Less than 90 days into his Presidency, Ronald Reagan was the victim of an assassination attempt at the hands of college dropout John Hinckley, Jr., a failed singer-songwriter obsessed with actress Jodie Foster. Hinckley had considered killing President Carter the previous year, but the circumstances weren’t quite right. By early 1981, Hinckley had honed his skills to a fine point. Squeezing through security that wasn’t as tight as it should have been, he opened fire, wounding four people, including the President. Journalist Del Quentin Wilber’s Rawhide Down is an account of that fateful day, undertaken with a methodical patience and paced like a riveting political thriller worthy of Graham Greene.

Hardly wasting a word, Wilber covers this historical event with great devotion and attention to detail in just over 200 pages. He walks us through the President’s early morning routine, peppering the narrative with details about the former California governor’s life: he loved horses, disliked long work days and warmed slowly to the man who became his vice president, George H.W. Bush.

The details of the would-be cowboy’s early career, including his conversion from New Deal Democrat to a new kind of Republican, his undistinguished career on the silver screen and his love of his second wife Nancy, are all there. But Wilber isn’t trying to make Reagan a political hero, and he isn’t writing a polemic against hand guns. He’s just giving a general audience historical details that might go beyond even the minutiae of a sprawling presidential biography.

Reagan’s humor, which many found charming, is in full display, especially when Wilber delves into the speech the President gave the day he was shot. His dry humor carries with it a faint waft of an era that was already falling away by the time the Illinois-born politician made his successful bid for the White House. It’s indicative of a man who saw himself as being tougher than he probably was, and maybe more eager to deflect serious issues than he’d have cared to admit.

None of that led to Hinckley’s assassination attempt. What we learn here is what we’ve known essentially from the beginning: the would-be-assassin didn’t have a political agenda and didn’t have much of a plan. His plot to win the affections of an actress who was potentially frightened by him could have been taken straight from the film where Hinckley first spotted her, Taxi Driver. His demeanor upon his capture was unsurprisingly quirky and cold.
Wilber doesn’t dwell long on Hinckley, focusing instead on the hospital staff that worked hard to save Reagan’s life. At least as far as this rendering of the tale is concerned, the President was characteristically level-headed and graceful under pressure.

Not everything works: Wilber has virtually no ear for dialogue, and certain passages in which characters speak would have be better left in the narrative voice. You begin to wonder if everyone in Washington can really be as laconic as Kevin Costner in the worst moments of The Bodyguard. Despite the expert pacing and nail-biting plot, the book itself fades from memory faster than it should. Those wishing to do further research will find an impressive selection of notes and a thorough bibliography. Pack Rawhide Down for your next short plane ride, or give it to a history lover who doesn’t really read.

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