When Ronald Reagan was Shot

 

notePage1-1200Some of you may have seen this already; the Dallas Morning News published this four days ago, but if you’ve got a Sunday morning free to read, this is gripping. It’s a really well-researched account of George H. W. Bush’s role in the days after Reagan was shot.

Whenever I see a good, in-depth article like this called a “longread” by the paper it’s in, I sigh–this was once the length of any good piece of investigative reporting. Its very hard to say anything new or useful about something like this in fewer words.

Anyway, that was your daily middle-aged kvetch about kids these days and their short attention spans. Lots in this piece I’d never known before, and lots of details struck me as evidence of how much has changed since then. This is an event I remember vividly, but to many Americans alive now, I guess it’s just history, something that happened before they were born:.

In the middle of Haig’s Briefing Room operetta, a disturbing piece of intelligence was passed to Weinberger. The two Soviet subs that normally patrolled an area off the East Coast called “the box” had multiplied and become four submarines.

It was the end of the month. The two new subs were merely taking over the patrol area. The first two would soon depart.

But Weinberger took no chances. He requested the “fly times.” Distance of an adversary’s subs was measured in the amount of time it would take a missile to fly to Washington.

The answer came back that one sub had significantly shortened its fly time. The Soviet captain could obliterate Washington in 10 minutes and 57 seconds. “At that range, it wasn’t a ballistic trajectory,” said Allen, “it was a lob shot.”

Weinberger ordered 249 bomber crews in the Strategic Air Command to get to their alert rooms. Should they need to get airborne, the move would save three minutes. About 4:25 p.m., Haig returned, having just told the press “there were absolutely no alert measures that are necessary at this time or contemplated.”

Hearing the new reality, he lit into Weinberger. “Cap, I’m not a liar,” he said.

“I said there had been no [alert].”

“Well, I didn’t know you were going up there,” Weinberger replied. “Once you get the additional information, which I got about the one sub being closer than is normal, then it seemed prudent to me to save three or four minutes.”

I find it hard to imagine anyone in that position now having such a commitment to keeping the public truthfully informed as to light into the Secretary of Defense for having allowed him to tell the public something untrue–even when that was entirely inadvertent And I also remain amazed that Haig didn’t know the constitutional order of succession:

A retired four-star general, Haig had once been the second-highest-ranking person in the Army. But in the Situation Room, he seemed completely unaware that Weinberger outranked him. The secretary of defense also carries the title of deputy commander in chief. In the National Command Authority, he is superseded only by the president.

“The moment until the vice president actually arrives here, the command authority is what I have,” Weinberger explained, “and I have to make sure that it is essential that we do everything that seems proper.”

Haig chuckled smugly and mumbled something about the Constitution. “Hmmm?” Weinberger asked.

“Well, you better read the Constitution,” Haig repeated.

Anyway, enjoy. Anyone else out there who remembers it? What do you remember?

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  1. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    I remember that day very well.   I was probably the only outspoken Republican in my workplace.  One of the professors came up to me in the hallway and asked if I had heard that President Reagan had been shot.  My immediate reaction was to say, “Oh, no! George Bush.”  I don’t remember what else I may have said after that.

    • #1
  2. Douglas Inactive
    Douglas
    @Douglas

    Don’t know what was more disturbing; the tales of Al Haig’s Caesar-like tendencies and prima donna behavior, or the nutbag responses in the comments section. “The day the CIA took over America”, etc etc.

    • #2
  3. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    There had been a fight at the fraternity’s breakfast table, about gun control.  I, being a left libertarian at the time, took the position that gun control was a necessary evil.  No one convinced anyone else, and we headed for class.

    On my way back from one of the computer labs, I ran into one of my brothers who had been present – a Second Amendment Reagan Democrat.  He told me the President had been shot.  I laughed it off.  I thought he was joshing me about the discussion that morning.  When I saw the look in his face, I realized he hadn’t been joking and rushed back to the house to watch the news.

    Reagan’s “Mommy, I forgot to duck” line came out during the coverage.  “Reassuring his wife” I thought.  Understandable.  Then his comment to the emergency room doctors – “I hope you guys are all Republicans” – came out too.

    After being shot in the chest, that was a pretty good line.  It was good enough to have been written for him, but when would he have had time to meet with a writer? Supposition: he didn’t meet with anybody.  Initial conclusion: that was Reagan being Reagan. Supplemental conclusion: Reagan is not the dope my liberal friends insist he is.

