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President Reagan: Lion in Winter

By Richard Reeves

WASHINGTON -- Just after 2:30 p.m. on a sunny afternoon 25 years ago, March 30, 1981, a speeding limousine with sirens screaming all around careened off 17th Street and turned right into the oncoming traffic of Pennsylvania Avenue.

"Go to GW!" a man named Parr had shouted to the driver just as the limousine was headed for the gates of the White House. Jerry Parr was the head of President Reagan's Secret Service detail that day -- and he had just realized the president was bleeding to death.

Although he had lost half of his blood after taking a shot in the chest from a crazed young man named John Hinckley, Reagan pushed away helping hands and walked the 20 feet or so into George Washington University Hospital's emergency room. When the doors closed behind him, Reagan collapsed to the floor in a pool of his own blood.

"Oh my God, we've lost him," Parr said. "Lord, be with him. Let him live."

He did not die, of course. If he had, the country and the world would almost certainly have been significantly different than they are today. Amazing things happened in the 1980s and beyond because Ronald Reagan wanted them to happen.

He survived because his own courage was matched by the heroism and skill of the young doctors and nurses who rushed to his aid in trauma Bay 5 of the emergency room that day. Many of those doctors gathered at the hospital on Thursday to talk about what they did that long afternoon and the frightening days that followed. And the time was more frightening than the world ever knew. Both the White House and hospital officials combined to optimistically manage the news of the 70-year-old president who had lost half his blood, and because of a bullet they could not find, a flattened .22 slug 1 inch behind his heart.

But the attending doctors who did the real work knew none of that. They had been trained to act almost automatically in crisis, and that training paid off. The only non-medical thought that Dr. Joseph Giordano said he had as the unconscious president was rolled toward the operating room was that the suit he was cutting off the bleeding man must have cost $300 (actually, it cost a lot more than that), and he wondered if there would be trouble about that.

It was Dr. Giordano, from my hometown of Jersey City, who famously answered a question Reagan asked as he briefly regained consciousness in the operating room. Looking at Giordano, Reagan said: "I hope you're a Republican." Giordano, who was not, said: "Mr. President, we're all Republicans today."

They saved his life. My role at the Thursday meeting at the hospital was to talk with them about what might have happened if Reagan had not survived on that day, the 70th day of his presidency. First, of course, he would barely be remembered today, the fate of William Henry Harrison, the ninth president, who died of pneumonia in 1841 on his 30th day in the White House.

Reagan, a bull of a man, was standing before a joint session of Congress only 28 days later, receiving one of the most robust welcomes that any American had ever experienced. "That was almost worth being shot," he quipped later.

His heroism (and great political skills) were rewarded with the tax cuts and military buildup he always wanted. Critics, me among them, thought he used his gift for turning issues into emotions to make both the poor and rich believe they deserved their fates. He changed the way people thought, for better or worse, a definition of greatness. He united the various strains of conservatism -- traditional, economic, social, religious, libertarian -- to make Republicans the governing party of the country as Franklin Delano Roosevelt had made Democrats the governing party 50 years before.

After six years, his presidency seemed to be effectively over, brought down by the lies and foolishness of the Iran-Contra affair. But his greatest triumph was actually still to come. With a new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who almost miraculously shared Reagan's conviction that communism was doomed to fail because of its own inherent contradictions, Reagan presided over the beginning of the end of that dangerous or "evil" ideology.

Soviet officials, watching him in closed negotiations with Gorbachev, called him "the lion in winter." So he was, and it was Dr. Giordano and his team who gave him that winter and helped change the history of the century.

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