Honey, I forgot to duck

Forty years ago this week the third Illinoisan to sit in the Oval Office delivered a remarkable address to a joint session of Congress. The address was noteworthy not so much for what was said, but because it was delivered at all. The speech marked the President’s full return to work after becoming the fifth American President to be shot by an assassin’s bullet; and the only one of the five to survive the shooting. He survived in part because of the heroics and sacrifice of two other Illinoisans.

Ronald Reagan was born and raised in northwestern Illinois, the only President to grow up in the Prairie State. He moved to California to pursue an acting career and entered politics there, serving two terms as Governor before being elected to the Presidency in 1980.

Reagan came to office at a difficult time for America. American diplomats were held hostage in Iran, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan and was expanding its reach into Central America. An energy crisis and inflation were crushing the economy at home. Confidence in America was at an all-time low.

In addition to these challenges, Reagan was confronting an unusual quirk of history when he took office. Going back to 1840, every American President elected in a year ending in zero had died in office, four of them from assassins’ bullets, three of illness.

On March 30, 1981, Reagan suddenly faced the same fate.

That afternoon Reagan had delivered a speech at the Washington Hilton hotel a short distance from the White House. Reagan finished the speech, left the stage and walked outside to his limousine, waiting just a few feet from the door. At 2:27 p.m., disaster struck.

A deranged would-be assassin, obsessed with a Hollywood actress, had worked his way into the small crowd of television technicians on the sidewalk next to the building. As Reagan exited, the gunman pulled a .22 caliber revolver from his pocket and fired six shots in the space of 1.7 seconds.

Reagan of course was not alone as he stepped onto the sidewalk. First through the door was a member of Reagan’s Secret Service detail, followed by Deputy White House Chief of Staff Michael Deaver and White House Press Secretary James Brady, followed by Reagan and more Secret Service personnel.

President Reagan and James Brady (third from left)
talk with reporters - February 1981
Brady was born in Centralia, Illinois, in 1940. After graduating from the University of Illinois in 1962 he got his start in politics as a member of Senator Everett Dirksen’s staff. He managed congressional campaigns and worked as a staffer in several cabinet offices.

Brady joined the Reagan-Bush campaign in 1980. After Reagan defeated President Jimmy Carter, Brady was his spokesperson as President-Elect before being formally named White House press secretary. Brady had been having a busy day and only decided to join the President for the Hilton speech at the last minute.

On March 30, as Reagan crossed the sidewalk to get into the car, both Brady and Deaver continued walking straight ahead, toward the collection of television cameras on their way around to the opposite side of the limousine.

At that moment the first shot was fired. The television cameras were rolling, but were focused on the smiling, waving President. Brady was just out of the picture to the right. Deaver and a nearby Washington D.C. police officer are seen to flinch and duck. Unseen by the camera was the result of the first shot which hit Brady, striking him in the head just above his left eye.

A second shot struck Washington DC police officer Thomas Delahanty in the neck. Both he and Brady fell to the sidewalk next to each other.

Instantly, Secret Service agents were in action. Special Agent Jerry Parr, the leader of the detail, was less than a yard behind Reagan. As soon as the first shot was fired Parr was moving, his left hand visible in the video coming up, covering Reagan’s head while he shoves the President toward the open rear door of the car with his right.

Holding the door of the car open was another Secret Service agent, Timothy McCarthy of Chicago.

McCarthy, like Brady, was a University of Illinois alum, having attended the school from 1967 through 1971. While there McCarthy played football, earning two letters before suffering a career-ending injury. After college McCarthy, the son of a Chicago police officer, joined the Secret Service and was assigned to President Carter’s security detail. With the new President taking office in January 1981 he became one of the agents assigned to Reagan. He had drawn the duty of waiting outside the Hilton in the rain after losing a coin toss with another agent.

As Parr pushed Reagan downward and toward the limousine, McCarthy, who initially had his back to the gunman, was also reacting. The armored door of the limousine would protect Reagan from the gunfire, but though Parr was shoving him forward the President had not yet reached the door. McCarthy turned toward the sound of the gunfire and instead of ducking or diving for cover he spread his arms and legs, extending the door with his own body.

The aftermath of the assassination attempt on President Reagan. 

The third shot flew overhead, hitting a building across the street. A fourth shot, however, struck McCarthy in the chest. On the video the agent in the light gray suit is seen spreading out to protect the President, then being knocked off his feet, becoming briefly airborne from the impact of the shot, before spinning and falling to the sidewalk.