    So from then on I listened to what he said rather than scoffing at it reflexively. He suddenly developed the annoying habit of being right as well as being Right. My “liberal” attitudes started falling by the boards, particularly after running into Edmund Burke. And, combined with hearing about “private road ownership” and “letters of marque and reprisal” a few too many times, the Libertarian impulse was put into proper perspective.  Some time before the election of 1984, I woke up and realized “aw, hell – I’m a Conservative.”

    • #3
  4. user_5186 Inactive
    user_5186
    @LarryKoler

    Cool story, Percival.

    My decision to go Republican (after having voted for Carter and straight party ticket in 1976) occurred just before the 1980 election. It was the second debate that clinched it. Then I started reading William F. Buckley’s columns — man, was that process ever a revelation!

    I don’t remember worrying about Bush, though. I liked him. I do remember thinking about Nancy and praying for her — it must have been hellish for her.

    • #4
  5. PHCheese Inactive
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    I remember it well. I also remember JFK beind killed. Maybe it was because I was younger, freshman in college, but that was much more scary than the Reagan event.

    • #5
  6. Mark Thatcher
    Mark
    @GumbyMark

    Was driving when I heard the news on the radio.  Pulled over to listen for awhile; then went home and watched TV.  Still remember Al Haig – not a reassuring figure.  Couldn’t figure out what he was doing.  Reagan in ’80 was the first time I ever voted for a Republican for any office.  Still considered myself a Democrat but supported him solely for foreign policy reasons.

    • #6
  7. user_82762 Thatcher
    user_82762
    @JamesGawron

    Claire,

    The Constitutional order of succession is very interesting. So, if I follow correctly, if Obama is shot then Ashton Carter as Secretary of Defense is “acting” commander in chief.

    Given Obama’s recent special forces action against Abu Sayyaf in Syria, perhaps we should be more concerned about this possibility. I’ve always thought that if an attempt is made on Obama’s life it will be a Jihadist upset over something the administration has done.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #7
  8. FightinInPhilly Coolidge
    FightinInPhilly
    @FightinInPhilly

    I went to a friend’s house after school. His mother was very upset about something, but she didn’t seem to want to explain. (We were in first grade). Later, my friends older brother came home and told us that the president had been shot, though I’m not sure it really computed. He said their mother had something about “the curse”, which I found out later was something about presidents being assassinated every 20 years. (curse of Tippecanoe, according to wikipedia). Later that week I wrote a get well card (along with several million other school kids, even congress). I also remember the Thank You card I got from the White House some months later and thinking the raised seal was the coolest thing ever. Then I went outside to play, and haven’t seen that card since. I wonder if my mother has it?

    • #8
  9. captainpower Member
    captainpower
    @captainpower

    Claire Berlinski:I also remain amazed that Haig didn’t know the constitutional order of succession:

    A retired four-star general, Haig had once been the second-highest-ranking person in the Army. But in the Situation Room, he seemed completely unaware that Weinberger outranked him. The secretary of defense also carries the title of deputy commander in chief. In the National Command Authority, he is superseded only by the president. “The moment until the vice president actually arrives here, the command authority is what I have,” Weinberger explained, “and I have to make sure that it is essential that we do everything that seems proper.” Haig chuckled smugly and mumbled something about the Constitution. “Hmmm?” Weinberger asked. “Well, you better read the Constitution,” Haig repeated.

    I also don’t understand.

    This was before my time, so I had to look up Weinberger and Haig.

    According to wikipedia, the line of succession is:

    • 1 VP
    • 2 Speaker of the House
    • 3 President pro tempore of the Senate
    • 4 Secretary of State (Alexander Haig)
    • 5 Secretary of Treasury
    • 6 Secretary of Defense (Caspar Weinberger)

    So Al Haig (Secretary of State) would be in charge if #1 #2 and #3 were out of the picture.

    #1 wasn’t there and there is no mention of #2 and #3.

    I’m not sure how this all applies in temporary situations such as if they are on a plane flight that will take several hours … in the days before planes with telephones?

    Might Haig have been right?

    • #9
  10. Blondie Thatcher
    Blondie
    @Blondie

    Very interesting read, Claire. I was in the 8th grade when this happened. I don’t remember much of it other my dad shouting at the TV telling Haig he was wrong and mama being worried for the health of the Reagan. The incident lead to a lot of discussions in my social studies/government class because I had the best teacher ever, Mr. Gilliam. That man taught me more stuff! I was luck enough to have had him in 3 different grades as a teacher. We all accused him of following us around, thankfully.

