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When history, destiny converged

The assassination attempt of President Reagan 25 years ago changed the future not only for those involved but for the rest of the U.S. as well.
President Ronald Reagan Waves To Onlookers Moments Before An Assassination Attempt By Jo
President Ronald Reagan waves to onlookers outside the Washington Hilton on March 30, 1981, just moments before he was shot.The White House via Getty Images
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The shots came from the crowd outside the Washington Hilton that drizzly afternoon -- six shots that would show the nation once again how vulnerable to attack its presidents are.

President Ronald Reagan, then 70, a Washington newcomer in office two months, had paused to wave to the knot of people. At the sound of the shots, Secret Service agents shoved him into the presidential limousine and sped away, not realizing he had been hit. Three men lay wounded, one with blood dripping from his head, and the young assailant, whose mission would soon be revealed, was quickly restrained.

Twenty-five years ago today, the nation watched in shock as television brought home again and again the reality of the shooting. It was a moment chilling in its possibilities, reminding Americans another time in two decades that a national tragedy is only an assassin's bullet away. People saw once again that they live in an epicenter of power, where monumental shifts can occur in an instant.

For some, it was a day that forced them to walk alongside history, to participate in the urgent events that unfolded. Some of them were with the president at his most unguarded moments. They saw his attempts to be strong and his sense of humor. They overheard the "Honey, I forgot to duck" quip he delivered when his wife, Nancy, arrived at the hospital. They revisit their memories of this historic episode from time to time. One of them, who suffered a severe head injury, has had to live with the imprint of that day.

Some say they will always be haunted by what could have happened.

"There's a couple of times where truth and training converge, where history and destiny converge," said Jerry Parr, a Secret Service agent working with Reagan that day. "I thought about that for a long time. It's that moment -- either you do it or you don't, either you save him or you don't."

Shots are fired
When Jerry Parr was a kid, his father took him to see the movie "Code of the Secret Service" (1939). One of the lead characters, agent Brass Bancroft -- played by Ronald Reagan -- made such an impression on the young boy that he later decided to join the Secret Service. More than 40 years later, Parr would marvel that he had helped save this same man, then president of the United States.

By the time Reagan took office in 1981, Parr was special agent in charge of the presidential protection division, with about 120 agents under his supervision. That day, he was among agents helping guide Reagan to the presidential limousine parked outside the Hilton's side entrance on T Street NW. It was 2:25 p.m., and Reagan had just given a speech to union representatives inside. Suddenly, a young man stepped out from the crowd. Parr switched to "muscle memory," he said -- don't think, just respond -- when he heard the shots.

"It was like a rabbit running for a hole," he said. He and agent Ray Shattuck had one goal, to get Reagan safely inside the limousine.

The first shot hit presidential press secretary James S. Brady in the head. The second struck D.C. police officer Thomas Delahanty. Secret Service agent Timothy J. McCarthy, who opened the limo door, shielding Reagan with his body, took the next shot.

Parr "grabbed the president by the shoulder and started getting him down," he said. "Shattuck was behind me, and we were both giving him a tremendous heave into the car."

Parr jumped in after the president. "Let's move," he shouted to the driver, and, according to plan, the limousine headed south on Connecticut Avenue, toward the White House. Parr helped the president sit up, then began to examine him, running his hands under Reagan's jacket and through his hair. He did not find a wound.

As the limo slid under Dupont Circle, however, Reagan began to spit up blood, and Parr quickly directed the driver to the nearest emergency room, at George Washington University Hospital. The trip took three minutes. Reagan wanted to walk in by himself.

"He hitched up his pants. I offered him my hand, and he didn't want it," Parr said. The president took a few steps and collapsed; agents helped him to a trauma table.

These days, Parr, 75 and long retired, thinks a lot about purpose and destiny; he is co-pastor of Festival Church, an ecumenical church in Adams Morgan. In time, Parr would tell the president that he had set his destiny "by impressing me as a kid."

But that afternoon, Parr remembered, he watched the doctors work, his heart sinking.

"I thought, 'My God, we've lost another one,' " he said.

News begins to unfold
Sarah Brady was home in Alexandria that afternoon, playing with her 2-year-old son, Scott. A chicken was cooking in the crockpot for supper. The past few months had been exciting for Brady and her husband, Jim Brady, the wisecracking press secretary to the new Republican president.

Jim Brady, then 40, a Chicago native and longtime Washington insider, had won his new job, despite, he would joke later, Nancy Reagan's edict that her husband's new spokesman be someone "young and handsome." Nicknamed "Bear," Brady was known for his outsize personality, his zest for life and his way with one-liners.

The television set was on in the Brady family room that afternoon, and a breaking news report said that someone had just shot at the president but that he was not hurt. Although she was alarmed, Sarah Brady had no idea how life had just been shattered. Further reports said her husband had died. Friends hurried over to take her to the hospital.

