ARI SHAPIRO, host:
Thirty years ago this month, John Hinckley, Jr. shot President Ronald Reagan outside the Hilton Hotel in Washington. Journalist Del Wilbur has written a book that redefines what we know about that day. It's called "Rawhide Down." Rawhide was President Reagan's Secret Service codename.
One of the dozens of people Wilbur interviewed for his book was Jerry Parr, the lead Secret Service agent that day. Parr and Wilbur joined us in the studio and Del Wilbur began by describing the moment the shots were fired.
Mr. DEL WILBUR (Author, "Rawhide Down"): 2:27 p.m., March 30, 1981 - Reagan leaves the VIP entrance of the Washington Hilton. He walks towards his limousine. He has to walk about 25 feet in public. That's when John Hinckley, in the crowd, 15 feet from the president, unleashes a full slot of bullets. Three other men go down. Jerry Parr grabs Reagan after hearing the first two shots, shoves him into the limousine. They land in a pile in the limousine. Jerry lifts him up in the limousine. They're taking off. They're getting out of there really fast.
SHAPIRO: The president arrived at George Washington Hospital just four minutes after he was shot. But Del, your book reveals that the limousine did not immediately set out for the hospital. Let's listen to a cut of tape that we're hearing publicly for the first time today.
(Soundbite of tape recording)
Unidentified Man #1: Rawhide is OK. Follow-up: Rawhide is OK. You want to go to the hospital or back to the White House?
Unidentified Man #2: We're going to ground.
Unidentified Man #1: Back to the White House. Back to the White House. Rawhide is OK.
SHAPIRO: That tape from inside the presidential limousine. Del, explain why the limousine was not going straight to the hospital.
Mr. WILBUR: Well, no one knows Reagan's been shot. Jerry doesn't know. As he's checking Reagan, he runs his hands up and down Reagan, he realizes, wait a minute, you know, there's no blood in my hands. The president seems OK. We better get back to the most secure place in the world, the White House.
SHAPIRO: But Jerry, you made a fateful decision on the way to the White House. Let's hear the tape in which you decide not to go to the White House after all.
(Soundbite of tape recording)
Unidentified Man #3: Roger. We want to go to the emergency room of George Washington. Go to George Washington fast.
SHAPIRO: That's the voice of the limousine driver responding to agent Jerry Parr's decision not to go to the White House. Jerry, what made you change course?
Mr. JERRY PARR (Former Secret Service Agent): What made me change the course, Ari, is that there was a profuse amount of blood coming out of his mouth. So I looked at that and I thought, well, maybe I broke a rib when I came down on top of him. And so I talked to the president. I said I'm taking you to the hospital and he basically agreed with me. He said OK or he nodded. We didn't say very much after I decided to go to the hospital.
I took a chance that day. But Dr. Ruge, he said if you'd had gone to the White House first and then come back, he'd have been close to dying.
SHAPIRO: So the limousine arrives at G.W. Hospital, President Reagan notably walks himself into the emergency room, lending to the narrative that he wasn't badly hurt.
Mr. WILBUR: Reagan hitches up his pants, you know, he walks in, gets in about 20, 30 feet, he collapses like a stone. Jerry and another agent grab him, they carry him off to the trauma bay. His eyes had rolled back in the head. Nurses, doctors and paramedics who were there thought he was going to die. He looked that bad. But they treated him first. They jacked him full of fluids, they, you know, they got his blood pressure going, getting up, they did all that stuff. And that stabilized him, kept him from going too far into shock, and that's what saved his life.
SHAPIRO: Agent Jerry Parr, you were by the president's side.
Mr. PARR: Yes.
SHAPIRO: At what point did you realize that this was a very serious situation?
Mr. PARR: When we got him to that room, they stripped his clothes off very fast. I thought for a moment there - maybe one or two minutes - that we might lose him, because I was conscious and awake and alert and an agent in New York City when Kennedy was still living. So I went through that whole scene with the Kennedy assassination 18 years previous.
Those kind of scenes stuck in my mind forever and I never wanted it to happen to me. Unfortunately, it did happen to me.
SHAPIRO: And President Reagan had this famous line before he went under for surgery.
