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Larry King Live

Remembering the Assassination Attempt on Ronald Reagan

Aired March 30, 2001 - 9:00 p.m. ET






KING: Tonight on this date, 20 years ago, the nation nearly lost President Ronald Reagan to an assassin's bullet. With us, key players in the tumultuous events that followed. Former Secretary of State James Baker, the White House chief of staff at the time of the shooting.

Former Attorney General Ed Meese, White House counselor on that fateful day.

Former National Security Adviser Richard Allen. Thanks to his quick-thinking, we have tape recordings of dramatic meetings in the White House situation room.

Former Treasury Secretary Don Regan.

David Gergen, then White House staff director, now, editor at large for "U.S. News and World Report."

Former Secret Service agent Jerry Parr. He pushed Ronald Reagan into the presidential limo, and rode with him to the hospital.

Former special assistant to the president, Rick Ahearn. He was on the scene at the shooting and he rushed to Jim Brady's aid.

Plus Dr. Joseph Giordano, who headed the trauma team that fought successfully to save Reagan's life.

They're all next, on LARRY KING LIVE.

We'll meet five other principals later. We will, in the first two segments of this important program tonight, talk with Jerry Parr, the former special agent in charge of the presidential protective division.

Rick Ahearn, was special assistant to President Reagan at the time of the shooting, and Doctor Joseph Giordano, head of the trauma team that worked on President Reagan at George Washington University Hospital.

All right, Rick, set the scene for us. You were -- he had made a speech, right?

RICK AHEARN, SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO REAGAN: He had made a speech at the Washington Hilton to the building trades conference of the AFL/CIO. It was very well received, a lot of Reagan Democrats in that audience. And we were right on schedule. We had left the ball room and went up exiting the presidential entrance. There's a special entrance at the Washington Hilton that the president always uses.

At that time it was an uncovered entrance. We were walking down the side walk...

KING: It was raining, right? Was it raining?

AHEARN: It was raining, it was a light rain. I would normally be ahead of the president. In this case, Dave Fisher (ph), who was a personal aide to the president, had stopped me and we were talking about a minor logistical matter. Then Dave went off to his left.

Mike Deaver was walking right ahead of Dave to the, or just behind Dave, toward the limousine, or he was getting in the control car, which was three cars behind the limo.

Jim Brady was right behind him. The military aide was right behind Jim Brady. As we came down the sidewalk, the limousine was straight ahead of us, parked in a position heading out. And there was a roped off public viewing area off to our left. There were also press in that viewing area, as well as some public mixed in.

KING: Jerry, where were you?

JERRY PARR, REAGAN SECRET SERVICE AGENT: I was behind the president, walking toward the open door that Tim McCarthy had opened. And I heard these six shots, actually fired in less than two seconds, and that starts the action for an agent and you simply cover, first, and evacuate.

KING: Did you know, Jerry, they were gunshots?

PARR: Not at that time, but when I saw the bullet hole in the window as we left, I was sure. But I couldn't take the chance that they weren't.

KING: What did you do, Rick?

AHEARN: Well, as Jerry says, everything happened very quickly. I initially thought they were fire crackers, they were so small. And of course, as Jerry says, the agents reacted immediately. The initial instinct was to go towards the president, then I realized I should stay out of the agent's way, and at that time one of the rounds that hit the window that Jerry mentions, the glass that was pulverized by that round struck me in the eye and in the left cheek.

That frightened me, and I recoiled backwards. By the time I realized the president was in the car and gone and I wasn't hurt, I had seen Jim Brady falling out of the corner of my eye, as well as the others who were injured. Obviously, there were other people to take care of those individuals, but my responsibility was to my fellow staffer at that time, so I ran over to Jim Brady, and...

KING: He looked pretty bad.

AHEARN: He looked very bad. He was lying face down. He had just gone straight down. He didn't have his arms up to break his fall or anything. He just went straight forward. I believe it was the first round that struck him. We were later informed.

KING: Did you know he was shot?

AHEARN: Well, no. I saw him fall. But until I got over there, I didn't realize he'd been shot. But he was trying to raise his head, and the police officer, Officer Delahanty, had fallen right next to him. His legs were on top of Jim, and he was kicking instinctively. At that point I saw Jim had a severe gunshot wound to his forehead. I pulled out my handkerchief and clutched it to the wound.

KING: Jerry, did you push the president into the limo?

PARR: Yes, I had his body. I was trying to get between where I heard the gunfire coming from and the president, and actually, Ray Shaddock (ph) , my shift leader, and I both pushed him in the car, and he went in with his arms extended.

KING: Did he know he was shot?

PARR: Not at that time. It wasn't until I recognized the blood coming out of his mouth en route to the White House and, of course, then we changed the schedule and went to the hospital, that I realized we had a real trauma here.

KING: Doctor Giordano, we now bring you in. What were you doing at the time that early afternoon?

