American's high noon mentality

Michael Posner April 13 1981

American's high noon mentality

Michael Posner April 13 1981

American's high noon mentality


Michael Posner

If Ronald Reagan’s doctors are right, the toughest 70-year-old man in America will return to the White House next week, well enough to resume a near normal schedule of Oval Office functions. The president’s swift and high-spirited recovery from a would-be assassin’s .22calibre bullet which punctured his left lung has been called remarkable; all things being equal, he will fly to California at month’s end as planned, attend his eldest daughter’s wedding and keep an appointment with Mexico’s

President José Lópes Portillo. Despite the lingering pain of surgery, the Gipper has proved himself a resilient trouper; in the best traditions of his forprofession, the show must—and will—go on.

Yet the six bullets allegedly fired by John Warnock Hinckley Jr., the accused assailant, have done more than physical damage to the president and the three other men wounded in the attack. Their firecracker sound shattered the calm of an American afternoon, and their haunting echoes will be heard for some time to come, like the terrible wail of sirens which still scream through this scarred city. Already, the airwaves are humming with new debate on old questions: gun control and Secret Service protection. There is much talk, too, of political mileage; to what extent will the natural gush of sympathy advance Ronald Reagan’s presidential agenda?

And how much of the power accumulated by Vice-President George Bush in the crisis hours will he succeed in retaining beyond the convalescence? The name of Alexander Haig also continues to reverberate; the secretary of state’s controversial performance before the TV cameras, while the president was in surgery at George Washington University Hospital and the vice-president airborne en route to Washington from Texas, provides the swelling ranks of Haig watchers with a splendid text for exegesis and speculation.

These are the narrow issues, but the events of March 30, 1981, require a broader context. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the prevailing mood was less one of shock than of relief—that the president had escaped more serious injury, and that no one

had died. By the courage of one Secret Service agent or the alert response of another, by luck or by destiny, the nation had been spared a personal tragedy and a grave constitutional crisis. But the margin was inches. Like an instant replay of an American nightmare, as Democratic Congressman Morris Udall put it, the confused seconds outside the Washington Hilton Hotel had again underscored the vulnerability of presidents, and the fragility of the nation’s equilibrium.

The attempt on Reagan is the sixth instance of a U.S. president (or presidential candidate) being shot at in the past 18 years; the curve is turning upward and the trend is disquieting. Moments after the first bulletin was read on the floor of Congress, Democratic Senator Bill Bradley suggested to his colleagues that “we might address ourselves to the underlying sickness that exists in a society where these kind of events become commonplace.”

Questions are legion. What flaw in the American character breeds the pathological delusions of a Lee Harvey Oswald or a John Hinckley Jr.? By what

leap of logic do American assassins persuade themselves that killing their president will somehow relieve the frustrations of their towering inadequacy? Is it a cultural handicap—to be blamed on the diluted authority of family, school, church and state? Or is the answer hidden in the genes, a hereditary risk, a mutant form? That an illness exists is not in doubt, but the list of symptoms is long, and there is no ready consensus on the diagnosis. Many commentators have stressed the frontier psychology of America’s roots, an ethic flourishing still in the inner cities, where grievances are frequently settled at the point of a gun. But just as many insist this is self-flagellation, without proper cause. “I’ve been studying political violence for 20 years,” notes Chicago psychiatrist Lawrence Z. Freedman, “and it’s much too facile to take that hypothesis—the high noon mentality— and apply it across the board. We’ve got to react as rationally as we can.” Freedman, psychiatric counsel to Lyndon Johnson’s 1968 Commission on Violence in America, drafted a profile

of a future assassin: white, male, withdrawn, a loner, no girl-friends, either married or a failure in marriage, unable to work steadily. John Hinckley fits it like a template, a 25-year-old unemployed college dropout, apparently obsessed with his unrequited love for the actress Jodie Foster, who played the 13year-old hooker in the film Taxi Driver. The second son of an affluent Denver oilman, Hinckley grew up in Dallas, an unremarkable child, an average student, with an average number of friends and, perhaps, an above average aptitude for sports. But somewhere between high school graduation and March 30 last, something in Hinckley’s psyche went seriously astray. He drifted in and out of Texas Tech University in Lubbock and wandered the country, living in cheap apartments and motels. At one point, he apparently joined the National Socialist Party of America, but his temperament was judged too violent even for neo-Nazis and his membership was not renewed. Last October, two days after Ronald Reagan cancelled a

campaign appearance, Hinckley was arrested in Nashville, Tenn., trying to board an airplane with three guns and ammunition in his suitcase.

