Elder Bush Recalls Reagan Shooting

CBS Radio's Peter Maer speaks with former President George H.W. Bush about the 25th anniversary of the Reagan assassination attempt.
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
Bill Plante With Jim Brady + 25
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?

  • David Hancock

    David Hancock is a home page editor for CBSNews.com.