DR. JOSEPH GIORDANO, HEAD OF REAGAN TRAUMA TEAM: I was up on the 6th floor of the hospital seeing a patient, examining a patient at that time. They stat paged me to come to the emergency room. Ordinarily I don't get stat paged. So it was a little bit unusual. I went downstairs, I went through the ER, and there were a lot of people around. As it turns out they were Secret Service people, and he was lying on a stretcher, being worked on by my residents.

KING: Did someone brief you as to what happened? Or you just went right to him?

GIORDANO: I went right to him. My residents gave me a rundown on what was going on. At that time they had discovered that he sustained a gunshot wound that went in under his left arm.

KING: And, Rick, did you go to the hospital too, with Brady?

AHEARN: Yes, we were back at the Hilton after the motorcade had departed. I was trying to staunch the flow of blood from his wound, which was a massive wound to his left forehead, and keep him from moving.

I had called for additional handkerchiefs. I remember Dave Prosprey (ph) and Rocky Coone (ph) and our press people handed some. Some of the cameramen did. At the same time the police were pushing everyone back, keeping the driveway open.

There was an off duty fireman there, medic, who said he was doing triage and wanted to move Officer Delahanty first. But it was clear to me, and I'm not a doctor, that Jim Brady really had to go first.

KING: How did you get to the hospital?

AHEARN: I went in the ambulance with Jim Brady. And we had quite a ruckus in the ambulance on the way. The fire department came, the ambulance finally got there, I called for the medic that we had a severe head wound. He looked over and said,"You're right." He threw me a compress and I put that up against the wound until he came over and wrapped it with a wound.

I got into the ambulance with him, I kept asking the medic where they were taking him? He didn't answer. There was a secret service agent that was helping me with first aid, Jim Barry, he's now the chief of the Capitol Police. I climbed into the ambulance, and another secret service agent climbed in behind me. I think he felt that that might have been an agent getting in, I'm not sure why.

The medic finally said they were taking to him the Med Star unit at the Washington Hospital Center. And I argued very vigorously, I know this is a family show, I won't tell you what was said, but made it very clear to go to George Washington.

KING: Because the president was there, or because you...

AHEARN: I had no idea the president was there, I knew that was the closest hospital. And on the way, the driver said he did not know how to get there. So the agent climbed over into the front seat and directed him.

When we got to the hospital, and got out of the ambulance, I saw the presidential limousine. On the way to the hospital I had gotten on my radio, called the radio room at the White House, told them I was in an ambulance with Brady who was badly wounded, to please inform the president's office, the press office, and the advance office, and to send some help to the hospital.

So, I thought the president maybe -- you have strange thoughts going through your mind in matters of this nature. I saw the limo, I thought perhaps the president had come to check on Brady.

KING: We'll be right back with Jerry Parr, Rick Ahearn, and Doctor Giordano, and then the rest of the other members of the panel will assemble. Don't go away.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Get a patrol car! Go, get it! Get a car! .

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Clear the area, please.




RONALD REAGAN, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I didn't know I was shot. I heard a noise, when we came out of the hotel and headed for the limousine, and I heard some noise, and I thought it was firecrackers. And the next thing I knew, one of the Secret Service agents behind me just seized me here by the waist and plunged me head first into the limo.

I landed on the seat, and the seat divider was down, and then he dived in on top of me, which is part of their procedure to make sure that I'm covered. As it turned out later, the shot that got me careened off the side of the limousine and hit me while I was diving into the car. And it hit me back here, under the arm, and then hit a rib, and that's what caused extreme pain, and then it tumbled and turned -- instead of edgewise, it went tumbling down to within an inch of my heart.

But when I got in the car, I hadn't felt anything. He landed on top of me, and then the pain, which now I know came from the bullet hitting that rib, that terrific pain, and I said: "Jerry, get off, I think you have broken a rib of mine." And he got off very quickly. And just then, I coughed. And I had a handful of bright, red, frothy blood. So I said: "Evidently, the broken rib has pierced the lung." He simply turned and said, "George Washington Hospital," and we were on our way.


KING: OK, Rick Ahearn is arriving at George Washington Hospital. You're already there, Jerry. What are you doing at the hospital?

PARR: Well, actually, Ray Shaddock (ph) opened the rear door, and the president stuck his hand out, obviously he wanted to walk in. He got to his feet. Shaddock (ph) and I we were on either side, and several agents surrounding him. We went into the emergency room, and I think maybe about 20 feet, he collapsed, dead weight, 195, 200 pounds of dead weight.

An ambulance driver or technician helped us carry him to trauma bed number five, and as I was walking toward trauma bed number five, I yelled to Shaddock (ph) to set up a protective perimeter, which he did.

They immediately went into action around the president, taking his clothes off, measuring his blood pressure, his heartbeat. And I remember with a sinking feeling that the nurse said faint heartbeat, very low blood pressure. And I really thought we were going to lose him right there. Then they found the entrance wound, and that surprised me because I didn't think he had been shot. I thought maybe I had broken a rib when I went in on top of him. But the trauma team really saved his life once we got him there.

