Remembering A Dark Day In America: 40 Years Ago, President Reagan Was Shot

ronald reagan shot

It might be hard to fathom for some, but President Ronald Reagan was shot 40 years ago this week. Reagan was coming out of the Washington D.C. Hilton Hotel after delivering a speech to the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Union.

As Reagan stepped out of the hotel, headed for his limousine, shots rang out.

The Secret Service did exactly what they were trained to do should this dreaded moment ever arise, and put their bodies between oncoming bullets and the president’s body.

Still, President Reagan was hit. 

Forty years later, it seems like a hundred years have passed since that awful day. We have seen six more presidents, a few more wars, and technology that we use every day without even thinking about it that we could not even dream of back then.

We have gone on to witness the even greater horrors of September 11, 2001.

It might sound cliched, but America was a different place then. There are plenty of stats to prove that: a gallon of gas was $1.25, the average cost of a new house was $78,200. Of course the whole world watched as Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer were wed that July.

We went to the movies and watched “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Superman II.” We were listening to music from Blondie and Queen, and your humble Political Insider Correspondent was 16, a sophomore in high school, watching something brand new called MTV.

It must have been an unusually warm spring day. My recollections of that day were coming home from school, and coming in the back door of our house. My mom was sitting at the kitchen table, watching a small black and white television that was on a counter just opposite the table. She barely looked up when I opened the door.

I remember asking what happened, what was going on, and she said that the president had been shot.

She wasn’t upset to the point of tears, but she was visibly shaken. I could almost guess what she was thinking about, or who: John Kennedy.

Being someone who was raised in a politically conservative family, I probably knew more about politics than my friends. I had heard my parents’ stories of where they were when JFK was shot.

My mom, talking about how her soap opera was interrupted by a tearful and visibly shaken Walter Cronkite. She tried to call my dad at his job and couldn’t get through, all the phone lines were jammed.

I immediately sat down with her and watched. Because I knew the stories, I was thinking about John Kennedy, too. I remember wondering if I was also going to have memories of a president being assassinated in my lifetime. Would I be like my parents and remember where I was years later?

In the days that followed, I remember seeing people on TV talk about how, through what must have been a really scary time for him, Ronald Reagan kept his composure for the sake of his country, and his sense of humor. I think they were both equally important.

I remember watching First Lady Nancy Reagan being brought to the hospital, looking extremely worried and shaken, Secret Service agents surrounding her. I remember hearing about how Reagan said to his wife, “Honey, I forgot to duck.”

And in a practical, self-preserving kind of way, said to his doctors, “I hope you are all Republicans.”

I remember thinking in the days that followed, how quickly he recovered. I remember him being released from the hospital, how he walked right out the front door. As an adult I know now that was to show the rest of the world he was OK. 

Not just him, but America.

I am sure that I went on with my teen age life. School, friends, going out, clothes, hair, make-up, boys, you know 16-year old girl priorities. But forty years later, I can look back and I knew that day there was something terribly wrong. 

The other thing I remember now, is that the whole day and night, watching the coverage with my parents, I don’t remember peoples’ worry and grief hinging on whether they were a Republican or Democrat.

I don’t know that that would happen today. I am sure that there were people who hated Ronald Reagan just as much as they despise Donald Trump.

Maybe it is because of something simple, like the lack of a 24-hour news cycle, or no social media.

But maybe it was something more, something that doesn’t seem to exist anymore. We all think we know, but it is that one thing it is hard to put your finger on.

But even as a 16-year old teenager from the Midwest, I could see that on that horrible day, we were all Americans and we just wanted our president to be OK. 


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