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Elder Bush Recalls Reagan Shooting

CBS News' Radio's Peter Maer speaks with former president George H.W. Bush 25 years after the Reagan assassination attempt on March 30, 1981.

Peter Maer: Many people probably lose sight of the fact that you and Ronald Reagan had only been in office for 70 days on that day in March of '81. What are your most vivid memories of that awful day 25 years ago?

Former President Bush: First, the shock of his being shot. I was in Texas at the time on a trip. I didn't really realize or understand fully what had happened although they began sending reports to me on Air Force Two. My original thoughts — and they still prevail — is a friend has been hurt. A friend has been shot. And then it all unfolded from there because there was speculation immediately, and understandably, that if something happened to Reagan I might be president. So the Secret Service shot me off to our airplane. We sat there for a while for some reason. I can't remember why and then flew back to Washington. So I remember the reaction. A friend has been shot. I didn't honestly believe that the burden of the presidency would fall on my shoulders and all of that.

Maer: Did you know at first that he had been shot? He didn't and it took a while for the word to filter out.

Bush: Probably by the time we got the information, we knew that that's what had happened. I wrote some notes on Air Force Two that really talk about my feelings and I can look at that if you'd like.

Peter Maer With Former President Bush
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Maer: Sure. That would be helpful. Thank you.

Bush: (Refers to written notes.) This was little notes written on Air Force stationery: The enormity of it comes upon me 20 minutes out of Austin. That's when we took off. I say, I prayed literally that Ronald Reagan recovers. I mean real serious prayer about that. The element of a friend, not just commander in chief, the president. That was what I just told you was my first recollection. A friend is hurt. A friend is — and then I put in parentheses right below that 'decent, warm, kind.' I had not known Reagan very well over the years but once I got on the ticket with him and then came into office with him, this came to mind right then when he was hurting: 'decent, warm and kind.' 'Not knowing:' I put that down as a concern. So I guess I didn't know the full deal. I determined that I would not fly on to the South Lawn when we got to Andrews Air Force Base because I didn't want to inadvertently send a signal that I thought I was president of the United States. Only the president should go in there.

Maer: I wanted to ask you about that because that's a vivid memory of many of us who were there at the time. So that was your own command decision not to land a military chopper on the White House lawn?

Bush: Exactly. It never occurred to me to do the other but there was some talk — you got to get there fast and you know, convene the Cabinet or meet with the Cabinet or something like that. It never occurred to me to do differently. I think, in retrospect, it was absolutely the right thing to do. There was debate later on about transferring the powers of the presidency to the vice president. I don't think that even happened then.

Maer: So the powers were never officially transferred?

Bush: Not in that instance. They were later on when Reagan underwent an operation for cancer. I think they actually transferred to me for three or four hours but this time they did not. We then talked a little more about we get some reports in. The Secret Service guy was talking about flying into the hangar so we wouldn't cause any notoriety. Then we got some reports. Condition is good. Reagan is still in surgery. So it just kind of unfolded right there on the airplane. It was fascinating.

Maer: Were you ever aware of how close Ronald Reagan came to dying?

Bush: Not really, I don't think. In fact the reports we got were not — I don't think I got any that said life threatening or life threatened. When we got back there was a lot of speculation but I can't say that I was.

Maer: He later wrote that the bullet stopped an inch from his heart so did "the heartbeat away from the presidency" thought ever enter your mind or in retrospect?

Bush: In retrospect, maybe so, more so than what at the time. I can't say I didn't have any thought about that at all because the enormity was out there for the whole world to see. But I'll put it this way: I didn't think it was going to happen. I wasn't aware of the bullet being that close to finishing him off.

Maer: What are your memories of the first time you saw Ronald Reagan in the hospital?

Bush: They're a little vague too, Peter. I'm getting along in years here. But I didn't want to overstay my welcome. I wanted to show we were in touch and then report back that he was looking good. That's about all I remember about it.

Maer: If I could jog your memory just a little bit, I recall a story that you've told about Ronald Reagan wiping up a water spill on the hospital floor. He was worried about something?

