I drove the short distance (from my apartment house) to the VP’s House. When GB finished his morning security briefing by the CIA, he took Jennifer and me with him in the limo to the helipad, located on the other side of the old observatory building from the residence. In light rain we boarded the Marine chopper, which lifted up over the British Embassy and flew above a fascinating if drizzly panorama of Washington en route to Andrews Air Force Base. GB joked about dancing with Ginger Rogers last night at the Gridiron Show. When the helo touched down alongside the waiting 707, the rotors sent sheets of water hurtling away from us. It was then only a quick walk underneath umbrellas to Air Force 2.
On board the jet were Congressmen Eligio (Kika) de la Garza (D-Texas), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, and Bill Archer (R-Texas), inheritor of GB’s 7th District seat. The VP greeted them but had (speechwriter) Vic Gold, Jennifer, and me join him in the stateroom for a continental breakfast while we discussed some of the issues likely to confront him today in Texas. GB prefers oral briefings to written ones.
Around 10:45 CST the jet came in over the broad North Texas plain, made green by generous early-spring rains that relieved last summer’s drought. It was a warm, sunny day, the perfect welcome back to Texas. We landed at Carswell AFB near Ft. Worth, a major SAC base covered with black B-52’s. On the ground were a very thrilled Jack Steel and Betty Green of our Houston office, who would spend the middle leg of the day’s trip with us. Lt. Col John Matheny (the VP’s Air Force aide), (advanceman) Mike Farley, and I headed for the control car for the motorcade into Ft. Worth. John grew up there and happily pointed out the sights.
Our first stop was the old Texas Hotel, which Hyatt has converted into a shimmering showplace with funds invested by Texas oilman Ray Hunt, a major Bush backer. (John F. Kennedy spent the last night of his life there.) Outside the hotel, facing a tightly-compacted crowd, the VP made brief remarks and unveiled a plaque with Mrs. H.L. Hunt, Ray’s mom. The motorcade then embarked on the short journey to the Tarrant County Convention Center, where the Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association were meeting. There was lunch – beef, of course – after which GB gave a strong speech in support of the President’s economic program.
Back at Carswell on board AF2, I shook hands with Ft. Worth’s congressman, Jim Wright (D), the powerful majority leader of the U.S. House. I took a seat with him and Bill Archer, and we chatted about the Legislature, in which we had all served and which the VP would address in about an hour. Also in the VIP lounge was Congressman Jim Collins (R) of Dallas. GB entertained Jack and Betty in the stateroom.
Reagan is shot
Just as the big plane was taxiing down the runway, Secret Service agent-in-charge Ed Pollard hurried up the aisle to the stateroom, saying something to Jennifer that she repeated blankly to us all: “An attempt has been made on Reagan, and two agents are down.” The thunk of takeoff seemed to underscore the news. The rumor spread quickly. We were all so stunned that it wasn’t for several minutes till someone thought to turn on the cabin TV. Reception was good for our altitude, though it kept cutting on and off whenever our plane would transmit signals of its own.
The networks had videotapes of the grisly episode outside the Washington Hilton Hotel only about 15 minutes earlier (1:30 EST). The President was leaving the hotel, having just spoken to a building-trades group, and was walking toward his car, waving at a few spectators, when a spray of bullets was loosed by a gunman standing with reporters a short distance away. The tape showed Secret Service agents thrusting the President into his car, which sped off. There was a scramble to subdue the assailant as policed barked back the crowd. Three bodies lay on the ground: A D.C. policeman, a Secret Service agent, and presidential press secretary Jim Brady, who took a shot to the head. We watched the tape again and again, stricken at the sight even while glad at the report that the President was safe. GB was in the stateroom, taking calls from D.C.
On the screen in the lounge, we saw ABC’s Frank Reynolds and White House correspondent Sam Donaldson grab for phones and listen together a moment. “My God!” exclaimed Reynolds, pressing his fingertips to his forehead. “The President has been hit!” The horror grew.
Our plane landed in Austin, something I had done so many times before in that last, now-distant chapter of my life. The airfield was thickly bordered in bluebonnets on a radiant mid-afternoon. When we came to a halt next to the motorcade, I peered out the window, studying the crowd for people I know. By then, though no announcement had been made, it was clear we wouldn’t go ahead with the planned events in Austin. As one of the VP’s Secret Service detail said, “We have no way of knowing that there weren’t gunmen sent to Washington, Ft. Worth, and Austin.” The ramp was pushed up, and Governor and Mrs. (Bill) Clements and (Texas Secretary of State) George Strake came on board for what would be a social visit with the VP during refueling.
Mike Farley said I could disembark if I wanted, and I did so, on the quickest trip to Austin I ever made. Various friends came up to say hello, smiling bravely and looking up at the plane, as if it were a symbol of the government in Washington, from which we all felt semi-removed. When there was extra activity around the ramp (such as George Strake speaking with reporters), I said goodbye and reboarded. The dignitaries would return to the Capitol for a brief joint session of the Legislature at which the Governor would give a report and offer a prayer. And in a few minutes AF2 was streaking away from Austin, the Capitol a fond little nub on the horizon.
