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Gronvold: The day they shot ‘The Gipper’

By Staff | Aug 12, 2016

If I mention ‘John W. Hinckley, Jr.’ does it ring a bell? What if I throw in ‘Jodie Foster’, are you getting warmer? No? Well, I’ll give you a hint: Ronald Reagan. Surely you remember the 40th president or maybe even have read about him. (And don’t tell me not to call you ‘Shirley’).

On March 30, 1981 just 69 days into his presidency, Ronald Reagan made a routine luncheon address to a labor union group at the Washington Hilton Hotel in downtown D.C. In those days, presidential limos parked at the curb and the Commander-in-Chief would walk the few steps to and from the Hilton’s special side entrance surrounded by security.

After he had given his speech, Mr. Reagan emerged from the hotel at 1:27 p.m. Rugby time. There was a small crowd of admirers and press photographers gathered outside near ‘President’s Walk’, including a 25-year-old man named John Warnock Hinckley, Jr.

As Mr. Reagan, 70, walked to his limo, waving and beaming his infectious smile, Mr. Hinckley stepped forward and, in under two seconds, emptied his six-shot .22 Rohm revolver at the president. A Secret Service agent pushed the president into the back seat of the bulletproof vehicle, which raced from the scene.

I was working for the FAA in London, Kentucky and was off that Monday, watching CNN on my portable Sony Trinitron. The local cable service offered twelve channels (2-13). You had to manually click-click-click to change them. The Reagan shooting was perfect for CNN, whose all-news format could offer wall-to-wall coverage without offending viewers who preferred watching soap operas and game shows.

About 1:35 p.m. Rugby time, CNN switched live to their Capital Bureau in Washington. They had routinely assigned a videographer outside the Hilton to cover the president’s entrance and exit and had footage capturing the event. From the first shot until the gunfire stopped echoing and the presidential limo had sped away took less time than sprinter Usain Bolt needs to run the 100 Meters in Rio.

As a student of and former participant in the media, I immediately sensed history being made. I moved the Sony close to my couch and switched back and forth between CNN and the three major networks, ABC, CBS and NBC. Over the next several hours, I saw something happen that would embarrass the networks’ news organizations for years.

I worked briefly at an independent TV station in Miami in 1973 and one of my U. of Miami campus radio colleagues, John Pike, was asked by the station to build a news department from scratch. I observed the creation of a newsroom that included a bank of TV monitors, each tuned to one of the other three Miami stations that had a news operation. We didn’t want to be scooped, should a big story break, either locally or nationally.

What evolved on that manic March Monday in 1981 was that the networks began reporting based on what the other networks were reporting. The three major networks quickly cut into their regular afternoon programming. They had learned from their coverage of the 1963 JFK assassination, which had to be initially announced as voice-only, over a slide that said “News Bulletin” because it took almost an hour to “light” the news broadcast studio. By 1981, they could quickly have the news set lit and on the air in minutes.

The shooting caught news departments by surprise and some folks were literally ‘out to lunch’. The networks used secondary newscasters for the initial on-air coverage. There was so much urgency in being the first to report something that several incorrect scenarios emerged. One said that President Reagan was unhurt but had gone to George Washington University Hospital to be with his press secretary James Brady, who had been seriously wounded in the attack.

Another report was that Reagan had been wounded, but had emerged from his limo and ‘…strode confidently into the hospital.’ Another report said that James Brady had died. Yet another report stated that Mr. Reagan had walked into the hospital and collapsed.

At one point, ABC’s silver-haired Frank Reynolds looked at a bulletin handed to him and angrily said, “Has anyone confirmed this? I’m not reporting this until it’s been confirmed.”

John Hinckley, Jr. had been immediately subdued after the shooting, which had also injured a policeman and a Secret Service agent. He would later claim that he was trying to impress the actress Jodie Foster, whom he had seen in Taxi Driver. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity at a 1981 trial and then was confined to St. Elizabeth’s [psychiatric] Hospital in Washington, D.C. As of this writing, his family is trying to get him permanently released into the custody of his 90-year-old mother. Hinckley, how 61, has been making occasional unsupervised visits to his family’s home in Williamsburg, Virginia since 2000.

Trivia: The coverage of the shooting forced NBC to delay airing the NCAA Final Four championship game. Bobby Knight’s Indiana, led by Isiah Thomas, defeated Dean Smith’s North Carolina and a young James Worthy 63-50. It was NBC’s final Final Four game, as CBS took over the next year.

Gronvold is a 1966 graduate of RHS.

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