More than anything else, he seemed to have been motivated by his love for Foster, pursuing her for seven months by letter and by poem and hanging around her dormitory on the Yale University campus, where the 18-year-old actress is a freshman student. “If what I’ve read is accurate, this is a picture of a paranoid schizophrenic,” says Brown University psychiatrist Barry Garfin-

kel. “He was delusional in the classic sense—having a fixed, false belief, wholly out of keeping with the prevailing culture. He was autistic.” The guns, the Nazis, the assassination attempt compensated for Hinckley’s lack of selfesteem. He fell in love with a piece of fiction, a combination of lights and shadows on a screen, and he enlarged the fantasy by applying it to his own dreary, otherwise aimless, existence.

A great deal remains unknown about Hinckley and his movements in the weeks preceding the attack. For a man with so few friends, he made a remarkable number of phone calls—34 at the Golden Hours motel in Denver, Colo., where he stayed for 16 days in March,

several more in Nashville last October, and some in Washington. The FBI, insisting that Hinckley acted alone, is now trying to locate and interview the recipients.

Hinckley’s mental status is also uncertain. For the next 30 days, he will undergo psychiatric testing at a federal penitentiary in North Carolina. He has been deemed mentally competent to stand trial, but may still plead not guilty by reason of insanity to the charges so far levelled against him, a plea much favored by previous assassins. He is under blanket security; the justice department is anxious to avoid a repetition of Dallas, where John F. Kennedy’s accused assailant, Lee Harvey

Oswald, was shot to death by Jack Ruby in the basement of the police station two days after the assassination.

The FBI has already come under attack for failing to notify the Secret Service about Hinckley’s Nashville arrest. “Had we known of it,” Secret Service Director R. Stuart Knight told a Senate subcommittee last week, “we would have as a minimum conducted an interview with the gentleman . . . and as a result, perhaps something more.” As for the service’s own performance, Knight denied that any security lapses had occurred, and repeated what is apparent on the videotape: that his agents had reacted quickly and bravely to protect the president’s life. “What could we have done to have prevented the attempt?” asked the service’s press director Jim Boyle. “Nothing. As long as society needs to see the president in person and there is easy access to guns, we can only reduce the odds of an assassination occurring. We can’t repel the law of averages.” The Secret Service plans to conduct an internal investigation of the event, but few changes are expected. Ronald Reagan is a man who enjoys playing to audiences and there would probably be negative political consequences for any president kept exclusively under wraps and away from a live crowd. Reagan will be persuaded to wear his bulletproof vest more frequently, but the show will go on.

Unhappily, the same fate—no major changes—probably awaits the gun control debate. The weapon that drained nearly half the president’s blood volume and caused extensive brain damage to press secretary James Brady is a $47.50 revolver (Roehm model EG 14) manufactured in West Germany and assembled—to circumvent the 1968 Gun Control Act—in Miami. Hinckley purchased this “Saturday night special” in a Dallas pawn shop less than six months ago. There are an estimated 60 million such handguns in the U.S. and the number grows by almost three million annually. Says Sen. Edward Kennedy: “It’s like an arms race in the neighborhood.” Inexplicably, in a nation that requires registration of pets and cars, minimal restrictions apply in most states to handguns and efforts to impose tougher controls are portrayed by the powerful gun lobbies as infringements of liberty and individual rights. This sorry spectacle is abetted by hypocritical politicians, who decry congressional impotence to enact licensing legislation and at the same time eagerly accept campaign contributions from the National Rifle Associa-

tion and similarly well-endowed lobbies. Writing in The Wall Street Journal last week, Hodding Carter III, former state department spokesman under President Jimmy Carter, noted sadly: “Ours is the only nation in the world in which any cretin, criminal or conscientious citizen with the price of a tank of gas is entitled to put the rest of us on a ride to oblivion. Not surprisingly, we have one of the world’s highest murder rates and the highest death-by-pistol rate.”

Ironically, Reagan himself has been one of the longest and loudest opponents of handgun controls, arguing that laws now in existence have had no impact on crime rates, and do not deter criminals; no amount of public sentiment will sway Congress, if the administration refuses to back the bill. “Personally, I’m for gun control,” says House Speaker Tip O’Neill. “But realistically, I don’t think it can pass.”

On this issue, as on others, Capitol Hill is apt to be sympathetic to Ronald

Reagan’s political desires. His string of one-liners, his self-deprecating wit, his calm in the face of near tragedy are translating into enormous popularity. “Nothing is more exhilarating than being shot without result,” a Churchillian quip the president is reported to have quoted in the recovery room. And nothing, he might have added, is more likely to add to one’s standing in the polls. Reagan’s approval rating soared 11 points in a Washington Post/ABC survey taken one day after the shooting. The Senate last week overwhelmingly approved the White House’s requested budget cuts (and then some). And partisan Democrats on the fund-raising circuit edited their speeches, lest criticism of the Reagan proposals be construed as personal attacks. In a sense, the assassination attempt has fortified the Reagan legend; he is now not only the Oldest and Wisest, but the Toughest—an extraordinary physical specimen, his doctors said—a septuagenarian who took an exploding Devastator bullet in the chest and walked into the hospital.