“There are plenty of people who want to change the world through the use of a weapon,” McCarthy would tell the Champaign News-Gazette years after the shooting. “In the Secret Service, we train for this all the time.”

McCarthy was not wearing a bulletproof vest at the time of the shooting, yet he put himself between the gunman and the President anyway.

“If Tim’s not there, I’m sure that either I or the President would have been hit that day,” Parr recalled.

As Reagan briefly disappeared from view behind the limousine door, police and bystanders pounced on the gunman, who continued to fire. A fifth bullet hit the armored glass of the limousine and then a sixth was fired just as Reagan and Parr tumbled into the car. The limousine then sped away, headed for the safety of the White House. For his heroism, Parr would receive a series of accolades, including an honorary doctorate from Reagan’s Illinois alma mater, Eureka College.

In the limousine, Reagan appeared unhurt, and Parr reported over the radio that he was fine and headed back to the White House. The three broadcast networks and the newly-created CNN all broke into regular programming minutes later to report that shots had been fired at President Reagan, and while three others had been hit, the President was unharmed.

But in the speeding car, Reagan felt discomfort in his side and commented to Parr that he thought the agent might have broken one of his ribs when shoving him inside. A moment later he coughed up blood and Parr directed the driver to reroute to the emergency room of George Washington University hospital. There Reagan stepped out of the limousine and even managed a smile for the surprised onlookers before walking inside. Once inside the door he collapsed.

Reagan was rushed into a trauma room where doctors found a small wound under his left arm. The sixth and final bullet had struck the limousine, then ricocheted and struck the President, stopping just an inch from his heart. Within minutes he was undergoing emergency surgery to remove the bullet.

A short time later the ambulance carrying McCarthy arrived at the same ER. A doctor asked him what happened. McCarthy replied, “I got in front of the shooter.”

He too went to the operating room just a short distance from the President. Both operations were successful and the two men would have a memorable conversation before being released from the hospital days later.

Brady’s condition was much more serious. So serious in fact that most of the nation’s major media outlets reported that Brady had died.

George W. Bush and several White House Press Secretaries, including
James Brady (second from right) with his wife Sarah (far right), 2006
In fact, Brady was still in surgery at GWU which saved his life, but not without a terrible cost. The bullet left Brady partially paralyzed and wheelchair-bound. Following the shooting Brady and his wife, Sarah, became fierce advocates for gun control. Federal gun control legislation passed in 1993 was named the Brady Bill in his honor. He would undergo a series of surgeries over several years, but never fully regain his speech. When Brady died in 2014 the cause of death was tied to his wounds.

Though Brady did not conduct another briefing, he held onto the title of White House press secretary. Brady’s deputy, Larry Speakes, as well as everyone who followed him in the job during the Reagan administration served as “Acting Press Secretary.” In 2000 the White House press room was officially renamed the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room.

Among the neurosurgeons who operated on Brady that afternoon was another man with Illinois connections, Dr. Arthur Kobrine, who had attended medical school at Northwestern University. One of his professors at Northwestern had been Dr. Dan Ruge, who on March 30, 1981, was White House physician. Ruge had been named to the White House medical post based in part on the recommendation of his friend Dr. Loyal Davis, a Chicago neurosurgeon whose daughter, Nancy, was now First Lady of the United States.

When Nancy Reagan arrived in the ER and saw her husband for the first time, the President looked up and uttered the quip which has gone down in history as a reflection of his coolness and grace under the intense stress of the moment.

“Honey, I forgot to duck,” the President said.

Officer Delahanty, an 18-year police veteran, was operated on by surgeons in bulletproof vests to remove the explosive “Devastator” bullet which was lodged in his neck. He suffered permanent nerve damage and retired from police work. Reagan returned to the White House less than two weeks later, and McCarthy went back to work with the Secret Service.

Speaking before that joint session of Congress on April 28, 1981, Reagan praised McCarthy as the man “who placed his body between mine and the man with the gun simply because he felt that’s what his duty called for him to do.”

McCarthy remained on the President’s detail into the following year, then was assigned to lead the Secret Service’s Chicago office. McCarthy retired from the Secret Service in 1993 and became police chief in Orland Park a year later. In 2016 he was named Chief of Police of the Year by the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. He retired in 2020.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan returning from the hospital
after the assassination attempt 
The attempt on the life of the third Illinoisan to become President had long-lasting implications for everyone involved and for the nation as a whole. Reagan’s life was saved by a professional and devoted security detail, talented surgeons and a bit of luck. The nation was spared the horror of a fifth Presidential assassination in no small part by the heroism and dedication of the Illinoisans who raced to save the life of the President on that day.