Thursday, September 20, 2012

Rawhide Down by Del Quentin Wilber

Rawhide Down is a detailed account of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981. Since Reagan has a connection to Galesburg, I chose this book as a recent title for the Galesburg Public Library’s adult book discussion groups. Love him or loathe him, Reagan is an important figure in American history, and the assassination attempt an important historical event.

I was a University of Illinois college student when Reagan was shot and I remember the day very well. Students on my dorm floor gathered around our small black and white television to watch the unfolding drama. The fact that two of the shooting victims, Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy and Press Secretary James Brady, graduated from the University of Illinois added interest to the story for us.

Although I keenly remember the event, I learned a lot from reading Rawhide Down. I gained a better understanding of the roles of many of Reagan’s key advisors. I learned more about Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s famous announcement of “As of now, I am in control here.” It’s amazing in hindsight to realize that the Secret Service did no screening of the spectators waiting for the President outside the hotel. The chaos inside George Washington Hospital as the four shooting victims arrived was particularly fascinating.

I was surprised at how worried government officials were that Russia might strike the United States during a perceived leadership void during the crisis. And I wondered if in today’s political climate we’d hear the well known operating room exchange in which Reagan said, “I hope you are all Republicans” and a die-hard liberal at the foot of the operating table responded, “Today, Mr. President, we are all Republicans.”

This is not a book about Ronald Reagan’s political life or legacy as president. Although it is clear that the author admires Reagan, the reporting for the most part is objective. My one complaint about the book is that the focus is almost completely on Reagan. I wanted to hear more about what happened in front of the Washington Hilton after Reagan’s limousine left the scene and about the effect of the shootings on the other victims. Still, I found Rawhide Down riveting. If you are interested in books about recent historical events or in Ronald Reagan, I recommend it.

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