I was in the stateroom as GB told Ed Pollard and John Matheny that he didn’t want his helo to land on the South Lawn, as they did, but back at the Naval Observatory. “At this moment I am very concerned about the symbolism of the thing,” he said. “Think it through. Unless there’s a compelling security reason, I’d rather land at the Observatory or on the Ellipse.” What troubled GB was the notion that his landing on the South Lawn (literally right outside Mrs. Reagan’s window) would seem too self-important at a time when he especially wanted to keep a low profile. Matheny said that vice presidents had used the South Lawn before. “But we have to think of other things,” the VP countered. “Mrs. Reagan, for example.” On the telephone with Admiral Murphy, who was in the White House Situation Room, the VP made this point very firmly.
Jennifer, Vic and I remained in the cabin with GB. I asked about the national security risk to the country at that moment, with the President shot and the VP airborne. He said it was “no different than when the President is in the air.” He told us confidentially that the President would undergo surgery to locate and remove the small-caliber bullet lodged in a corner of his lung and that as a contingency “they’re preparing papers for the transfer of authority if that becomes necessary.” I presume this meant under the presidential-disability section of the 25th Amendment.
Mike Farley rapped on the door to say that Secretary Haig was on TV at that moment. We came out to see him saying, with all bravado, “I am in control here in the White House pending the Vice President’s return to Washington.”
In declaring to a potential adversary the folly of trying to take advantage of the United States this afternoon, the Secretary’s statement was appropriate. But as the day wore on, the networks sought to discover the legal authority under which Haig claimed to be acting. Neither presidential succession nor the national security command structure puts the SecState immediately after the VP. In the crush of today’s events, probes and questions along this line were of secondary interest, but they would more shortly blossom into a major embarrassment for Haig, already reeling from last week’s self-inflicted wounds over “crisis management.”
GB returned to his cabin, and I stayed with Congressmen Wright and Collins; the other congressmen had disembarked in Texas. The atmosphere was somber, and things were noisy with the jet engines and the TV cutting in and out.
Around 5:10 EST there came the erroneous report that Jim Brady had died. We were relieved when this was refuted, yet we all know that a head wound of the kind Brady received can be as bad as death.
The VP asked Jennifer and me to come into the cabin for the express purpose of giving his thoughts for the record. Sitting in the armchair opposite him and writing on a legal pad, I got his stream-of-consciousness almost word-for-word. “It’s hard to describe my emotions,” he said. “They’re cumulative. A funny thing: The way Reagan’s and my relationship has developed – not presidential/vice-presidential but more like a friend. (There’s) a concern for someone who’s your friend. Because I see it that way – seeing him (on videotape) getting into that car, waving – I see it on a personal plane.” He mused about the Polish situation and the decisions that will have to be made if the Soviets move in. “Having to be the person to determine that, [to] be the critical person to make that decision – I don’t have any consternation about it at all…. My every inclination is to be calm, not churning around. I would have thought it would have been much more complicated about the responsibilities, but my innermost thoughts are (that) this guy is a friend…. I think about Nancy Reagan: Is anybody holding her hand? I have a great feeling that all will work out.
The word on the President is good: He is at George Washington Hospital and even delivered some much-quoted cracks, such as telling his doctors, “I hope you all are Republicans” and scribbling a note after surgery: “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.” GB made the decision not to visit him tonight, knowing RR needs the rest. But he did call on Mrs. Reagan in the Mansion, saying afterwards, “She looked tiny and afraid.” Then, around 9:30, he went home.
I returned to the office to transcribe my notes of GB’s midflight thoughts. And, with a look at TV to see what our plane looked like as it entered Hangar 7 (protected by Secret Service sharpshooters), I left about 11:15.
I washed up and went to bed for a nap before writing this entry. Around 1:30, I was awakened by a call from Art Wiese of the Houston Post. Art related the possibility that Neil Bush (the VP’s son) may be acquainted with the alleged assailant, John W. Hinckley Jr. Neil and Sharon do know Hinckley’s brother (in Denver) and were planning to have dinner with them tomorrow night. The Hinckleys are a prosperous family, and John Sr. may have been a Bush contributor. Art wanted to know if this connection was known by GB in flight, and I said that as late as the helo ride from Andrews to the Observatory we weren’t even sure what the gunman’s name was. As Art pointed out, even a slight Bush connection in this shooting could set off the conspiracy freaks.
Tuesday, 31 March 1981:
Arriving in the White House around 7:00, I had doughnuts at my desk and read the Bush coverage of the major newspapers. The New York Times’s subhead said, with splendid drama, “Bush Flies Back from Texas Set to Take Charge in Crisis”.
Signal reported that the VP had left his residence, and down on West Executive Avenue I saw Pete Teeley and Shirley Green waiting for him. Correctly guessing what they wanted to tell him – the call each of us received last night from Art Wiese – I hurried downstairs in time to join them as the stretch limo arrived.
