It was a sunny Monday and I was a Junior at the University of Nebraska. I’ll never forget that day, March 30th, 1981.
I had arrived at my Econ 101 class a few minutes early, I suppose around 12:20pm. It was a 12:30 class. I had stopped at the vending machine in the hall, as normal, and was drinking a Pepsi and chatting with classmates.
I checked my watch and noted to the guy sitting next to me that Professor Reiffler was late. Reiffler was never late but, it had only been a few minutes so, no big deal, I thought.
Reiffler entered the auditorium from the front as he always did at 12:35pm, went straight to the lectern and made the announcement.
“I am cancelling today’s class. I suggest you all find the closest TV and watch the news. President Reagan was shot just a few minutes ago. Again, I am canc…”
He didn’t need to tell me twice. Nor for that matter, did he need to tell anyone more than once. Before Professor Reiffler could finish his sentence, I, and better than 100 others, were out the door.
I made a bee line to the Student Union where I found a silent crowd gathered in the media room.
Reagan HAD been shot. How bad was it? Not even news anchors in those early minutes knew. Somebody said James Brady was dead. Brady was Reagan’s press secretary. Somebody said Reagan had NOT been hit. Somebody else said he HAD been hit.
Reagan was indeed hit but it wouldn’t be for some time that we would learn just how close to being killed he was.
Finally, video tape of the shooting flashed onto the screen.
It looked like chaos after a split second of astonishment.
You heard a shot and everybody, including the President, seemed amazed and sort of looked around…Just for that split second second. Then, everything went crazy. Suddenly, Reagan was shoved violently into the open limo, a body flew backwards. Another was face down on the pavement. There was a swarm. Yelling. Shouting. Wrestling. I could see guns.
They had the guy.
John Hinckley we would find out later.
We found out a great deal about Hinckley. He was trying to impress Jodi Foster.
Then of course, there was the press conference from the White House. Larry Speaks was trying to tell reporters what he knew but the problem was, it didn’t seem as though Speaks knew anything at all. He dodged and weaved his way around the questions and there seemed to be a great deal of rustling about, reporters jockeying for position, shouting questions.
Then the news went back to the video. They just kept showing it over and over, trying to discern exactly who was who, where they were standing, who got hit, and Reagan, was he shot or not? They finally said he WAS hit and was headed for surgery.
That’s when one of the strangest moments in presidential press conferences I can remember, happened.
Live, back to the White House press room and Alexander Haig, General Haig, the Secretary of State, made the oddest announcement.
“Constitutionally gentlemen, you have the president, the vice president and the secretary of state, in that order, and should the president decide he wants to transfer the helm to the vice president, he will do so. As for now, I’m in control here, in the White House, pending the return of the vice president and in close touch with him. If something came up, I would check with him, of course.”
What? What happened to the Speaker of the House? Isn’t the Speaker of the House supposed to be the 3rd in line? Secretary of State 4th?
Haig looked ill, almost as though he would pass out right then and there. I remember telling someone, a complete stranger, that something had gone wrong. Haig was not supposed to be in charge. Where was Bush? Where was the Speaker? Something has gone really wrong I said to the person next to me.
The whirlwind of reports, clarifications, news, videos and photos continued throughout the day.
For those around in 1981, that is a much remembered day and thankfully, it didn’t turn out like that November day in 1963.
Reagan, only 69 days into his first term, would go on to become one of the greatest Presidents of the 20th century. He would win the cold war without firing a shot and consoled a nation after the Challenger disaster.
Reagan didn’t just talk about the shining city on the hill…He showed it to us.
His humor defused many situations and his leadership paved many roads.
Reagan made us proud to be Americans.
31 years ago today, we came all too close to never realizing the enormity of the man or realizing our own potential through him.
Ronald Reagan wasn’t bulletproof…
But he sure made us feel WE were.