“The President’s Walk” Was Almost Reagan’s Last

This is a guest post by Angela Harrison Eng

The Washington Hilton Hotel is located at 1919 Connecticut Ave. NW, near DuPont Circle. At a glance, the hotel is one of many in a sea of urban buildings. Yet in this hotel is a secret passageway known as the “President’s Walk.” A 1981 article from the Milwaukee Journal noted that the hotel was built in 1965, two years after JFK’s assassination. The hotel anticipated presidential visits, so the secret walk was included in the hotel’s blueprints. It is was described as a “completely enclosed corridor that connects to the hotel’s side [T Street NW] exit. . . . designed for a quick, safe presidential access, with a concrete canopy above the driveway.” It was here that John Hinckley Jr. would carry out his assassination attempt on President Reagan.

Reagan visited the hotel on March 30th, delivering a luncheon speech to the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). Afterwards, Reagan walked to the corridor for a quick exit to his limousine. The hotel was chosen, the Milwaukee Journal pointed out, because it was “considered the safest hotel in Washington for a Presidential visit.” The passageway itself may have been safe, but several factors outside the passageway were a hazard.

The first was the lack of security. ABC News photographer Hank Brown called the event a “routine job . . . We wanted to get the picture of the President walking out of the hotel and getting into the limo.” Del Quentin Wilber, author of Rawhide Down, wrote that the area was completely unsecured, and no ID checks were taking place. Anyone could be present. Sure enough, one of the people present—John Hinckley Jr.—was carrying a gun. He intended to shoot President Reagan, the story goes, to impress actress Jodie Foster.

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Shots fired. Thomas Delahanty is on the ground with James Brady behind him.

Another issue was the walk Reagan had to take from the hotel to the limo. In a 2011 interview, Wilber commented that there was “a special VIP entrance that goes into a holding room that is like a bunker. You know, it is well laid out. But they didn’t consult the Secret Service on the driveway, and so the VIP entrance is separate from the T Street entrance, where you pull up to T Street, you pull up to the VIP entrance, you drop the President off.” It seemed pretty cut and dry, but the presidential limo, better known as “The Beast,” was a 1972 Lincoln Continental that weighed 13,000 pounds. As Wilber put it, “the driveway was too narrow and winding” to support it. As a result, the there was a 300-foot distance between the limo and the hotel exit. Since it was a short distance and the whole event was a “routine job,” he walked that 30 feet without a bulletproof vest.

After Reagan exited the building, he began the walk to the limo. On the way, he passed directly in front of Hinckley. Wilber recalled that he was carrying a “Röhm RG-14 .22 long rifle blue steel revolver” and fired “six times in 1.7 seconds.” All six bullets did not directly hit Reagan. The first hit White House Press Secretary James Brady in the head. The second hit DC police officer Thomas Delahanty in the neck. The third did not hit anyone, and the fourth hit agent Timothy McCarthy. In a CBS report, Ellen Crean commented that McCarthy threw himself in front and was hit in the chest. It had “little to do with bravery and an awful lot to do with reaction based on training.” The fifth and sixth bullets hit the limo, but the sixth ricocheted and hit Reagan in the underarm.

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Secret Service agents reaching for what appears to be Hinckley’s gun.

At first, no one knew he had been shot. In a 2001 Larry King interview, agent James Parr, credited with saving Reagan by pushing him into the limo, recalled, “It wasn’t until I recognized the blood coming out of his mouth en route to the White House and, of course, then we changed the schedule and went to the hospital, that I realized we had a real trauma here.” Regan himself, in an archived video, commented, “And it [the bullet] hit me back here, under the arm, and then hit a rib, and that’s what caused extreme pain, and then it tumbled and turned — instead of edgewise, it went tumbling down to within an inch of my heart. But when I got in the car, I hadn’t felt anything.” At George Washington University Hospital, a trauma team led by Joseph Giordano operated on the President and is credited with saving his life.

Hinckley was arrested and found not guilty of his charges by reason of insanity. He was sent to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, DC, less than ten minutes from the place he attempted to assassinate Reagan. Now 60, he is allowed short-term stays with his mother. The courts are still deliberating on whether he can be released full time.

Since the shooting, the President’s Walk has undergone some renovations. A blogger by the name of “dcbikeblogger” wrote how the walkway “was altered subsequent to the assassination attempt. The open canopy above the door was removed and a brick drive-through enclosure was constructed to allow the president to move directly from the door of his car into the hotel without public access.” These days, it’s an easy site to miss.

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