What Really Happened When Reagan Got Shot

Secretary of State Al Haig said he was 'in control', but was he?
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted May 18, 2015 5:05 PM CDT
What Really Happened When Reagan Got Shot
This March 30, 1981 photo provided by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library shows Secretary of State Alexander Haig speaking to press after the attempted assassination on President Ronald Reagan.   (AP Photo/Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)

When President Reagan got shot, Secretary of State Al Haig stunned the nation by saying he was "in control"—but really someone else was about to be, the Dallas Morning News reports. Relying on White House tapes and interviews with people involved, the Morning News describes a "palpable tension" radiating from Haig's office even before the 1981 shooting. Deprived of a crisis-management role he coveted, Haig quickly threatened to resign, but Reagan talked him down. Who got the position? Vice President George Bush. Well, a crisis sure came up: On March 30, John Hinckley Jr shot the president and three others outside a Washington hotel. But with Bush stuck on Air Force Two, Haig assumed a commanding presence behind the scenes and before the press:

  • "Constitutionally, gentlemen, you have the president, the vice president and the secretary of state, in that order," Haig told them. "As of now, I am in control here at the White House, pending return of the vice president."
A Reagan official later called the remarks "eminently stupid"; Bush watched stoically on the plane's TV, saying nothing. He soon arrived at the White House, taking the helm and warmly greeting Haig, who fell quiet. "He came in with perfect equanimity," a former official says of Bush. The vice president visited Nancy Reagan, spoke on national television, and suggested that officials create an air of normalcy prior to the president's return. Haig later resigned (reportedly inspiring high-fives in the Oval Office) and ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 1988, but Bush won the nomination—and the presidency. More recently, the BBC reports, Hinckley is in court trying to leave a psychiatric hospital for the outside world (where he's already spent some free time).

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