    • #10
  11. Richard Anderson Member
    Richard Anderson
    @RichardAnderson

    Haig wasn’t being quite as foolish as many people supposed. Keep in mind that he was born in 1924 and would have gone to high school when the Presidential Succession Act of 1886 was still in force. In that statute the Secretary of State was in line of succession immediately after the Vice-President. It was only with the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 that the current line of succession came into force. Haig was probably guilt of relying on his memory of a high school civics class rather than looking up the current law.

    • #11
  12. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    The Speaker and the President Pro Tem of the Senate would have no Constitutional authority to take an executive action.

    The Secretary of State is NOT in the chain of command of the armed forces. In the President’s absence only the SecDef has the authority to command forces.

    Furthermore, Haig was ineligible to command US Forces as a civilian. To ensure complete civilian control at the top, commissioned officers may not serve as the SecDef for 7 years. Haig was NATO commander until 1979.

    The problem here was that there wasn’t even time to invoke the 25th Amendment.

    • #12
  13. user_5186 Inactive
    user_5186
    @LarryKoler

    Captainpower, I’ve always wondered what the flap was all about with Haig, too. This business with Weinberger complicates the issue. Somebody had it in for Haig.

    • #13
  14. user_5186 Inactive
    user_5186
    @LarryKoler

    EJ, succession means they are vested with that power. But I think you mean that being in the succession by itself doesn’t apply in the case we are talking about.
    Also, Haig was acting for the president not the SecDef.

    • #14
  15. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Nobody had it “in” for Haig. Al was his own worst enemy.

    Given the choice of Cap Weinberger and Haig it’s a no brainier.

    • #15
  16. user_5186 Inactive
    user_5186
    @LarryKoler

    EJ, it’s not a popularity contest we are talking about here.

    • #16
  17. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Haig had no authority to act on the Reagan’s behalf. The 25th Amendment is VERY clear on this. Haig should have just kept his mouth shut.

    Cap Weinberger DID have the authority to direct U.S. Forces and acted appropriately.

    • #17
  18. Claire Berlinski Editor
    Claire Berlinski
    @Claire

    This is interesting, that there’s a debate or a question about the succession in the comments.

    I just realized that it could be an age thing, not something “everyone knows.”

    I would have said it was an “everyone knows that” fact about how America works. The President is the head of state and the head of government (and if those phrases are too abstruse, the “most powerful guy in the country”). If he gets shot, the vice-president becomes the president. Everyone knows that.

    But seeing that two people on Ricochet wondered about that, I realized that no, that’s not true. So maybe this is something that “everyone who lived through this knows” and they know it because they lived through this. Maybe it’s “people old enough to remember that” who know it in that reflexive way. It would be really interesting to see polls on this to see if my hunch is right.

    If you’re old enough to remember this clearly, it will be one of the things you just know: The sun rises in the east, and if the president is shot, the vice-president is in control. And I reckon that might well be because the whole country had this oh-my-God, stomach-sinks-to-the-floor moment when Haig said that.

    I was 12 years old, so I don’t have adult memories of it; mine are filtered through the way adults around me were reacting, but I remember people talking about that so well: how unimaginable it was that there could be uncertainty about who was in control. I mean, think about it: the press corps knew that wasn’t right, the President has been shot, no one knew who did it, it was the Cold War, so people are thinking–“the Soviets attacked us”–and this guy who is not supposed to be saying this is saying he’s in control of the White House. It freaked people out. I remember that.

    What about the rest of you? Do you think I’m right about knowing that being an age-related thing tied to this event? I’m guessing anyone my age or older knows that “If the president is shot it’s the vice-president who’s in control” in that kind of “If there’s an emergency you call 911” way. But to people born after 1970, it may be just a theoretical thing that you look up on Wikipedia.

    That could even account for some of the huge differences in the way people reacted to Sarah Palin. If you were born before 1970, that “heartbeat from the presidency” saying seems like something that could really happen. The vice-presidency’s not worth a bucket of warm spit, except when it’s worth everything–and that does happen.

    That scenario might seem hugely improbable if you don’t have memories of a president dying, or nearly dying, in office.

    What do you think?

    • #18
  19. user_5186 Inactive
    user_5186
    @LarryKoler

    Well,I didn’t know about the Weinberger-Haig disagreement having to do with the movement troops. I thought it was a disagreement about who was in charge in general.
    Also, I just read the 25th Amendment and don’t agree that it’s absolutely clear.

    • #19
  20. Claire Berlinski Editor
    Claire Berlinski
    @Claire

    Blondie:Very interesting read, Claire. I was in the 8th grade when this happened. I don’t remember much of it other my dad shouting at the TV telling Haig he was wrong

    Yeah, exactly–I’ll bet a lot of peoples’ memories are like that. A real scream-at-the-TV moment.