KING: Dr. Giordano, how close to death was President Reagan?

GIORDANO: He had a very serious injury, Larry, and I think he was close to death. I think that the fact that he came immediately to George Washington and that there was a trauma team there that were quickly able to resuscitate him, saved the day.

He came in with a blood pressure that was barely obtainable, and he left a half-hour later from the emergency room with a blood pressure that was that essentially normal. In fact, it was above normal. So, that period of time was critical, and I think that happily, it worked out very well.

I compliment Jerry on the decision to bring him to the emergency room immediately instead of stopping off at the White House. I think that really saved the day, it was the most critical decision made in his care.

KING: And in that half-hour, you applied the various things that had to be done to get that blood pressure. You didn't get the bullet out then, that was in surgery?

GIORDANO: That was in surgery. No, what we did was we started IVs, we gave him fluids, we gave him blood. I put a chest tube in to drain the blood out. And we did our regular examination to make sure there were no other problems.

He stabilized very quickly. Within 10 or 15 minutes, his blood pressure was building up. A lot of blood came out the chest tube, so he had a very serious injury, and we knew that right off the bat.

KING: Rick, did you think Brady would die?

AHEARN: Well, once we decided...


AHEARN: ... I did not know. Well, that was in the middle of surgery. And Dr. Cobrine (ph) was coming out periodically telling us that it was touch and go, but at no time did anyone ever say that they had lost him. I don't know where that came from.

KING: But you knew it was real serious?

AHEARN: Well, it was obviously very serious. But as I understand, once Jim got to the hospital, things started breaking in his way, because the right specialist happened to be there to perform the right surgery.

KING: There was some luck involved that day, and a lot of talented people involved, right? AHEARN: I would say certainly there were a lot of talented people involved. The Secret Service performed admirably in my view, and especially looking at the films afterwards -- they reacted immediately, there wasn't even a split second, as Jerry says, from the sound of the first round to the commencement...

KING: And the right doctors being there at the right time, everything worked.

AHEARN: The right doctors at the right time certainly made a difference in the case of Jim Brady, as we were all told subsequently.

KING: Jerry, did you at this time -- were you on radio, learning that it was one shooter and not some kind of vast plot?

PARR: No, I wasn't on the radio. In fact, I gave very obscure responses on the radio, because I knew at the time we were not covered, we were not encrypted, anybody with a scanner could have heard. The only thing I told Ray Shaddock (ph) and the follow-up car with the agents in it, I said, let's hustle. And when he heard that, he knew something was wrong.

KING: Dr. Giordano, the president's life then is saved in the first half-hour, but still the operation took some doing, didn't it?

GIORDANO: Absolutely. We talk in trauma about the golden hour, stabilize the patient in the first 60 minutes. In this particular case, it took 30 minutes. But then, definitive surgery had to be done. He had to be brought to the operating room to stop the bleeding from his chest. That was done.

KING: You did noble work. Rick, you'll never forget this, do you? I mean, this...

AHEARN: No, it's not something that you ever forget.

KING: Have you been by the Hilton many times?

AHEARN: Yes, well, there are a number of events that occur there...

KING: I know.

AHEARN: ... so you go. It looks a little different now. The presidential entrance is covered. The sidewalks are a lot more narrow. The grate where Jim fell is covered up by concrete.

KING: Dr. Giordano, are you still in medicine? You're still at the hospital?

GIORDANO: Yes, I'm chairman of surgery at George Washington.

KING: And Jerry, what are you doing?

PARR: Well, I'm doing a little ministry and a little counseling and a little consulting. KING: Thanks to all three of you. When we come back: James Baker, Ed Meese, Richard Allen, Don Regan and David Gergen, all at the White House during this traumatic time. Don't go away.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Get out of the way! Get out of here!



KING: Welcome back to LARRY KING LIVE. We have set the scenario, now let's bring to you the scene of the happenings at the White House. And joining us from Houston, James Baker, former secretary of State, he was the White House chief of staff on that fateful day.

In San Francisco is Ed Meese. Later, he would become attorney general, he was administration attorney general, and he was counselor to Reagan at the time of the shooting.

Richard Allen is in Washington, President Reagan's national security adviser who taped hours of conversation in the situation room. A lot of those tapes, the transcripts, appear in the current "Atlantic Monthly."

In Williamsburg, Virginia is Don Regan, Treasury secretary in the Reagan White House. He was in the situation room on the day of the shooting.

And in Palm Beach is David Gergen, editor at large "U.S. News and World Report." He was White House staff director, also in the situation room meeting.

Did you, Richard Allen, did do you the taping? Did you say "tape" or do they automatically tape?

