March 30, 1981: What Really Happened

Posted: Aug 09, 2011 12:01 AM

As of the last count by the Associated Press several years ago, there had been over 900 books written about Ronald Reagan. In the last several years, more have been added and given the abiding interest in the Gipper, one can be assured that many more are in the offing.

A handful of these books are excellent.

My friend Douglas Brinkley, who edited the Reagan Diaries---and who also edited a new book based on a previously unknown file in Reagan’s White House desk of his thoughts and musings-told me several years ago, “The realm of Reagan scholarship is just beginning to open up.”

Del Quintin Wilber’s new and groundbreaking book, Rawhide Down, is firmly in the excellent category of Reagan books.

Wilber’s book is testament to Brinkley’s observation. It is also lively, well-written and, even after 30 years, makes news. It is an important contribution to the history and understanding of one of our greatest presidents.

Surprisingly, in the 30 years since the assassination attempt on Reagan, no comprehensive book has ever been written before and given the meticulousness and thoroughness and story-telling by Wilber, it will be sometime if ever before someone tries to rival Wilber, the police reporter for the Washington Post.

This is where Wilber’s skills as a investigative journalist paid off. Until his book, Americans never really knew how close Reagan came to dying, how two split second decisions by Agent Jerry Parr, save Reagan’s life twice on that day. The book recounts also a marvelous “tick tock” of the time from when Reagan collapsed in George Washington Hospital (after insisting on walking in under his own steam) to his time on the operating table, as a doctor gently lifted Reagan’s heart, looking for the bullet. Even thinking about it now as I write this it gives me the chills. Wilber’s narrative is that good, reminding one of James Swanson’s story-telling in Manhunt, especially in the minutes after the shooting of Abraham Lincoln.

Reluctant as I am to use shopworn clichés (unless they serve my purposes) Rawhide Down is a page turner. Many of us who worked for Reagan and have written about Reagan learned things we did not know. So certainly will the more pedestrian reader.

Wilber is not a professional historian which brings up a pet peeve. There exists in this country an attitude among the tenured historians of the academy that only they can record true history. For years, the attitude had been if a writer did not have at least a Master’s Degree, if they were not tenured at a top flight school, they then could not be regarded as true historians.

These are the same people who made Barbara Tuchman’s life miserable, even as she won two Pulitzers including for her masterpiece, The Guns of August.

History should be written for everybody and not just for the ivory tower historians to read each other’s works, and put each other’s works on their mandated syllabi.

History should be recorded by historians, but also by gumshoe reporters like Wilber with a passion for rooting out every fact or by entrepreneurs, who are willing to take risks, since risk is central to their livelihood. History should be lively, informative and involving for the reader.

Rawhide Down is lively, informative and involving.

After all, as Faulkner said history is not was, history “is.”