    I also remember that we had a big school meeting about it, because some kids had made “inappropriate jokes” about it. That just came back to me. Now that I’m looking back on that as an adult, I’m wondering what happened. I don’t remember any of the kids making jokes–maybe they did in another grade?–but I’m thinking of the teachers being horrified and wondering, “What’s wrong with these kids.”

    • #20
  21. user_82762 Thatcher
    user_82762
    @JamesGawron

    Claire Berlinski:This is interesting, that there’s a debate or a question about the succession in the comments.

    I just realized that it could be an age thing, not something “everyone knows.”

    I would have said it was an “everyone knows that” fact about how America works. The President is the head of state and the head of government (and if those phrases are too abstruse, the “most powerful guy in the country”). If he gets shot, the vice-president becomes the president. Everyone knows that.

    But seeing that two people on Ricochet wondered about that, I realized that no, that’s not true. So maybe this is something that “everyone who lived through this knows” and they know it because they lived through this. Maybe it’s “people old enough to remember that” who know it in that reflexive way. It would be really interesting to see polls on this to see if my hunch is right.

    If you’re old enough to remember this clearly, it will be one of the things you just know: The sun rises in the east, and if the president is shot, the vice-president is in control. And I reckon that might well be because the whole country had this oh-my-God, stomach-sinks-to-the-floor moment when Haig said that.

    …..

    That scenario might seem hugely improbable if you don’t have memories of a president dying, or nearly dying, in office.

    What do you think?

    I think the situation is that the President is incapacitated but not dead. You can’t swear in the VP as President, however, the role of Commander in Chief must be performed at every moment. It appears that Weinberger is correct. As deputy commander in chief he is “acting commander in chief” until such time as either the President isn’t incapacitated or the VP has been sworn in.

    Claire, why don’t you give Ash Carter a call and see what he thinks.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #21
  22. user_5186 Inactive
    user_5186
    @LarryKoler

    Claire, it’s the line of succession thing and who is temporarily in charge. The particulars about Haig and Weinberger do make things complicated.

    • #22
  23. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    There is no “temporary” authority until the President grants it.

    As far as what “everybody knows,” half of that is the Hollywood fantasy in lieu of actual knowledge.

    • #23
  24. Gödel's Ghost Inactive
    Gödel's Ghost
    @GreatGhostofGodel

    Larry Koler:I don’t remember worrying about Bush, though. I liked him. I do remember thinking about Nancy and praying for her — it must have been hellish for her.

    Some years back now, I had a corporate function at the Reagan library. One high-ceilinged room very near the lobby had pictures from his funeral festooned around the perimeter above eye level. One picture made me instantly burst into tears: of Patti Davis sitting with her mother, squeezing her hand, the devastation naked on both their faces. All the moreso knowing of Patti’s estrangement from—and, thank God, later reconciliation with—her father.

    Heartbreaking.

    • #24
  25. user_5186 Inactive
    user_5186
    @LarryKoler

    anonymous:There seems to be some confusion (perhaps in the mind of Al Haig as well) about the distinction between the succession to the presidency and the National Command Authority (NCA). Under the NCA the President is the commander in chief and the Secretary of Defense is the deputy commander in chief. In case of a vacancy in either position their respective deputies (Vice President and Deputy Secretary of Defense) assume the authority.

    A nuclear launch order must be initiated by the President (or VP if the president is incapacitated) and approved by the Secretary of Defense (or deputy, in case of vacancy or incapacitation). But it seems that in the case of an order simply involving a change in alert status (and not even involving changing DEFCON), when the President was in hospital and the Vice President was in the air on a plane without a secure communications link, the Secretary of Defense was acting within his authority.

    It’s interesting that the SOS is above the SOD in the succession listing. This is the source of the confusion, surely. As Claire says, everyone knows the VP is in charge when we lose a president.

    The question we are all dancing around here is: what does the 25th amendment or other laws or executive orders have to say about the point that EJ and I are talking past each other on — that of who’s in charge when there is temporary dislocations in the power structure. I doubt that Haig didn’t know about the VP stepping in and I’m sure people were talking about just this in the lead up to his press statements. The story makes a lot more sense with the information that there WAS a dispute between Haig and Weinberger at the time but that it had to do with military command not who is speaking for the president on all other issues.

    My mention of temporary considerations is still valid because what else do these people have to go on except the 25 th amendment when things are not cut and dried? EJ says no one has any control when the president is in surgery and the VP is not available. (I think that’s what you are saying, EJ.) There’s got to be more information available on this — as I say: executive orders or laws?