RICHARD ALLEN, REAGAN NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Larry, there, by tradition and custom, there are no tape recorders in the situation room, which is a secure room adjacent to -- was adjacent to my office at the time. And you don't take tape recorders in there in order to preserve the sensitivity and the secrecy.

But on this particular occasion, since we weren't discussing matters of policy that were extremely and highly classified, but rather dealing with a national emergency -- in fact, Ed Meese asked me to keep a log of events. I had already started the tape recording, I used a cheap little battery-operated tape recorder that I have had for many years, and brought the tapes in, the batteries in, and put them right on the center of the table. No one objected. Don Regan did, in fact, notice and wrote about it in his book.

KING: But all the people involved, everyone on the show tonight, all knew they were being taped?

ALLEN: Well, unless they -- their vision was failing, the...

KING: Couldn't miss it.

ALLEN: ... pictures of the tape recorder right on top. And it very important that an accurate record be kept, so that precisely we knew what was going on.

The command center was at the hospital where Ed and Jim were located with the president. We were the nerve center, as Ed put it that day. And so we had some very serious responsibilities, including calming other governments and assessing carefully the national security situation as it was at the moment.

KING: Let's find out what each of the gentlemen were doing at the minute. Later, we'll get into the tapes. James Baker, where were you when you heard the president was shot?

JAMES BAKER, REAGAN WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: I was in my office at the White House, Larry, the office of the chief of staff. And I got a report through the Secret Service command post in the White House that something had happened over at the speech. It was subsequently reported, as I recall it, that the president -- that the party had been shot at, subsequently reported that the president had been hit.

My recollection is that I immediately picked up the phone and called Ed Meese down the hall, although his recollection may be a bit different than that. And then we proceeded to go immediately over to the hospital, when we learned that the president had been taken to Georgetown Hospital.

KING: Ed Meese, what's your memory of that moment?

EDWIN MEESE, REAGAN ATTORNEY GENERAL: Very similar. I was in my office and somebody ran in, I believe, initially, and said that Jim Brady had been shot. And at that time, we did not know the president had been shot. I went over to the Secret Service post there in the White House, they didn't know much more about it. I then went over to the White House to talk with Nancy Reagan. Her detail, her Secret Service detail, had already informed her and she had left for the hospital.

Then I went to Jim Baker's office, and we were together on the phone with Mike Deaver, and when I got there, Mike -- I asked if the president had been shot, and Mike Deaver said no. And then he said, wait a minute, and at that point he got the word that the president had in fact been shot, at which point both Jim and I commandeered Don Regan's car. He had arrived by that time. We got in that car and sped to the hospital.

KING: Don Regan, how did you hear about it?

DON REGAN, REAGAN TREASURY SECRETARY: The Secret Service agent outside my door, George Adams, knocked and entered very quickly, and said: "I hear on my earpiece that the president may have been shot and they are taking him to George Washington Hospital." With that, I said, let's get to the White House. Grabbed my car, drove over to the White House, and went into Jim Baker's office.

KING: And David Gergen, where were you?

DAVID GERGEN, REAGAN WHITE HOUSE STAFF DIRECTOR: I was in the Roosevelt room in the West Wing of the White House at a meeting, Larry, when the word passed there had been a shooting at the hotel. I went immediately to Jim Baker's office, chief of staff, and there a number of people assembled, as Jim and Ed just mentioned.

And as I recall, as Jim and Ed left for the hospital, Dick Allen invited the rest of us to go down to the situation room, that was the best place to gather, to be -- the nerve center, as he describes it.

KING: We have set the scene. We'll take a break, come back, and get everybody in on the conversation and listen to the tapes. Don't go away.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Lyn Nofziger told reporters at the hospital that the president was not wounded.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was wounded.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was wounded? My God! He was -- the president was hit.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He is in stable condition.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's in stable condition. All this information -- the president was hit. He was hit in the left chest, according to this, but he is in stable condition.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president was shot once in the left side this afternoon, as he left the hotel. His condition is stable. A decision is now being made whether or not to operate to remove the bullet.


KING: Now we go back around the horn. Richard Allen, where were you?

ALLEN: Well, it may sound like I was a slacker. I had called on the former prime minister of Japan, who was there to deliver a special message to President Reagan about automobiles, automobile imports, and before going to lunch, I went to the university club about three blocks from the White House to have a quick swim, in the middle of which I was pulled out by my driver -- by the hair, I might add, and told we had to get back to the White House, something awful had happened. And we proceeded at high speed, I still -- I was still dripping wet, down East Executive Avenue, around the ellipse, and up to the West Executive access point, whereupon I nearly -- my car nearly collided with that of Jim Baker and Ed Meese. I saw the whites of their eyes, almost sideswiped it directly.

I then went to my office and then up to Jim Baker's office, where there was this body of people moving about, and then decided that the situation room -- for only the essential staff -- would be the next place to go.

KING: On the first tape we'll listen -- we're discussing the location of the football, that's briefcase containing the nuclear code sequences, always at the president's side. Listen.


