“Killing Reagan” a controversial look at 40th President
By Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
Reviewed by Steven R. Maher
Ronald Reagan remains a great hero to many Republicans. One understands, after reading this “killing” book by Fox talk show host Bill O’Reilly, why this account of the 1981 assassination attempt by John W. Hinckley Jr. is so controversial among Reagan admirers.
The Ronald Reagan this books portrays was not the genial “family values” conservative Republicans like to nostalgically recall, but a prolific womanizer before and after his marriage to Nancy Davis. The book also asserts that Reagan spent much of his Presidency in pajamas watching TV reruns, and details concerns among his Presidential staff that Reagan suffered from Alzheimer’s the last several years of his Presidency. After Reagan left the White House, he got $2 million from a Japanese company for giving a lecture, a la the Clintons. No wonder Reagan partisans are angry with this book.
The first adjective that comes to mind in describing this text is “readable.” Like O’Reilly’s other books, such as “Killing Lincoln” and “Killing Jesus,” the chapters are short, pithy and written in plain but concise English. While supposedly a look at the 1981 assassination attempt, this is in fact an episodic recounting of Reagan’s life. The tale jumps from one part of Reagan’s life to another, but it all seems to flow comfortably. Footnotes are used frequently but effectively. Liberal or conservative, if you’re a political junkie or history buff, this 289-page book can be absorbed in one weekend day.
As a literary device, “Killing Reagan” jumps back and forth from Reagan to the would-be Presidential assassin. The story tracks both individuals through their lives, up to the point where they disastrously intersect on March 30, 1981, when Hinckley shoots Reagan and wounds several others.
Hinckley’s motive for shooting the President sounds bizarre even today – to impress actress Jodie Foster. Hinckley had seen the movie “Taxi Driver,” where Foster played a twelve-year-old prostitute who comes to know deranged taxi driver Travis Bickle, played by Robert DeNiro. Bickle tries to assassinate a Presidential candidate to impress a woman, but is prevented from doing so by the secret service. The movie ends with Bickle rescuing Foster from her pimp, shooting the procurer to death in a dramatic finale.
Hinckley was a loner most of his life. “He has some form of schizophrenia, a mental disorder that causes the mind to distort reality,” says O’Reilly. Hinckley drops out of college, traveling from city to city following Foster, calling her up to ask Foster out on dates, proposing to Foster at one point. Foster rebuffs Hinckley. He then decides to assassinate some political figure to impress her, like the Bickle figure in Taxi Driver.
Carter and Kennedy
Hinckley’s first choice is President Jimmy Carter.
“Losing the election may have saved Carter’s life,” writes O’Reilly. “[Hinckley] will either take the train to New Haven and shoot himself dead in front of Jodie Foster, or he will murder Ted Kennedy, if only to add his name to the notorious list of assassins who have stalked and killed a member of that political dynasty. If that target is not available, he might enter the U.S. Senate chamber and try to kill as many lawmakers as possible. And there is another scenario in Hinckley’s mind: assassinating President Ronald Reagan.”
Hinckley read in the Washington Star that Reagan will be at the Washington Hilton and goes to the hotel. When Reagan emerges, Hinckley is able to pierce the protective cordon around Reagan and wound the President because of two happenstances. First, Reagan would normally be wearing a bullet proof vest, which he was not asked to do on this occasion because his exposure to the public was limited to walking to the Presidential limousine from the hotel exit. It was during this exit that Hinckley put one bullet into Reagan’s torso. Second, two DC policemen acting as Presidential bodyguards were not trained by the secret service to watch the crowds at such events. They were watching Reagan and not the crowd when Hinckley shot Reagan. The point is made that had the two men been trained properly, they would have intercepted Hinckley before he shot Reagan.
Particularly disturbing was O’Reilly’s depiction of Hinckley’s jailhouse communications with serial killer Ted Bundy and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford in 1975. Hinckley reportedly tried to get mass murderer Charles Manson’s mailing address from Fromme. This was all kept secret from his jailors, as well as the hidden photographs of Jodie Foster in his cell that Hinckley was ordered by the court not to have.
The aftermath of the assassination has become the focal point of some discussion among Presidential historians and Reagan biographers. Reagan apparently developed a messianic belief that he was saved by God because he had a special destiny as President. O’Reilly writes Reagan went back to his church after recovering, and become reliant on his wife Nancy for political as well as personal advice.
O’Reilly’s book is a good starting point for anyone looking to experience the life and times of America’s 40th President.