As subsequent reports have made clear, Reagan was actually in far more danger than the earliest bulletins revealed. He collapsed in the emergency room and was losing blood at an alarming rate; and it was the continuation of internal bleeding that forced doctors to operate. Nevertheless, if his recuperation proceeds without serious complication, the president will enjoy a level of popular support that may stymie his most vocal critics.

Some of them were in the audience of AFL-CIO conference delegates on the day of shooting. It was a day that would have been memorable only for its weather, if at all, an intermittent driz-

zle which scattered the season’s first cherry blossoms on the wet grey pavement. On Capitol Hill that morning, Senate minority leader Robert Byrd had introduced a resolution to make square dancing the national folk dance of America, “to signify the ebullient spirit of our society.” At noon, in the White House briefing room, press secretary Brady, a soft Buddha-like man much admired by the press, recited the president’s schedule. He would speak at 2 p.m., return at 2:35. A meeting with David Rockefeller was on the agenda, as was a session with GOP members in the House. A haircut had been pencilled in for 5:30. He would have dinner with Health and Human Services Secretary Richard Schweicker.

Emerging from the hotel’s VIP entrance on T Street, Reagan began the seven metre trip to his limousine, surrounded by Secret Service agents, close aides and Washington policemen. He was smiling, his expression one that seemed half delight at the size of the crowd and half surprise that people would bother to stand in the rain for this fleeting glimpse of him. Suddenly, there was that sound again, that too familiar report of gunfire. Six bullets emptied in less than three seconds, the president pushed bodily into the car by his chief bodyguard, Brady face down on the sidewalk, blood oozing from his head and down a rusting metal grate, with two other bodies beside his. Screaming and shouting all around as the assailant is surrounded and subdued and hurled into a police sedan. And all of it preserved on videotape, in slow-motion and stop-action and freeze-frame morbidity.

With oxygenated blood dripping from the president’s mouth, Secret Service agent Jerry Parr redirects the car to the nearest hospital. The first news reports announce that Reagan has escaped serious injury and it is almost an hour before presidential adviser David Gergen appears in the briefing room to confirm that Reagan has been shot once in the left side and that surgery is being contemplated. The senior members of the cabinet, Gergen adds, have gathered in the Situation Room. A half hour later, deputy press secretary Larry Speakes arrives, his perfectly barbered hair for once out of place. He cannot confirm rumors that the president has been given blood transfusions or is in surgery. Asked whether U.S. military have been placed on higher alert, Speakes says: “Not that I’m aware of.”

Minutes later, Alexander Haig takes the podium. There is sweat on his lip and his voice is tremulous. Though his intent is to reassure the nation and

America’s allies that the centre will hold, he looks himself like a man on the very brink of panic. The blood has drained from his cheeks. “As of now, I am in control here, in the White House, pending the return of the vice-president.”

It is a precarious moment. The president is in surgery, the extent of his injuries unknown. The vice-president is flying back from Texas. Reagan’s principal adjutants, Jim Baker and Ed Meese, are with him at the hospital and speaking over unsecured phone lines to the Situation Room. Haig’s performance, which they watch on television, alarms them. It also alarms Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. When Haig returns to the Situation Room, there are heated words between them. While Haig had insisted on television that “no alert measures are necessary,” Weinberger has already notified some

military posts to increase their readiness status. Weinberger, citing the national command authority that operates in time of military crisis, insists that he is in charge. Haig makes the same claim, mistakenly based on the U.S. constitution.

Later, with the medical prognosis optimistic, the White House launches a salvage operation for AÍ Haig’s political career. The same troika of power that set out two weeks ago to limit Haig’s foreign policy control soon recognized the damage such curbs did to the Reagan team as a whole. With the secretary’s first trip through the Middle East now in progress (see story page 28), Meese, Baker and Mike Deaver are busy praising Haig’s performance in the crisis, desperately trying to restore his diminishing credibility. A lame

president and a lame secretary of state make it a lame administration. But even now there, are whispers that AÍ Haig is finished, his departure only a matter of time.

Beyond these short-term political considerations, it is astonishing to reflect on how few people are surprised by the attack on Reagan’s life. Many seem to have expected it. In a frightening way, Americans have become inured to violence. It is so much a part of urban existence that what they see on television and what they see on their streets are all of the same piece; the distinctions between murderous reality and what passes for art have been blurred. The attempted Reagan assassination is like an episode from some old police drama, gone into daytime reruns. It is an episode the nation has seen before and, sadly, seems destined to see again.