ALLEN: Cap is the -- cap is here.

ALEXANDER HAIG, REAGAN SECRETARY OF STATE: Cap is the -- and the football is near the vice president, so that's fine.

ALLEN: We should get one over here. We have a duplicate one here.

HAIG: Get the football over here.

ALLEN: There's one at the military aide's office. The football is in the closet. I don't think we need the chair of joint chiefs over here, do you?


KING: James Baker, this -- different administrations call this a different thing, your administration called it football?

BAKER: I think most of them call it the football. The nuclear codes, the military aide carries them for the president.

KING: Was that your big worry, too, Ed Meese, that football?

MEESE: Well, obviously, that was one of them. There were a couple of other things. I got in touch with Cap Weinberger to make sure that if there was more to this than it appeared, that the military was on alert, and he had already taken those precautions.

Also, I talked with William French Smith about the fact that there may be more of this from a law enforcement standpoint, and he was already taking -- being in touch with FBI organization and units around the country.

KING: So, Don Regan, security was as much a part of this as concern for health? Two things going on at once?

REGAN: Yes, you have to remember, Larry, that we had been in office less than 70 days when this happened. A lot of us were new on the job, this was the real first crisis that all of us had been engaged in. And therefore, none of us knew exactly who was on first, and what was going on.

KING: David Gergen, what was your point at this point? What were you trying to do?

GERGEN: Well, I think I shared with everyone uppermost concern about the health of the president. We didn't know at the beginning how badly he had been shot, but we had a sense he might have been hurt, but we didn't know -- and the original word, of course, was that Jim Brady had been much more grievously wounded.

But I think all of us had memories of '63 and John F. Kennedy in the back of our minds. And as well it was extremely important -- and all of us shared this concern -- that people around the world, other governments in particular, understand that there was a continuity in the United States and they would not take advantage of this moment: if there were a national security implication, if this had been done by a foreign power, that they not take advantage and think America's guard was down. And I think that's what everybody was united behind.

KING: Richard Allen, Vice President Bush was out of the city at this time. Who contacted him, do you know?

GERGEN: He was contacted by the group. And as I recall -- and David may have a slightly different recollection -- I thought it was David that placed the call. We finally got through. There was no secure voice communication to the vice president's airplane, which was in the air over Texas.

I recall someone, if not David someone else, handing the phone to Al Haig and shouting into a very scratchy connection: "George, it's Al. Turn around, turn around."

At that point, the milling about became such that it was important to get downstairs behind cipher locks and secure doors.

KING: David, was it you that made the call?

GERGEN: The honest answer is I can't recall, but it brings back a memory, but I'm not really absolutely certain.

KING: We'll take a break and we'll be right back. We've got lots more to do with our outstanding panel. Don't go away.


BERNARD SHAW, CNN ANCHOR: And according to police spokesmen, the suspect will be charged with assault with intent to kill a police officer and will be charged with attempting to assassinate the president of the United States. Both are federal charges.


KING: We're back with James Baker, Ed Meese, Richard Allen, Don Regan, and David Gergen.

By the way, do any of you gentlemen have any objections that the tape was released and released by Mr. Allen and subsequently printed?

REGAN: I certainly don't.

KING: Nobody does? OK.

GERGEN: I think it was a good idea, Larry.

KING: All right. There's much concern in the room about Press Secretary James Brady. Early reports are not good. Richard Allen, Casper Weinberger and Don Regan discuss it.


ALLEN: Brady is -- Brady looks bad. Looks like he caught it right smack in the front of the head. Just a -- he's been taken into a CATSCAN unit. A Washington policeman, Cap, and a Secret Service agent, yeah.

CASPER WEINBERGER, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: We don't know what -- ah -- Ed Meese said it was apparently, medical evidence indicated a low caliber.

ALLEN: 38.

REGAN: I just gave to the attorney general to check on. The word from the Secret Service is it is a 22-caliber with long rifle bullets.


KING: Donald Regan, did you think they would -- that you'd lose Jim Brady?

REGAN: We were very worried about that. As a matter of fact, later in the timeframe, there was a report that was handed to me by the Secret Service that they had picked up from the FBI wire that Brady was dead. And actually that report got out.

KING: In fact, how did it get out? Let's listen. Here is the subsequent discussion that Don Regan just spoke about. Listen.


REGAN: Jim Brady is dead.

HAIG: Brady is dead.

ALLEN: We've just learned Jim Brady has died.

REGAN: You better get a statement ready on that.

ALLEN: And we better just -- have a moment of prayer and silence for Jim Brady, died.


KING: Jim Baker, do you remember, James Baker, do you remember how you heard he had not died?

BAKER: I frankly don't remember, Larry. I was at the hospital. I was not privy to that tape, that conversation you just ran, because that was in the situation room. I was with -- over at the hospital with Ed Meese, and I really don't remember.

KING: Don, do you remember how you heard he was alive?

