get lunch in my office, enjoy the swim and value the additional energy it would provide to carry me through until about midnight.

At about the 20th lap in the pool, my driver, Joe Bullock, grabbed my hair, saying, “Something has happened at the White House.” I ran though the lobby, buttoning my shirt. Joe, holding my coat and tie, jumped into the car and we drove at high speed the quarter mile to the White House, nearly colliding with the exiting car carrying chief of staff Jim Baker and Counselor Edwin Meese, on their way to the hospital.

The shots had been fired at the President at 2:27 PM; 19 minutes later Joe had pulled me from the pool. By 2:52 PM I arrived at the White House and went to Baker’s office, which was crowded with staffers who did not belong there. Haig arrived and we placed a call to Vice President George H.W. Bush, then on a plane to Texas.

Appallingly, the plane was not equipped with secure voice communications, so all we could do is tell him to “turn around.” The plane had secure written communications, so we sent a message with the few facts we knew: the bullets had been fired and press secretary Jim Brady had been hit, as had a Secret Service agent and a DC policeman. At first, the President was thought to be unscathed.

Jerry Parr, the Secret Service Detail Chief, shoved the President into the limousine, codenamed “Stagecoach,” and slammed the doors shut. The driver sped off. Headed back to the safety of the White House, Parr noticed that the red blood at the President’s mouth was frothy, indicating an internal injury, and suddenly switched the route to the hospital. With that wise choice Parr saved the President’s life. He had lost a serious quantity of blood internally and reached George Washington University Hospital Emergency Room just in time.

The astonished team of nurses and doctors went to work immediately. Though the President never lost his sense of humor throughout, and had actually walked into the hospital under his own power before his knees buckled, his condition became grave.

Meanwhile, I assembled the Crisis Management Team back at the White House. We went into action in the protected Situation Room, adjacent to my office, where only the most sensitive issues are discussed and secret decisions made. Small and lead-lined to prevent surveillance, it was an easy place for me to keep away the curiosity seekers, the irrelevant staffers and those simply not belonging there.

A uniformed, armed Secret Service officer guarded its entrance; I ordered an additional guard to be posted. For the rest of the afternoon I led the Crisis Management Team. The secretaries of Defense, State and Treasury, the Attorney General and the Director of the CIA all worked to assess the situation: the identity of the shooter, the precarious international situation and incoming messages from other heads of state.

Smooth functioning was interrupted only by the actions of one Cabinet member who, futilely, kept trying to establish with us that he was “in charge, in control, and was next in line of succession after the Vice President.” He was none of these, and we basically ignored the claims. Crisis Management procedure, recently signed by the President, designated the Vice President to be in charge, with the National Security Adviser and his team performing the operations. With the Vice President flying back to Washington, but not due to arrive until after 6 PM, we were following the correct procedures.

With the President recovering from surgery to extract the bullet that had entered his side, and Vice President Bush returning on schedule, things returned more or less to normal. Bush smoothly assumed command, and we planned the next day and beyond, until the President could return to the White House.

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