Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Book Review: Rawhide Down by Del Quentin Wilber

Less than two months ago I watched twelve - yes, twelve documentaries on the assassination of President John Kennedy. Several of those specials were well crafted television productions; and a few others were put together to capitalize on the 50th anniversary of JFK's tragic and nation changing death.

It got me thinking about the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. Trying to find information on this piece of history is a slightly more daunting challenge, but I discovered what may very well be one of the best non-fiction books I've read in the last five years.

Rawhide Down, by Del Quentin Wilber, a reporter for the Washington Post is an excellent read. It is compelling and hard to put down.

I was in college when the attempt on Reagan's life was made and I vividly recall the day. It was a cold afternoon and the television was on in the dorm's entry way which housed a television for people that wanted to hang out between classes. This was all way before technology was a 24/7 procedure. We got our news when we got our news, not exactly when it happened, but the television networks were on this monumental story with breakneck speed. Ronald Reagan had been shot and very little information was known even to the networks, so speculation ran rampant. Was he shot? Was anyone else shot? Was he dead?

Lots of relevant information is brought out in this book, including an intriguing look at the "football" that could launch a nuclear attack. We are given a quick education on the contemporary history of the Secret Service. Keep in mind, had the driver of President Kennedy's car (a secret service agent) been trained to recognize the gunshot he would have moved the car quickly. These elements within the framework of the Secret Service weren't addressed until the 1970's.  It seems odd in hindsight, but even by 1981 when President Reagan was hit by an assassin there were still areas that had not been perfected, notably getting the President in and out of vehicles in plain sight. We no longer see that happening.

One of the more fascinating elements behind this story are the details relating to the stalking of Jodie Foster. Foster had literally been stalked by John Hinckley for months. He had been in touch with her via notes and phone calls. She spoke with him on more than one occasion. How on earth she didn't think to contact the authorities is still shocking to think about. As we continue to battle mentally ill people with firearms, people should take "crazy" seriously and report it. Hinckley even sent a note to FBI headquarters stating Foster would be abducted. The contacts with her became increasingly brazen and yet no one ever said a word.   

There are some amazingly intricate and detailed notes on what was going on with the backstage drama surrounding the various Cabinet members and Vice President, George Herbert Walker Bush (Bush 41). Alexander Haig doesn't come off well in this book, but from a historical perspective this is certainly a day that will live long and Haig's actions and reactions are not unpardonable. Caspar Weinberger had often quoted Winston Churchill - "Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never -- in nothing, great or small, large or petty."  Weinberger was close to Reagan.  Reagan even referred to him as his Disraeli.  Obviously, these men were fond of British Prime Ministers.  Weinberger, James Baker and several others on this presidential team come off well. Leadership played a tremendous role on that day.  

On March 30, 1981 President Reagan was headed to a speech before a union. Reagan was the first president to be a card-carrying member of an affiliated AFL-CIO union, so he was looking forward to this moment. Other than that outing, this was supposed to be a relatively average day in the life of the president. Whatever average is for a president.

Reagan had a superb temperament.  He was calm and defined grace under pressure. He also loved a good joke. He wasn't impressed with himself and it served him well in both the business of show and the political world he had gravitated toward in the second act of his life.

Reagan famously supplied humorous one-liners, but when he reflected on the news in the hospital after being told he was shot by a guy from Colorado he said "I had hoped it was a KGB agent."  He paused and added "on second thought, he wouldn't have missed then."

Reagan would eventually write "whatever happens now I owe my life to God and will try to serve him in every way I can." Reagan had a deep faith in God and he felt he had been gifted with the ultimate second chance by surviving the shooting.

This positive and inspiring behavior became public quickly and Reagan became a near mythic figure in politics. When he left office in January, 1989, he had the highest approval rating of any departing president since Harry Truman. History has been kind to the legacy of Ronald Reagan. In 2009 C-SPAN released a survey of historians (many of whom didn't agree with his financial, political or social ideologies) and he was ranked 7th of the most successful presidents in U.S. history.  

Ronald Reagan eventually was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. My father died of Alzheimer's, so I am very prone to listening to any story relating to this horrific diagnosis. Reagan's last note to the public was "I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead." He was optimistic until the last time he penned anything in his own hand.   

This book is so good you even want to read every single page of notes.

Go to Amazon or you local bookstore and order a copy of Rawhide Down. Excellent read. Superbly excellent read.

Copyright Read On Read Now 2014    

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