Thirty years ago today, Ronald Reagan almost joined the ranks of Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, James Garfield, and William McKinley as the fifth assassinated president. President Reagan initially seemed to have escaped unharmed when shots were fired on March 30, 1981 outside the Washington Hilton Hotel. But, in the presidential limousine, Reagan began spitting up blood and complaining about his breathing. He insisted on walking into the emergency room of George Washington Hospital, where he collapsed.
Although the bullet had stopped only one inch from his heart and he lost over half of his blood, the president’s remained an example of grace under pressure. As he was wheeled into the operating room, he noted the long faces of his three top aides—James Baker, Ed Meese, and Michael Deaver—standing in the hall and asked, “Who’s minding the store?” When a distraught Nancy Reagan made her way to him, he lightly said, “Honey, I forgot to duck.” During his recovery, he cracked jokes with the nurses—a difficult feat when one has a breathing tube. “Everybody knows,” wrote James Reston of The New York Times, “that people seldom act in the margin between life and death with such light-hearted valor as they do in the movies. Yet Ronald Reagan did.”