REGAN: Yes, I was in touch with the Secret Service and they were passing me messages from the room right next to the situation room. And in the course of handing me a message describing who the gunman was, they said we just heard on the FBI phone that Brady is dead. That's how that message first got to me.

KING: Richard Allen, do we know how that erroneous report got out?

ALLEN: Well, Don Regan expressed it correctly. My recollection -- and I meant to ask him this the other day when we had a brief conversation -- was that he passed me a piece of paper, and on it, it said Brady had died or Brady is dead. And I uttered some exclamation, I don't know exactly what it was, and then that conversation subsequently ensued.

We were in the dark for I would guess about 15 or 20 minutes, and then the report was refuted. It was a very, very welcome piece of news.

KING: Ed Meese, did you hear any rumors to that effect being at the hospital?

MEESE: Yes, we were at the hospital and we had heard from the situation room that that story had gone out to the press somehow. I don't know how it got out either. We talked to the doctors, and at that time it was so touch and go with Jim that we didn't want to put out a contrary story which would further confuse things, because it looked like he might die at any time.

And it wasn't until quite some time later that the doctors told us that it would be all right to go ahead and make a statement that Jim Brady was still alive. But that took a while, because we didn't want to have these conflicting reports going back and forth.

KING: David Gergen, were you tempted to release something?

GERGEN: No, but Larry, events were moving so swiftly we wanted to make sure. But in truth, Frank Reynolds on ABC went with a story that Jim Brady had died, because he had, you know, ABC had what they thought was good and sufficient information. And just two or three minutes later I think it was, just a very short time later, Frank got word that he had not died.

He just exploded on television.

KING: Boy, did he. GERGEN: It was one of those -- it was one of those moments in journalism when you saw a real pro who was so deeply offended that he had gone with a story he knew to be wrong, and he know how grievous it was. I was really impressed with the way he handled it.

KING: We'll be right back with more on this 20 years later event. Don't go away.


KING: We're back with James Baker, Ed Meese, Richard Allen, Don Regan, and David Gergen. Before the next tape, how much confusion, Jim Baker, at the hospital?

BAKER: Well, I'm not sure that there was a whole lot of confusion at the hospital, Larry. We were of course confused when we initially got there. But we were promptly shown into the area where the president was. I remember seeing him there laying on a gurney. He had an oxygen mask on his face. He winked at me. He couldn't speak. He had a full mask on his face, as I recall it.

And he was quipping, you know, with the doctors, with Nancy, with the staff, talking about who, you know, hey, fellows, who's minding the store? And they were -- they had already by that time I think determined they were going to take him into surgery. So I don't -- I didn't detect a whole lot of confusion among those of us on the inside at the hospital.

KING: Now back to the situation room. Alexander Haig asserts that he's in control until the vice president gets back. The exchange begins with a question from David Gergen. Listen.


GERGEN: Al, a quick question. We need a sense, more better sense of where the president is. Is he under sedation now?

HAIG: He's on the operating table.

GERGEN: He is on the operating table.

HAIG: So the helm is right here. And that means right in this chair for now, constitutionally, until the vice president gets here.

GERGEN: I understand that. I understand that.


KING: Ed Meese, was Haig bum-rapped for being criticized for that, or was he right? Was he in charge basically of the situation, not the government?

MEESE: Well, I don't think anybody would say that he was in charge under the Constitution. I think he was confusing the constitutional succession in office with who was in charge. Right at that point, everybody was in charge of their particular aspect of this. Those of us at the hospital were dealing with several things. Cap Weinberger was in charge of the military thing. He was next in line as under the military command authority responsibilities. The attorney general was handling the law enforcement responsibilities.

Lyn Nofziger, who had gone to the hospital with Jim and me, was handling the press in the absence of Jim Brady, at least the press at the hospital.

Jim was dealing with Congress. I was dealing with the rest of the government.

So I would say everything was under control, but the idea that any Cabinet member has rank over the others is simply not true. There's an order of precedence, but not an order of rank.

KING: James Baker, did you hear about the Haig statement later? Did it bother you?

BAKER: No, it didn't bother me particularly, Larry. I agree with Ed. I think that Al got it wrong. He was talking about the constitutional succession, and he simply, I think, simply got it wrong. But his motives were certainly salutary. He was trying to calm the nation and calm the public, and there was nothing -- there was nothing but total appropriateness with that -- with that tendency.

KING: David Gergen, do you accept that? Because you did say, I understand, you said to Haig.

GERGEN: I do, absolutely agree with Jim Baker. And I -- while Al Haig did mangle the constitutional order, I don't think any of us under the circumstances really wanted to get into a quarrel with him over that. We had more important issues to deal with.

He was informally sitting -- he's informally chairing the meeting in some ways in the situation room, because he was sitting at the head of the table.

ALLEN: No, he wasn't.