Arthur Kobrine, Jim Brady's surgeon, had shocking news for her. "I remember him standing there and saying: 'I'm going to go in. If I'm successful, I do know he'll never have any use of his left arm and very little use of his left leg, but he could very easily succumb to this operation,' " Sarah Brady said.

"There was nothing left for me. I mean, he laid it all out. And I said, 'We've got a little 2-year-old, you've got to keep him alive.' "

She went to a small room to telephone relatives. The first lady walked in and embraced her. Brady still did not know the president was wounded.

"I said something to her, like, 'I am so, so scared.' And she was shaking, and she said, 'So am I.' " And I just knew, nobody had to tell me, I knew he had been shot, too."

At the hospital
The commotion caught security guard Frederick Bailey's attention as he stood near the emergency ramp at GWU Hospital -- a limo pulling in with a couple of men running alongside it.

"We didn't know at the time who was coming," said Bailey, now head of hospital security.

Secret Service agents burst into the emergency room, ordering families out. Police swarmed the area. Armed officers appeared on nearby rooftops. A media corral was set up across the street. "We weren't sure if it was a plot, and other people were involved," Bailey said. "The hospital went to code purple."

Joseph Giordano reported to the emergency room to find his patient lying on a gurney with "a very bad injury." A bullet had ricocheted off the armored presidential limousine and struck Reagan in the left armpit, stopping an inch from his heart and causing bleeding in his lung.

"I tell everybody, five or 10 more minutes may have made a difference," Giordano said. "You lose blood pressure slowly, then it's off the edge. He was almost there. If there had been much more of a delay, it would have been a different ending."

Reagan was stabilized, but the bleeding did not stop, so surgery was scheduled. Still, the president seemed determined to keep laughing.

"Please tell me you're Republicans," he joked to the doctors about to operate on him. And Giordano, whose liberal Democratic stance was well known, said he replied, "Mr. President, today we are all Republicans."

Giordano did not have time to think about his hand in history that day, not then. A couple of days later, he said, "it dawned on me, when my role was over, I said to myself, 'This better work out well.' "

The Bradys now
President Reagan would stay in the hospital 12 days. Delahanty and McCarthy recovered quickly. But for Jim Brady, the next year would bring him close to death at least three times, and his life would be spent adjusting to a brain injury that also left him partially paralyzed.

From his recliner in his sun-filled family room in Rehoboth Beach, Del., he can see the Atlantic Ocean. The Bradys moved permanently to Rehoboth seven years ago and say they do not miss Washington. The last time he visited was in June 2004, for the funeral of Reagan, a man they speak of warmly. For years, the Reagans telephoned Brady every year on his birthday.

The anniversary of the shooting brings a certain trepidation -- the Bradys know they will have to relive the television footage. They will be asked once more what they think of would-be assassin John W. Hinckley Jr., who was found not guilty by reason of insanity and has spent the past 25 years in a mental hospital. Recently, a federal judge granted Hinckley overnight visits with his parents, who live in Williamsburg -- where Sarah Brady attended the College of William and Mary. The Bradys, who have many friends there, visit Williamsburg often.

"We both believe strongly that he was mentally . . . " Sarah Brady began.

"He's several bubbles off plumb," her husband piped in from the recliner.

"He encroached on me personally," Sarah Brady said. "I feel like he changed our life drastically enough that he encroached on our life for 25 years. I mean, we've had to live with the aftermath of it. . . . And now, when you think he could be walking into one of our favorite haunts and we'd run into him, it's like he's sort of encroaching on us going to Williamsburg now."

But the Bradys don't talk much about destiny, and they are not bitter people. "That wouldn't be classy," Jim Brady often jokes.

Instead, the couple made the best of things. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which they championed for a decade and President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1993, is one of their greatest accomplishments. For the first time, prospective buyers of handguns had a five-day waiting period and had to pass a criminal background check.

"It used to be the dog and pony show when we'd go around the country talking. I would do the straight stuff," Sarah Brady said, "and I never knew what he would come up with. I did notice if I didn't feed him dinner beforehand, he'd do better because he was madder at me. He says I never feed him. And he also says he doesn't get any sleep."

"He doesn't sleep!" Jim Brady repeated from the recliner. His wife ignored him. "I hate to tell you, but he doesn't get up till noon most days," she said dryly.

In their beachfront home, shared with two dogs and two cats, they are happy, they said. Next week, they are going to an autism ball at the local hospital. Their son, Scott, now 27 and a sound engineer, lives south of Charlottesville and visits often. They have lots of friends. Life didn't turn out the way they thought it would, but they made a whole different life.

"When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade," Jim Brady said. "I have several stands around here."