Bush: Oh, yeah. He didn't want the nurse to have to do it. That was typical of Reagan. People don't realize his kindness. He spilled and he cleaned the water up himself so the nurse wouldn't have to do it. It was a little tiny vignette. Now that you prompt my memory, I remember it.

Maer: I've read in a number of sources there were concerns about Soviet intentions that day.

Bush: I have to say I don't remember it. I would be surprised if we gave any credibility to that, any credence to that. Maybe it was so.

Maer: It was such a confusing time that day, at least to those of us on the outside looking in. What did you think when you heard about Alexander Haig's famous declaration that he was in control at the White House?

Bush: (Chuckles) I think I thought I better get back and demonstrate that I was in control briefly ... but that the regular order should apply. I didn't take it as a personal attack on my prerogatives or on my position as vice president of the United States. I had known Al Haig a long, long time and he was under a lot of pressure there. He took a huge hit on that and I'm not sure it was altogether fair. I think in the White House at the time there was some real feeling. Cap Weinberger, I think, was very unhappy about it as I remember. I don't know where the other Cabinet officers came down but by the time I got back there that had been resolved and everything had calmed down.

Maer: Given the frantic nature of what had happened that day, was the situation that you found under control at the White House?

Bush: I think it was under control but there were question marks. What's really happening? How's the president really doing? How's this going to affect our country? It got more into that philosophical bent, you might say, rather than the temporary elbows flying about who's going to do what to whom?

Maer: What were your thoughts when you found out about Jim Brady, Tim McCarthy, the Secret Service agent and Thomas Delahanty, the D.C. police officer?

Bush: It was one of just angst, terrible anxiety. I had a very close relationship with Brady as did most everybody in the White House. He was widely respected and widely liked. The Secret Service agent — I don't remember whether he'd ever been on our earlier details when I was a candidate or anything — but they all respected him. Since it was, you know, a colleague is lost. A colleague is hurt, more of that than anything else. Respect. Respect for the way the Secret Service does its job. He took a bullet for the president of the United States. He could have gone for cover and he didn't. That was just a symbol that I can always look to remind me how great the Secret Service people are. I'm a total advocate for the U.S. Secret Service.

Maer: Have the events of that day affected your own feelings on the issue of gun control?

Bush: Nope. It hasn't changed a bit.

Maer: Why?

Bush: Affected in what way? I think there are a lot of handgun regulations. I don't even know whether this violated regulations at the time. It might well have. Certainly it comes to registration. I love the story about when I went down to register my guns when I was in Congress, I think it was. It was the last day for registration. I went down there. The guy was sitting at his desk all alone, nobody in there. I said I'm here to declare my .410 and whatever, my .22 or something. I said, "Are you getting a lot of people registering?" And he said, "No. It's only a bunch of suckers like you from northwest Washington that are in here." I've not been a big advocate of more gun control and that didn't change my mind. Now, Mrs. Brady became, for understandable reasons, became a great pioneer in trying to do more and I haven't kept up with what the rules are there now.

Maer: What about John Hinckley? A judge recently said he can get out and have some visits with his family. What do you think about that?

Bush: I don't know enough about the medicine, about the medical condition of the guy. I'm not in a position to argue with the decision of the judge because I just don't know.

Maer: Did you know the Hinckley family from the Texas days? This is something else. There are always the conspiracy books that have been written. Did the Bushes know the Hinckleys?

Bush: I think our son may have met in Colorado, met a Hinckley. I don't think I ever did. I don't remember it. I have seen conspiracy theories that just come out the "gazoo" as Senator Simpson would say.

Maer: Any other thoughts about the aftermath and when President Reagan came back to work?

Bush: It was a huge celebration and relief across the country. Gratitude. Thanking God. A lot of people were in a religious mode about that. It was very reassuring and his manner, the way he, when he addressed the public and when he had pictures and stuff. It was very calming and very reassuring to the country I think. So I do remember all that fairly clearly.

Maer: Thank you for allotting so much time to us. I appreciate it President Bush.

Bush: Great, Peter. Good to see you.