Mr. PARR: Yes. Actually, after he regained consciousness, I was standing pretty close to his head and he had an oxygen mask on, but I could hear him, and that's when he looked up and he looked all around as far as he could. He said, Jerry, I hope they're all Republicans. We all smiled, but we were under a lot of stress and I didn't, you know, burst out laughing. But then he did it again before he went under his anesthesia. He said, I hope they're all Republicans, and that's when I think Dr. Giordano said, well, today we're all Republicans.
SHAPIRO: So this non-fatal assassination attempt we now know came literally within one inch of piercing President Reagan's heart.
Mr. WILBUR: Or even an aorta or another huge artery. When the surgeon was hunting for the bullet, he was terrified. It slipped and got into an artery that could have gone to his brain. It was that close.
SHAPIRO: The surgeons did not easily find the bullet to remove it, and in fact considered leaving in the president's body.
Mr. WILBUR: Well, often these in these injuries you do leave bullets in bodies, because they're benign. They don't go anywhere. In this case the surgeon had two implications. One, he didn't want it migrating somewhere else. That could cause trouble. And two, he envisioned, as he's hunting for this bullet, he's about to give up, he's like maybe I'll just leave it, he can't find it, he's squishing around in the lung, and it's like kind of moving around with his fingers, he can't find it...
SHAPIRO: Now, when you say squishing around, he is literally holding the president of the United States's lung in his hands, trying to find the bullet.
Mr. WILBUR: Manipulating it with his fingers. And another, which is crazy, a 31-year-old surgical intern, reaches his hand in and cups the beating president's heart in his hand pulls it aside, so he could work and get more room in there. And so as he's looking for this bullet, they have to get it, and then Erin's(ph) thinking, God, I can envision the New York Daily News headline tomorrow: Doctor Leaves Bullet in President. I cannot have that happen.
SHAPIRO: Jerry, it's pretty clear that you saved the president's life more than once that day. At the same time, this book reflects a sense that in some ways the Secret Service may have failed by letting John Hinckley get too close to the president.
So how do you file this event in your mind?
Mr. PARR: Before that event, the Secret Service took a position of more like a defensive posture. But with this event we realized it can't work anymore, and we did it in a flash. That's what came out of it. Yes, it could have been done better, and I was the boss, so I always took the blame for it. But I also will take blame for the successes.
SHAPIRO: Now, Del, there is so much detail - in the hospital scene, for example. You write: The tiled floors and walls, which gave off a faint odor of disinfectant, echoed with the din of hospital chatter. How do you get that kind of sensory recreation of that moment three decades ago?
Mr. WILBUR: Well, I interviewed a lot of people - you know, more than 125. I think that's what did it. Just interviewing and interviewing and interviewing. Also, I really benefited from some doctors and nurses as they went home and took these wonderful notes down, wrote diary entries, even spoke into tape recorders. One nurse I interviewed at the very end of my process had a wonderful Reagan story.
You know, Reagan's recovering the next day. He survives. He's in the recovery room all night. And so his aides come in and the aides say, well, Mr. President, just want to let you know that the guy who did it is crazy, but he's from a good family. And Reagan goes, hmm, well, I was kind of hoping it'd be the KGB. And there's a pause and Reagan says, no, I don't think so. He wouldn't have missed then. And a nurse, Maureen McCann, now Maureen O'Brien(ph), she went home and jotted that whole thing down. That whole day for her, it was historic. I also really benefited from this guy, Jerry Parr, who happened to have the best memory of this day of anyone.
SHAPIRO: Well, Jerry, do you remember every day of your life this clearly or was this an extraordinary...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PARR: Such an extraordinary moment. Even so...
SHAPIRO: It's not every day you save the life of a president, I suppose.
Mr. PARR: That's true.
SHAPIRO: Del Wilbur, Jerry Parr, thanks very much.
Mr. PARR: Thank you.
Mr. WILBUR: Thank you.
SHAPIRO: Jerry Parr is a retired Secret Service agent, and journalist Del Wilbur's new book is called "Rawhide Down: The Near-Assassination of Ronald Reagan." It goes on sale Tuesday.
SHAPIRO: This is NPR News.