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Ronald Reagan: Grace Under the Scalpel

'Please tell me you're all Republicans,' said the President to the surgeons

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Ronald Reagan: Grace Under the Scalpel

Ronald Reagan

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The grace and humor Reagan showed after the attempt to assassinate him in 1981 had, more than any other single event, added a mythical quality to his leadership, revealing his character in a way that made it almost impossible to dislike him.

— Garry Wills, Reagan's America: Innocents at Home


I RECEIVED a note from reader Mike Ambrose, whose comments inspired an intriguing course of research into events following would-be assassin John Hinckley's attempt on Ronald Reagan's life in 1981:

At the time, I was a federal government employee. I remember the news media reporting that Reagan was awake and alert when he was wheeled into the emergency room at George Washington University Hospital — so awake and alert that he was said to have looked up at the doctors and nurses and said, "I hope you're all Republicans."

A couple of days after the assassination attempt, the Director of our office came in and told us that a good friend of hers was head nurse in the GWU Emergency Room and claimed that Reagan was not at all awake and alert when they wheeled him in, so he couldn't have looked up at the doctors and nurses and said the Republican line.


So, what's the truth of the matter? Notwithstanding media reports at the time, it's now clear from eyewitness testimony (including that of Reagan himself) that the gravely wounded President was indeed only semi-conscious at best as he was wheeled into the emergency room after the assassination attempt. In his memoir, An American Life, Reagan remembers:

We pulled up in front of the hospital emergency entrance and I was first out of the limo and into the emergency room. A nurse was coming to meet me and I told her I was having trouble breathing. Then all of a sudden my knees turned rubbery. The next thing I knew I was lying face up on a gurney...

But it's also true that fully an hour went by between the moment Reagan was delivered to the emergency room and when he was anesthetized for surgery — time enough for him to regain enough composure to utter the famous quip. In fact, by all accounts, Reagan turned into a veritable joke machine during the hour-long wait.

'All in all, I'd rather be in Philadelphia'

The first words he uttered upon regaining consciousness were to a nurse who happened to be holding the president's hand. "Does Nancy know about us?" he quipped.

When Nancy herself arrived a few minutes later, Reagan greeted her with the comment, "Honey, I forgot to duck." (He was quoting prizefighter Jack Dempsey, who had said the same thing to his own wife after losing the heavyweight championship to rival Gene Tunney in 1926.)

Reagan even found occasion to pay homage to W.C. Fields. When a nurse asked him how he was feeling, he responded, "All in all, I'd rather be in Philadelphia." (The original line, which Fields had proposed for his own epitaph, was: "On the whole, I would rather be in Philadelphia.")

And, according to Edwin Meese, Reagan's Attorney General, the President stumped him and other members of the White House staff with the greeting, "Who's minding the store?" (Fortunately, no one told him it was Al "I'm in charge here" Haig.)

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