GERGEN: And as a former chief of staff, of course. Oh, he was not. I thought he was. But anyway, I may be wrong about that.

But there was a sense in which he wanted to assert control over the meeting, because as you recall, there had been a conflict earlier about who was going to run the crises in the government. And the question came down to whether Al Haig should be in charge of crises or the vice president. And President Reagan decided that Vice President Bush should be in charge of crises, and I think Al Haig was still smarting from that.

KING: Don Regan, how long before George Bush got there?

REGAN: Oh, it was several hours because he had to return from Air Force Two from Houston. So as a result of that, there was no vice president in the situation room until much later in the afternoon. As a matter of fact...

BAKER: 5:20, Don. It was 5:20 in the afternoon when the vice president got back to the situation room.

REGAN: I know at that point, Dick Allen hadn't been feeding us and I was pretty hungry at that point.


MEESE: Actually -- actually, Larry...

ALLEN: I'd just make the point that just to correct the time it was 7 o'clock before the vice president got back. He touched down at 6:30 at Andrews, and then I believe Ed Meese went out to the Observatory to ride back with him, and he arrived just at 7 o'clock.

KING: Maybe James Baker is thinking in Central Time, which is where James lives. Right, James? Could that be it?

BAKER: Maybe I'm thinking about when he actually got to Washington and not when he got to the situation room. But I know it was late afternoon, I remember that.

ALLEN: Indeed.

KING: We'll be back...

MEESE: And Larry, Larry...

KING: Yeah, go ahead.

MEESE: Larry, I think it should be pointed out, going back to Al Haig, that he had a good motive. He had heard from the press room that the statement was made that they weren't sure who was in charge, and he went bounding up there. And I think that was really his motivation, to make it clear to foreign leaders that we were not adrift and there was no vacuum.

And so I agree with Jim that I think to some extent he's gotten a bum rap out of this.

KING: Back with more right after this. Don't go away.


QUESTION: Who is making the decisions for the government right now? Who is making the decisions?

HAIG: Constitutionally, gentlemen, you have the president, the vice president, and the secretary of state in that order. And should the president decide he wants to transfer the helm to the vice president, he will do so.

QUESTION: Who makes that decision? (CROSSTALK)

HAIG: As of now, I am in control here in the White House pending return of the vice president and in close touch with him. If something came up, I would check with him, of course.



KING: We're back. By the way, Richard, before we hear the next tape, why didn't you play it on the 10th -- why didn't you get it out on the 10th anniversary? Didn't you worry the tape might have withered away?

ALLEN: Well, I'm a -- no, not really. I'm a believer that 20 years is a decent interval. And I was also now apprised of the fact that Oliver Stone is right now shooting a movie on this incident, and given his track record for accuracy, I thought it might be best to have the factual record out, at least part of it, right now.

KING: All right. The next one we're going to hear is a discussion on national security issues, where the nearest Soviet sub might be. Weinberger, Allen and Haig. Let's listen.


WEINBERGER: We have the crews who are normally on the alert 24- hours a day move from the base to their planes. The nearest submarine is (DELETED) minutes, 47 seconds, which is about (DELETED) minutes closer than normal.

ALLEN: Nearest Soviet sub?


ALLEN: Al, are you listening to this?

WEINBERGER: Not enough to worry about. They're in and out there all the time, but it's a close approach.


KING: Richard, how much concern was there about an out-of- country body being involved here and worried about Soviet subs? It seems almost funny at this point.

ALLEN: No. It may seem funny at this point, but at the time, it's useful to remember that there was a very uncertain situation in Poland at that time. Ed Meese and Jim Baker will remember this, of course, because being members of the National Security Council they were concerned with it.

We had had unreliable intelligence regarding Soviet intentions in Poland, and there were unusual troop movements in and around Poland that we could not see by aerial photography, overhead photography. In addition, this larger-number-than-usual of Soviet subs off our coast caused momentary concern until Cap Weinberger accurately assessed that this was changeover day. Some subs were moving in and others were moving out.

But we also still, for an hour and a half, did not have a positive identification on John Hinckley, so it was simple prudence for us to make sure that all other factors concerned were resolved before we turned our attention exclusively to the question of the president.

KING: And would you amen that James Baker, even though you were at the hospital? Do you agree that this concern was valid?

BAKER: Yes. Yes, I do. I think it was a proper issue to consider.

KING: You, too, Ed Meese?

MEESE: Yes, indeed. And that's why I say I thought Cap Weinberger did a very good job of having everything under control and being alert to these possible national security ramifications.

KING: Don Regan, this scene has to be one of incredibly mixed emotions. You don't know (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Hinckley, you don't know where -- George Bush is flying. He's coming from somewhere. Your president is on the operating table. You don't know about him. You don't know about a sub. You don't know about problems -- what -- what must it have been like?

REGAN: Well, there's one thing that a veteran of 35 years on Wall Street realizes: When there's a panic on, don't panic yourself. You try to remain cool and calm, and try to pick out exactly what it is you want to know, what it is you want to do, and then go ahead and do it.

