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Ronald Reagan: Grace Under the Scalpel

The 'Great Communicator' Strikes Again

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But the coup de grace, the witticism most repeated and best remembered from that day, was delivered by the President as he was being moved from gurney to operating table just before surgery.

That he looked up at his surgeons and jokingly expressed the hope they were Republicans has been confirmed by eyewitnesses, and is pretty much beyond doubt. But the precise words he used vary depending upon who is telling the tale:

  1. "Please tell me you're Republicans." (Lou Cannon, biographer)
  2. "Please tell me you are all Republicans." (Nancy Reagan)
  3. "Please assure me that you're all Republicans." (PBS)
  4. "I hope you're all Republicans." (Haynes Johnson, historian)

None of the above are firsthand accounts, of course. And although we might hope and expect to find more agreement in the testimonies of those who were actually present in the operating room, alas, we do not.

The head surgeon speaks

Dr. Joseph Giordano, who headed the George Washington University Hospital trauma team that operated on Reagan, recollected the incident in a Los Angeles Times article just a few days after it happened. His version of events, corroborated by Reagan's personal physician, who was also in the room, was later recapped in Herbert L. Abrams' book, The President Has Been Shot, as follows:

3:24 p.m. Reagan was wheeled into the operating room. He had lost about 2,100 cc of blood, but his bleeding had slowed and he had received 4 1/2 replacement units. As he was moved from the stretcher to the operating table, he looked around and said, "Please tell me you're all Republicans." Giordano, a liberal Democrat, said, "We're all Republicans today."

Reagan's own version, reported years later in his memoir, An American Life, differs only slightly, though in a manner that's especially interesting from a storytelling perspective:

Within a few minutes after I arrived, the room was full of specialists in virtually every medical field. When one of the doctors said they were going to operate on me, I said, "I hope you're a Republican." He looked at me and said, "Today, Mr. President, we're all Republicans."

On the question of credibility, let's be frank. The surgeon, Giordano, was lucid, focused and in command when this incident took place; President Reagan, by all accounts including his own, was weak and groggy. Giordano told the story less than a week after it happened; Reagan didn't write it down until many years later. The odds favor Giordano.

That's show biz

But consider, if it were up to you to choose one and only one verbatim account, which you would want for a screenplay of these events:

  1. REAGAN: (to surgeons) I hope you're all Republicans.
    GIORDANO: We're all Republicans today.
  2. REAGAN: (to head surgeon) I hope you're a Republican.
    GIORDANO: Today, Mr. President, we're all Republicans.

It's a no-brainer. As a set-up for Giordano's response, Reagan's line works far better when phrased in the singular and addressed to the head surgeon alone. Indeed, the whole couplet, as rendered by the President, evinces a polish that only an expert storyteller could give it, while Giordano's version comes across as clunky, but, well... real.

They didn't call Reagan "The Great Communicator" for nothing.

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