David C. Henley: Scares and the presidency

While pondering President Donald Trump’s statement that he has “beat” the novel coronavirus and is ready to return to the campaign trail, my memories flooded back to March 30, 1981, the last time the United States confronted a presidential life or death scare.

On that spring day 39 years ago, President Ronald Reagan, who had been in office just two months, was shot and critically wounded by an unbalanced 24-year old John Hinckley Jr., who fired a pistol at the president as he was about to enter his official limousine following a speech to a group of labor leaders at the Washington Hilton Hotel. Hinckley fired six shots at Reagan in less than two seconds. The first five hit presidential aides and Secret Service officers. But the sixth hit Reagan in the left side after bouncing off the limousine.

Reagan was taken to George Washington University Hospital where the initial medical verdict indicated he might not live because of massive blood loss. But he survived and was re-elected in 1984. Hinckley, the son of a wealthy Texas oil man, told the Secret Service after he was arrested that he had a fixation on actress Jodie Foster, and shot at Reagan in order to get her attention. He was found not guilty because of insanity and ordered held at St. Elizabeth’s Mental Hospital in Washington until deemed mentally well enough to be discharged. On July 27, 2016, Hinckley, who today is 65 years old, was released to his mother’s care and has lived with her in Williamsburg, Virginia since his father’s death several years ago.

I have always been interested in the fact that several U.S. presidents have had close relations with Nevada. Abraham Lincoln was the first of them, and I will write about that interest in a future column. Ronald Reagan is one of the more recent presidents with Nevada ties. Years before he was elected president and almost died from the Hinckley assassination attempt, Reagan, a movie actor, often joked that the “lowest point in my life was when I co-starred with a chimp in the 1951 movie ‘Bedtime for Bonzo.’” Reagan told his wife, Nancy, “I hope I don’t have to sink this low again.” The Reagans were in Nevada at the time, where some of the Bonzo movie was filmed. Reagan also had played the lounge room of the Last Frontier Hotel for two weeks. He was $18,000 in debt and out of work, but he said that Nancy, whom he had married less that two years earlier, had promised to help him through whatever lay ahead, and she kept that promise.

When Reagan was elected governor of California, his new friend was Paul Laxalt, who had just been elected governor of Nevada. This was in the mid-1960s, and both men became strongly motivated to preserve and protect Lake Tahoe, which lies in both states. The two new governors created the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, and the Reagans often visited the lake, where they enjoyed fishing and boating with the Laxalts and their friends. Following his election as president and Laxalt’s as a U.S. senator from Nevada, the pair maintained their friendship, and Reagan nicknamed Laxalt “My First Friend.”

President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Bobby, also had strong relations with Nevada. The Nov. 22, 1963 assassination in Dallas of John Kennedy and the shooting death of Bobby on June 6, 1968 caught the interest of journalists and historians because both of the Kennedy men had spent many days and nights in Las Vegas and at Lake Tahoe. In Kennedy’s Dallas assassination, his open Lincoln convertible, which also held his wife, Jackie, and Texas Gov. John Connally and his wife, was ambushed about 1:30 p.m. when ex-Marine Lee Harvey Oswald fired three shots at the car from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository as the vehicle drove slowly by during a city-wide parade. Kennedy was critically wounded and taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital where he died later that day. Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who rode in the parade several cars behind Kennedy’s, was sworn in as the new president the same day. Oswald was shot to death by Jack Ruby several days later.

The assassination of Bobby Kennedy had followed his winning the California presidential primary election that same day, June 6, 1968. Bobby was shot to death by Sirhan Sirhan, an Ambassador Hotel waiter in Los Angeles. Struck by several of Sirhan’s bullets, Bobby was taken to nearby Good Samaritan Hospital where he died the following day. Sirhan was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole. I will have warm thoughts of Good Samaritan Hospital forever as my three children, two nieces, my wife, Ludie, and her late brother, Bill, were all born at “Good Sam.”

Both John and Bobby Kennedy had often been Nevada visitors because they raised great amounts of money here for their political campaigns and had met hordes of attractive young women at Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas parties. Many entertainers also flocked to the parties, and among them were members of Hollywood’s so-called “Rat Pack.” The Rat Pack became nationally and internationally famous beginning in the mid 1960s, and its members included Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Bobby’s favorite date was Marilyn Monroe. And the favorite gal of John Kennedy also was Marilyn Monroe. The two men, both brought up as gentlemen, were able to share Miss Monroe without difficulties, I have heard.

President Trump, like Reagan and the Kennedys, also has major Nevada connections. He owns the 64-story, 1,232-room Trump Tower Hotel and Resort in Las Vegas. Gilded in gold leaf, the hotel, like all hotels in the U.S., has been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and recently had to lay off more than 500 workers.

As for Trump himself, he is making plans to continue his nationwide campaign rallies and speeches as election day will be upon us in just 20 days. He said last weekend, “It looks like I’m immune for, I don’t know, maybe a long time, maybe a short time. It could be a lifetime. Nobody really knows, but I’m immune. So the president is in very good shape to fight the battles.” Let’s hope he’s correct.

David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard.


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