From my point of view, my main job was worrying about the markets, what was happening to the dollar, things of that nature. So I was in touch with Treasury trying to follow the international money markets.

I was also, of course, as head of Secret Service -- that's a Treasury agency -- in touch with them as to, you know, is this a single person, is this a conspiracy, what is going on -- thinking of it from a domestic angle rather than an international angle, which was certainly being handled very well by Cap Weinberger and Al Haig.

KING: We'll take a break and get the final thoughts of each of our panelists right after these words.


SHAW: President Reagan is showing an awful lot of pluck given this tragedy. He underwent emergency exploratory surgery, as we said. He was reported in good condition. And guess what he told his wife, Nancy? The president of the United States is quoted as telling his wife at his hospital bed, "Honey, I forgot to duck."




GEORGE BUSH, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I can reassure this nation and a watching world that the American government is functioning fully and effectively. We've had full and complete communications throughout the day.


KING: We're back. By the way, James Baker is coming to us from the Baker Institute at Rice University. We congratulate you on it. It's a great edifice, great idea, Jim.

One more tape. Let's hear Vice President Bush now. He's back. Listen.


BUSH: And my view is the more normal everything is, the better it is. I mean, I'd like to see us, when we finish this round of -- I mean, go upstairs -- unless we're waiting for something extraordinarily sensitive, because it gives a signal that we're all sitting around on the edge of some -- something, which, of course, we could understand everybody is doing up until a couple of hours ago. But if these reports are as encouraging as they are, it seems to me that as soon as we get into the most normal condition possible and everybody do his job, the better it is.


KING: Donald Regan first and then we'll go around: How well did George Bush handle things?

REGAN: Oh, he was a very calm, very -- how do I put it? -- effective in his demeanor at setting the stage. He had had time to think it through on the way back from Houston. And as a result of his coming in, it was a very subduing and calming influence, not only us on but the nation as a whole, because he decided to go on TV and explain to the nation what had happened.

KING: David Gergen, we learn a lot by having these tapes out. We learn how things go when men and women are faced with an incredible situation, with dealing with it, and future administrations can learn because anything can happen, as we speak.

GERGEN: Crises often define leaders and men, Larry, and in this case, George Bush in particular was very graceful. I think he's at his best in a crisis. Contrary to press reports about, based on these tapes, that chaos reigned in the situation room and to some degree in the hospital, I think that these tapes reveal a very deliberative, mature group of people trying to deal with, in a thoughtful way, with a crisis. I think it was very well-handled.

And finally, this was a defining moment, a turning point in the presidency of Ronald Reagan. I think the American public, seeing him take a bullet with a smile, making those quips as Jim Baker said, when he was all by himself, they saw him in his true character that night. And always after there was a sense that Ronald Reagan had courage. He had what Hemingway called grace under pressure.

KING: Ed Meese, would you say this was a proud day in national affairs?

MEESE: Well, I think it was. As Don Regan pointed out, we were all relatively new, and I think that while the president's health was our concern in the back of our minds the whole time and we were very much relieved when the doctors finally told us that it appeared he was out of danger, I think everybody performed excellently, and I think it was a good test for the administration. I think everybody came through.

KING: James Baker, do you often think back on the events that touched your life?

BAKER: Why quite often, Larry. Quite often. You know, I suppose by -- I suppose it surprised a lot of people, including myself, that I was even there as White House chief of staff at that time. But there's one thing I really want to say, Larry, that we haven't touched on here yet. Ed Meese and I, when we were over at the hospital, talked. I remember going into a broom closet, and we sat in that broom closet, and we talked about the 25th Amendment.

There had been some books written, some articles written, concluding very erroneously, in my opinion, that we should have somehow invoked the 25th Amendment as a consequence of the fact that President Reagan was going to be under anesthesia for a few hours.

That was the only time that President Reagan was actually unable to perform or discharge the duties of the president. And the 25th Amendment has two ways you get there. One the president signs a statement himself saying he's going to be unable to discharge -- he was not in a position the do that -- or secondly, the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet have to do it on their own motion.

KING: So there was no way to do it.

BAKER: And I think we made -- no, there wasn't. The vice president was in the air on the way back. By the time he got back, the president was out of surgery. And I think we made absolutely the right decision.

KING: We're out of time. Richard Allen, in retrospect, are you glad you let them out? ALLEN: I certainly am. I'm glad that my colleagues don't object, but perhaps may find it helpful.

I'd like the say that Vice President Bush at that time performed magnificently. But Jim Baker and Ed Meese kept that situation under excellent control.

We did our job. They were certainly doing theirs. And I'm very proud of that day.

I think it indicated a maturity and an ability to deal with crises on very short notice.

KING: I think our nation was grateful to all of you. Thank you so much. We're out of time. I'm Larry King. Good night.



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