    Here’s a final thing — Haig was not liked by many people in the administration and I think the press went after him trying to make him look foolish and a dim bulb. BUT, I now see a lot more nuance than this simple explanation affords.

    • #25
  26. Pilli Inactive
    Pilli
    @Pilli

    I remember hearing the news and thinking, “Not again!”  Kennedy was killed while I was in high school so it was well remembered.

    The next thing I thought was, “What the heck?  Al Haig is making a fool of himself.  Is he some kind of ego maniac that he thinks he has to get in front of a mic and reassure us?”

    I didn’t want to be reassured, I wanted facts.  Was Reagan alive?  Would he stay alive?  Who did it?  Was this planned by the Soviets?

    • #26
  27. Claire Berlinski Editor
    Claire Berlinski
    @Claire

    EJHill:There is no “temporary” authority until the President grants it.

    As far as what “everybody knows,” half of that is the Hollywood fantasy in lieu of actual knowledge.

    Yeah, but this wasn’t Hollywood, it was really happening! Do you remember the scene? A reporter asked “who is running the government?” in this really panicky way, and the press secretary said he didn’t know, then the whole press corps starts shouting, and Haig charges over and commandeers the stage and says “Gentlemen, I am in control here in the White House,” … it was just nothing like the orderly, democratic way things were supposed to be (from a 12-year-old’s perspective).

    I just looked for the video because maybe the words don’t convey it to people who don’t remember it. And I was wondering if I remembered it correctly. Amazingly, I can’t find it on YouTube. Which says a lot, but I don’t know what it says. But here’s the video. It did happen almost like I remember it! If you’ve never seen it, watch it–you can see why this freaked people out. This was back when news didn’t break continually, and I think they interrupted the regularly scheduled programs to show this, does anyone remember?

    Of course I don’t really know what the whole country thought, and don’t even really know why I remember it as so alarming-was it my family, was it the way the media reacted? But I remember it as “That clearly isn’t normal.”

    • #27
  28. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    Woman at the bar where I worked in college, upset that coverage had pre-empted her soaps: “Why couldn’t they have shot him an hour later?”

    • #28
  29. Herbert E. Meyer Contributor
    Herbert E. Meyer
    @HerbertEMeyer

    Allow me to add an interesting — and very perceptive — comment about Al Haig’s performance in the White House situation room when President Reagan was shot from someone who was actually there at the time:

    I happened to be sitting with William J. Casey, the Director of Central Intelligence, when word came in early July 1982 that Al Haig had resigned as Secretary of State.  Relations between Casey and Haig had sometimes been tense — everyone’s relations with Haig were sometimes tense — but the two officials always managed to set aside their differences and work together.

    In any case, when word came that Haig had resigned   — if I remember correctly, Bill and I were having lunch at the conference table in his office — Bill took a few moments to talk about Haig:

    “Working with Al is like working with a coiled spring — you always think he’s just about to explode out of his chair.  But you know, Al covered a lot of ground.  Every time you looked up, he was somewhere doing something.  He’s taken a lot of crap for that comment he made about being in charge on the day the president was shot. But let me tell you something about that:

    All of us were fairly new to how things work in the situation room.  Al had been White House Chief of Staff, national security adviser, NATO Supreme Allied Commander.  That afternoon in the White House, Al was the only one of us who actually knew how to put through a call to George on Air Force Two.”

    In other words, despite his clumsiness speaking to the press Haig knew what he was doing — and how to do it — when it mattered hugely that our adversaries in the Kremlin wouldn’t for a moment think they had some sort of once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to strike.  Bill Casey was big enough to recognize that….which is more than I can say for some of the other officials who were in the situation room at the time.

    • #29
  30. Klaatu Inactive
    Klaatu
    @Klaatu

    In the stateroom aboard Air Force Two, Matheny, the crewman, and Pollard, the head of the security detail, told Bush of the arrival plans for Washington. The plane would taxi into Hangar 7 at Andrews Air Force Base. The vice president would walk outside under the gaze of sharpshooters to a Marine helicopter. It would fly him to the South Lawn of the White House.

    Bush firmly overruled them.

    The helicopter, he said, would land at the vice president’s residence at the Naval Observatory. He would go by car to the White House.

    “Something about landing on the South Lawn didn’t sit well with me,” Bush told The News. “It might well have made for great TV, but I thought it would have sent the wrong message to the country and to the world. As I told my military aide, ‘Only the president lands on the South Lawn.’”

    Say what you will about George H. W. Bush, but integrity, honor, and loyalty are not virtues he lacks.

    • #30

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