It was thirty years ago today that an assassination attempt was made on President Ronald Reagan. I realize most of our regular contributors are far too young to have any kind of memory of the event (if they were even born), but I have a very vivid recollection of that day, and David Lynch plays a part.
I was a sophomore in college, and wrote for the school paper in the Arts section. That afternoon David Lynch was scheduled to give a talk, and I was covering it. I had just recently seen his film The Elephant Man, and I was thinking about a question to ask (even though I hadn’t seen, nor have I yet, Eraserhead). For whatever reason the talk was cancelled, so I headed back to my dorm room. There were a few snow flurries falling. I went into my bedroom, but I heard some guys in the suite room talking. One of them was a guy named Joe Bova, who didn’t live with us but was always there hanging out. I hadn’t turned the TV on, so when I heard snippets of conversation about someone being shot I immediately entered the conversation and learned that President Reagan was the victim.
“Is he dead?” was, I believe, my response. Now it must be told that I have never been an admirer of Ronald Reagan’s, and harbor the liberal belief that this country really started going to hell during his administration. I’d like to think I wasn’t wishing him dead, but instead realizing that he was a likely victim of the famous (to nerds at least) “Zero Factor.” From 1840 to 1960, every president elected in a year ending in zero died in office: William Henry Harrison, Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, FDR, Kennedy. Certainly Reagan, who set the record for oldest man elected to the presidency, and seventy years old at the time of the shooting, would never make it out his presidency alive. Of course he survived and lived for more than twenty more years.
Reagan would break the Zero Factor, seemingly for good (George W. Bush’s closest brush with death came at the hands of a pretzel lodged in his windpipe). The assassination attempt, thankfully the last on an American president so far, was a brief media whirlwind. Alexander Haig jumped constitutional ladders by declaring himself in charge, and then the made-for-TV drama of the shooter John Hinckley’s obsession with Jodie Foster unfolded, which Stephen Sondheim included in his musical, Assassins.
The Academy Awards, scheduled for that night, was postponed for one night (news reports had to rub it in that Reagan had never won an Oscar–he was never even nominated). The NCAA basketball championship was held, though: Indiana, led by Isiah Thomas, defeated North Carolina. In those years the Oscars and the NCAA finals were always held on the same night, creating agita for those who fancied both. I’ll never forget Elliot Gould’s appearance on the 1976 Oscar show. He came out and said, “Indiana, 86-68.” This final was galling to me, as the Hoosiers had beaten Michigan, my favorite team.
Perhaps the most lasting legacy of the attempt on Reagan’s life was the wounding of press secretary James Brady, which would lead a movement to attempt to make it harder to buy a handgun. Strides have been made, though not enough.
So there it is. Thirty years later, and when I think of this event in American history I think of David Lynch, who I still haven’t met.