Thirty years ago, on March 30, 1981, my father, Ronald Reagan, went to the Washington Hilton to address the AFL-CIO. After the speech, he left the Hilton by the VIP exit, surrounded by aides and Secret Service agents. A small crowd lined the sidewalk—including one disturbed young man, John W. Hinckley, Jr. As my father waved, Hinckley pulled a revolver and fired six shots in 1.7 seconds.
Hinckley's aim was poor—but devastating. He hit press secretary James Brady, policeman Thomas Delahanty, and agent Timothy McCarthy. One bullet hit the armored flank of the limousine, ricocheted, and entered beneath my father's raised left arm. It stopped in his lung just an inch short of his heart.
Secret Service agent Jerry Parr shoved Dad into the limo, and the car sped away. When Parr saw the president coughing up blood, he ordered the driver to divert to George Washington University Hospital. Parr's decision saved my father's life.
Arriving at the hospital, Dad got out of the limo and walked into the building under his own power. Just inside the door, his knees buckled. "I can't breathe," he said. Agent Parr and the hospital staff helped him into the emergency room.
While the doctors and nurses worked on my father, he remained calm and unfailingly courteous. "I don't mean to trouble you," he said at one point, "but I'm having a hard time breathing."
Nancy entered the hospital less than ten minutes after Dad arrived. The doctors let Nancy come close, believing her presence would reassure him. Nancy later recalled that Dad looked ashen, and his lips were caked with blood. But he put her at ease by joking, "Honey, I forgot to duck."
The medical team, led by Dr. Joseph Giordano, became intensely concerned as Dad's blood pressure dropped and he seemed to be going into shock. They took him into the operating room and prepped him for surgery. At one point, Dad pulled his oxygen mask away and said, "I hope you're all Republicans."
The doctors and nurses laughed and the tension in the room was broken. Dr. Giordano—a registered Democrat—said, "Today, Mr. President, we're all Republicans."
Dad didn't use humor just to get a laugh. He joked, even in critical situations, to defuse the tension and put people at ease. He always thought of others first. That's what great leaders do.
While all this was going on, I was in a meeting at the small California aerospace firm where I worked. My Secret Service agent, Mike Luty, opened the door and said, "There's been an assassination attempt on your father, but he's all right."
I turned on the radio and heard that Dad had gone to the hospital. I went back to Agent Luty and said, "Something's wrong. I'll bet Dad's been shot, too." My suspicions were quickly confirmed.
That night, an Air Force C-140 took my sisters, my wife Colleen, and me to Washington. As the plane descended toward D.C., I wondered: Would Dad serve out his term? Would he even survive?
We were all anxious the next day when we visited Dad in the hospital. He'd been near death and was weakened from the ordeal, but he was alert and talkative. "Michael," he said, "if you're ever shot, make sure you're not wearing a new suit."
"That was a brand new suit I wore yesterday. Michael, do you know what happens when they bring you into the emergency room? They don't say, 'Please remove your suit, Mr. President.' They cut your clothes right off of you! Last time I saw that suit, it was on the floor in shreds."
It worked. Just hearing Dad joke about that suit dispelled the anxiety I'd been carrying.
"That young man who shot me—" he continued.
"Hinckley?" I said.
"Yes. I understand his father's in the oil business."
"I heard that, too, Dad."
"They tell me the family lives in Denver. Do you suppose they have any money?"
"Well, Dad, if he's in the oil business, I would hope they'd have some money."
He looked at me and deadpanned, "Do you think they'd buy me a new suit?"
Well, the Hinckley family never bought Dad a new suit, but his old suit is now on display at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California—in shreds. They pieced it together after a fashion, but you can see the rents where they cut it off of him.
What a gift my father had—a gift for putting people at ease, even in a crisis. He always wanted other people to feel comfortable in his room—including his operating room. Courage, concern for others, and grace under fire—those are the marks of a true leader.
Michael Reagan is the son of President Ronald Reagan and a political consultant. He is the founder and chairman of The Reagan Group and president of The Reagan Legacy Foundation. Visit his website at www.reagan.com. Portions of this column are adapted from his book "The New Reagan Revolution" (St. Martin's Press).