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Walter Rodgers: Remembering Reagan assassination attempt

Walter Rodgers
Walter Rodgers

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(CNN) -- John Hinckley Jr., the man who shot President Reagan in 1981, wants a federal court to allow him to take unsupervised trips to his parent's house in Virginia. Hinckley has been institutionalized since 1982, when he was found not guilty by reason of insanity of attempting to assassinate Reagan and wounding a Secret Service agent and presidential spokesman James Brady outside a hotel in Washington.

CNN correspondent Walter Rodgers witnessed the assassination attempt, working for Associated Press Radio. He spoke Monday from Baghdad with anchor Wolf Blitzer about the events of March 30, 1981.

RODGERS: I knew John Hinckley. He and I had an altercation 30 seconds before he shot the president of the United States. I was working my way to the front of the crowd to get a microphone in position to ask a question. I said, "Press, excuse me, please." I became conscious of a young man in a tan raincoat. He said, "Press, press. Who do they think they are? Don't let him through." I made my way to the front.

A few seconds later, Mr. Ronald Reagan came out, all of a sudden 18 inches over my left ear, Hinckley started firing. My friend Jim Brady fell at my feet. I can see it now, I will never forget it. He had a bullet hole in his forehead at the time. Secret Service agents knocked everybody down, I was on the bottom of the pile. They weren't looking for him. I managed to wiggle out and dash out and file the story.

BLITZER: Those were momentous seconds. You remember them so vividly, Walter, an incredible moment. You were part of the pool covering President Ronald Reagan at the Washington Hilton hotel.

RODGERS: It was open coverage. Everybody was covering the president doing a speech. There was a foreign policy event, overseas. We wanted to dash outside and get the president's reaction. We jumped outside. As soon as he came out, in a matter of seconds, John Hinckley starting firing. He wounded a Secret Service agent.

I challenge the jury who acquitted him on the base of insanity. I told this to the U.S. attorney when I was debriefed. My contention was, he had an argument with me, he was as hostile to me as he was to the person he was shooting at. He could have done, five, six, seven shots to the approximate, say one for me. I always said he knew what he was doing, because he didn't shoot me.

BLITZER: Hinckley wants unsupervised visits -- since you were there, so close to him, it was such an important story that you remember so vividly. What goes through your mind, Walter?

RODGERS: I remember my last conversation with the prosecutors before the trial. We talked about my audiotape. I had a radio tape of the entire thing. He said to me, yes, Hinckley remembers you. He doesn't like you very much. I would like to see him locked up forever. I am not covering the story. He maintained his hostility to me about our original altercation even after he shot the president. I am glad I am not in Washington if he gets out on weekends.

BLITZER: I know how strongly all of our colleagues who covered Ronald Reagan feel about that one moment. It wasn't just Ronald Reagan, as you correctly point out, that was shot that day, either, was it?

RODGERS: No, a Secret Service agent badly wounded. The memory, as I look at the camera lens and talk to you, I see Jim Brady's bald head at my feet. It is not like the movies. What you get is a hole. Jim Brady, a friend of mine, fell at my feet. We all got knocked down as the agents came over.


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