Sixty-nine days into his first term as president, Ronald Wilson Reagan became the target of an assassin. Struck in the chest by a bullet and badly wounded, the 70-year-old president might not have survived. It was a close call. Political zealots familiar with Tecumseh’s curse grimaced at the thought that another president elected in a year ending in zero stretching all the way back to 1840—William Henry Harrison (1840), Abraham Lincoln (1860), James A. Garfield (1880), William McKinley (1900), Warren G. Harding (1920), Franklin D. Roosevelt (1940), and John F. Kennedy (1960)—might yet die in office. It was not to be. Reagan survived his wound and lived until the end of his second term in January 1989.
Before he was shot that day in March 1981, Ronald Reagan had lived a charmed life. Born in Dixon, Illinois, in 1911, he was the son of an alcoholic salesman and might have been expected to remain a small town boy, perhaps working in a factory or following in his father’s footsteps as a salesman. He wanted more out of life. Young Reagan eventually landed a job reporting college football games on the radio before heading west to become a B-actor in Hollywood motion pictures. He appeared in army training films during World War II. Originally a New Deal Democrat, Reagan changed his party affiliation as he came to recognize the excesses of liberal politics.
He emerged on the political scene in 1964 after delivering a rousing speech on behalf of conservative Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. The party nominee lost to Democratic incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson in an epic landslide, thus setting back conservatism for years to come, but Reagan’s political star was on the rise. Two years later, he was elected governor of California, and reelected in 1970. The affable Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford for the 1976 Republican nomination and came close to winning, but ultimately he could not overtake the incumbent. Yet numerous Republicans experienced buyers’ remorse, lamenting that the party had failed to coalesce behind the right man.
The 1976 defeat appeared to be the end of the road for Reagan’s political ascendancy. Conventional wisdom suggested that he would be too old for another try in 1980. Yet he defied the odds. In many ways, the boy from Dixon had spent his life defying the odds. He could do it one more time. And so he did, winning his party’s nomination and handily defeating the Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, in the general election.
As a new president, Reagan frequently appeared before business conventions to promote his vision for America. On March 30, 1981, he appeared at one such event held in the Washington, DC, Hilton Hotel. He had been invited to address an afternoon session of the Building and Construction Trades Department of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). It was supposed to be just another speech before just another group in a lifetime filled with those types of speeches. A man with a gun changed all that, making the day one of the most memorable in twentieth century American history.
The man with the gun was named John W. Hinckley Jr. Standing outside the hotel, young Hinckley opened fire with a Röhm RG-14 handgun when the president stepped outside the building. Tackled by nearby security personnel and immediately taken into custody, Hinckley nonetheless accomplished his mission, wounding Reagan and three others. James Brady, Reagan’s press secretary, was struck in the head. The grievous wound did not kill him, but Brady was left paralyzed and suffering from a variety of cognitive problems. His death in 2014 resulted from complications from the shooting. For his part, Reagan suffered a gunshot wound in his chest and lower arm. He nearly died.
Hinckley was a disturbed young man who was suffering from mental illness, but he was not insane. He had become infatuated with the actress Jodie Foster and, in his confused state, he believed that shooting President Reagan would impress Foster. Based on his behavior, John Hinckley, Jr. appeared to be a Type 2 shooter. He acted for neurotic reasons, not political purposes. His need for acceptance, recognition, and status—at least from Jodie Foster—was fierce. As James W. Clarke observed in his book American Assassins, a Type 2 actor always has at least one significant other in his life, and the rejection or indifference of the significant other drives the shooter to act. Clarke wrote that a Type 2 actor is “an anxious, emotional, and ultimately depressed person who is primarily concerned with his or her personal problems and frustrations and only secondarily with causes or ideals.”
Complicating an analysis of Hinckley’s motives is the thorny question of his state of mind. Typically, a Type 2 actor, for all of his depression and neurotic tendencies, is sane in the sense that he recognizes the nature of reality. He does not hear imaginary voices urging him to act. He does not believe he can fly. In short, he does not suffer from severe cognitive distortion.
By this definition, Hinckley was sane when he shot President Reagan. He knew what he was doing and he understood that there would be repercussions. Nonetheless, he chose to act, as he explained in a letter he wrote to Jodie Foster, “because I just cannot wait any longer to impress you.” The act, he believed, was his last opportunity to win the woman of his dreams. As he put it, “at least give me the chance, with this historical deed, to gain your respect and love.”
Despite later assessments that he was mentally ill but not insane, Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity and confined to St. Elizabeth Hospital in Washington, D.C. Beginning in 2005, Hinckley was granted greater freedoms, including unsupervised visits with relatives. The duration of the visits grew progressively longer until Hinckley won his release from the hospital in September 2016. His case triggered a new chapter in the ongoing debate over gun control and treatment for mental illness.
As for Ronald Reagan, the shooting made him a wildly popular political figure. He emerged from the hospital 12 days after the episode and returned to the White House. On April 25, 1981, he held a cabinet meeting. On April 28, he addressed a joint session of Congress and was met with a standing ovation even from Democratic members. He had been struggling to find his way before Hinckley arrived at the Hilton Hotel that day. Afterward, Reagan’s popularity skyrocketed. He became almost a mythic figure to many Americans, for he had faced the possibility of death with grace and wit. He was to endure many highs and lows during his tenure in office, but Reagan enjoyed tremendous good will from his reaction to the shooting. Even events such as the Iran-Contra scandal during his second term, which might have decimated another presidency, only marginally diminished his good standing with the public.
Reagan retired from the presidency in January 1989, a month before his 78th birthday. During the 1990s, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, a degenerative condition that robs the afflicted of their memories and, to some extent, their identity. In his final public act, he issued a farewell letter to the American people in November 1994. “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life,” the president wrote. “I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.”