“What’s up?” GB asked, seeing us all there.
“Did you talk to Neil last night?” Pete asked as we entered the West Basement.
“No; is it about this guy?”
We all went into the VP’s office, where Pete related the story that Wiese had been working on and which was being played big in Houston and over the wires. GB appeared only mildly concerned, so little in fact that he didn’t think to call Barbara or ask any of us to do so. Pete said we should check out the entire Neil-Hinckley family connection, and I was tasked with calling Fred Bush to ask elliptically whether John Hinckley Sr. had ever contributed to GB. After about an hour the report came back: No.
Wednesday, 1 April 1981:
The 9:15 national security briefing usually held in the Oval Office was held this morning in the VP’s West Wing office. A delicious little incident occurred. The doorknob on the door to the private office has been ailing, and this morning it ceased to work. By unfortunate coincidence, the first person to try the useless knob was Secretary of State Alexander Haig. “Go right on in, Mr. Secretary!” Jennifer said brightly. Haig stood at the door, twirling the knob in his fingers. He then turned away with a wry smile and said, “I get the feeling it’s a little inhospitable.” (Barbara Hayward rushed forward to rap on the door, which Caspar Weinberger opened, to let Haig in.)
Saturday, 4 April 1981:
At 9:00 I arrived at the VP’s House to go over some routine items, mostly on presidential personnel. When our work was done, GB placed a call to George Washington Hospital to ask a presidential staffer about RR’s condition. I chuckled to myself, remembering what “Mr. Dooley” (Peter Finley Dunne) once said: “What are (the vice president’s) jooties, says ye? Ivry mornin’ it is his business to call at the White House an’ inquire afther the prisidint’s health. Whin told that the prisidint was niver betther, he gives three cheers an’ departs with heavy heart.”
Sunday, 5 April 1981:
At home I read the Washington Post’s account of last Monday, “The Day of the Jackal in Washington.” It had several inaccuracies just in the description of VP Bush’s activities. For example, it had Bob Thompson announcing to us in the VIP lounge that there had been an attempt on the President, whereas we heard it from Ed Pollard right before the VP did. The paper said the VP had been “politicking” in Texas, whereas the events in Fort Worth and Austin were wholly nonpartisan. And the Post said Ed Meese sent a helo to Andrews to fetch the VP, whereas it was always going to be there to take him home. If there were three sizable errors on things I knew, I wonder how correct the descriptions of Reagan in the hospital were. It also brings into question the reliability of history, which uses old newspapers in part for source material. Ah, this is where a carefully-written journal can be useful.
Friday, 10 April 1981:
Around 11:15 I went into GB’s office to brief him on some presidential personnel matters. We didn’t finish by the time (15 minutes later) he had to leave to visit President Reagan at the hospital, so he invited me to come along.
The limo was admitted through a barricade and stopped at a secure side entrance to the hospital. Surrounded by USSS agents, the VP and I went up to the third floor to the connecting corridor that has been cordoned off for presidential use. A special command post on the lobby side of the corridor was manned by the Secret Service and by lead presidential advanceman Rick Ahearn and his staff.
GB immediately went in to see the President, I remained outside. As special as the command post is, the rest of the third floor is a regular hospital, with grandmother types shuffling about in bedroom slippers and orderlies wheeling carts of bland lunches. Names had been taped to each door (in the secured section): Aspen, Maple, Elm, Witch Hazel, and others. I was told these relate to cabins at Camp David, and each had a special purpose: Mrs. Reagan’s room, Dave Fischer’s room, (presidential physician) Dr. Ruge’s room, etc.
GB left the President, closing the door behind him, and we all mounted two flights of stairs so he could visit Jim Brady. As before, I didn’t go into the room but lingered outside. I did see the brave, pretty Sarah Brady. GB waved at a few patients as we walked back down the corridor, and he related the President’s concern over something he had read, an attack on his budget cutbacks in special postal rates for philanthropic organizations.
We went downstairs by elevator, and outside the VP walked over to the press pool to answer questions.
Asked how the President was doing, GB said, “He looks better each time I see him.” Avoiding anything more detailed on the President’s condition, the VP waved at other reporters across the street and got in the limo. Secret Service agents closed the doors for us, and we returned to the White House.
Saturday, 11 April 1981:
Today was the day President Reagan returned to the White House from the hospital, twelve days after being shot. Barbara Bush came down for the occasion, and GB arrived wet-haired, fresh from running in the Secret Service marathon at Beltsville. With him, still in shorts and T-shirt, was the Secretary of Agriculture, John Block, a marathoner for years. We all trooped out to the South Lawn just as rain began to pour.
The presidential motorcade came into view, passing south of the house near the fountain and swinging around to the Diplomatic Entrance. All the umbrellas and tall folk then pressed forward to join in joyful greeting. As a result, the only thing I saw of the President was one hand and a sleeve encased in a bright red sweater. In a sense, this was a special sight, for it was his left hand he was waving, the same as the moment he was shot. Today’s wave was a means of saying that he’s back (almost) to normal.