In this week’s episode, “In Control,” the action revolves around John Hinckley’s unsuccessful attempt on President Ronald Reagan’s life on March 30, 1981, which was the last time an assassin fired a shot at a U.S. president. Elizabeth and the Soviet embassy massively overreact, seeing Secretary of State Al Haig’s infamous press conference where he declared, “I’m in control” in the confused moments after the shooting as a precursor to a coup and a U.S. first strike. Meanwhile, the FBI checks to see if the would-be assassin has any links to the Russians.
Hinckley shot Reagan as he left the Washington Hilton after giving a speech to organized labor. In the midst of the fusillade of gunfire, a Secret Service agent pushed the president into a limousine and Reagan was hit by a bullet as it ricochet off the car and into his chest. Though the president thought he had broken a rib, the agent ordered the motorcade to George Washington University hospital when Reagan began to cough up blood. At the hospital, Reagan entered under his own power, only to fall to his knees inside. Doctors discovered a bullet wound and prepared the president for emergency surgery. Reagan earned plaudits for his humor and composure under trying circumstances, famously telling Nancy “Honey, I forgot to duck” and the surgical team that “he hoped they were all Republicans.” “Today we’re all Republicans,” responded the doctors.
Vice President George H. W. Bush was on a flight to Texas and there was confusion in Washington surrounding the president’s condition. Fearing that the government was sending a mixed message during a period of international turmoil, Haig addressed the press, declaring:
Constitutionally, gentlemen, you have the President, the Vice President, and the Secretary of State in that order, and should the President decide he wants to transfer the helm to the Vice President, he will do so. He has not done that. As of now, I am in control here, in the White House, pending return of the Vice President and in close touch with him. If something came up, I would check with him, of course.
With this statement, Haig seemed to misunderstand the succession procedure proscribed by the 25th amendment, where the speaker of the House was third in line and the secretary of state was fifth. He later claimed he was talking about where authority in the government laid, not presidential succession. Though Haig had held the government together as President Nixon’s chief of staff in the difficult final days of Watergate, this moment became the defining moment of his career.
In the “Americans,” Haig’s bizarre comments are interpreted as an attempt by the military or hawkish elements of the government to mount a coup, rather than as a career-destroying gaffe. Hearing bits and pieces from their bug at Secretary of Defense Weinberger’s house, Elizabeth believes an attack on the Soviet Union may be imminent. Philip cautions they should wait to alert Moscow until they have definitive proof. In fact, while American officials were concerned that Soviet subs were slightly closer than usual to the U.S. coast that day, there was no talk of an attack (Allen, “The Atlantic,” April 2001).
Another real-life detail that was accurately repeated in the episode was that the media erroneously reported the death of White House press secretary James Brady. Though wounded severely, Brady survived, albeit with permanent brain damage. He and his wife Sarah become strong advocates for gun control, and the “Brady bill,” which President Clinton signed in 1993 and mandated background checks for individuals purchasing guns, bears their name. Some have compared former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who suffered similar wounds in a 2011 shooting and recently testified in favor of gun control before Congress, to Brady.
By the episode’s conclusion, Stan, the FBI agent who conveniently lives across the street from Elizabeth and Philip, has discovered that the Russians had nothing to do with the shooting. He informs them that Hinckley was a nut who though the shooting would impress an actress (Jodie Foster). As a result, Elizabeth seems to have newfound respect for her husband’s restraint.
Though he lost a great deal of blood and was much closer to death than understood at the time, Reagan recovered from his wound. Today, the attempt is largely forgotten because the “Gipper” survived, but it was likely a trying day for many Americans, with memories of the Kennedy assassination less than two decades earlier still fresh. Indeed, the previous 20 years had witnessed a series of political assassinations and assassination attempts, including the murders of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. In addition, a crazed gunman shot presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972, paralyzing him for the rest of his life; there were two unsuccessful attempts to shoot President Gerald Ford.
Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity and confined to a mental hospital and the shooting had a significant impact on the Reagan presidency. In the short term, the nation rallied behind the him and his recovery, helping him build the public support necessary to pass the large tax cut that was the central element of his economic program. In the long term, according to Reagan biographer Edmund Morris, it reinforced Reagan’s religiosity as well as his sense of destiny. (PBS’ American Experience, “Reagan”)
Richard Allen, “The Day Reagan Was Shot,” April 2001
PBS American Experience, “Reagan”