The presidency that nearly never was

David Bossie President, Citizens United
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“People even today I don’t think realize what a close call it was.” — James A. Baker III, Reagan White House chief of staff, in Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous With Destiny

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. For most, March 30, 2011, will come and go like any other early spring day, but for others, this date may conjure up the question: How would the world be different if President Reagan had died just 70 days into his presidency?

President Reagan’s diary shows us what a difference a day can make in the fragile lives we all live. On Sunday, March 29, 1981, the signature Reagan optimism was in full swing: “Church at St. Johns — a beautiful Spring Day and at the service the Navy Choir from Annapolis. They looked & sounded so right you have to feel good about our country.”

The next day began in a typical way — a speech at a local Washington, D.C. hotel to promote his economic recovery package — but after the speech, the sound of six gunshots filled the air as deranged gunman John Hinckley, Jr. sought to change the course of history and cut Ronald Reagan’s presidency short. The 40th president was quickly pushed into his limousine, which was ordered to return to the White House. At that time, nobody — including the president — believed he had been shot, but thought he had a broken rib from being pushed into the limousine so abruptly by the Secret Service, who had jumped on top of him as human shields.

However, on the way to the White House, President Reagan began to cough up blood and the critical decision was made to change the motorcade’s destination to George Washington University Hospital. As we now know, President Reagan was hit with one bullet, which punctured his lung and landed less than an inch from his heart. The decision to go directly to the hospital instead of going to the White House as planned is widely acknowledged as the call that saved the president’s life.

The head of the hospital trauma team on that fateful day explained just how close we came to losing our 40th president: “He had a very serious injury . . . and I think he was close to death. I think that the fact that he came immediately to George Washington, and that there was a trauma team there that were quickly able to resuscitate him, saved the day.”

Thankfully, President Reagan survived that close call and it is a testament to his character that he gained a new sense of purpose from the experience. Reading the president’s diary entry recounting that day makes you smile, tear up, and feel humbled by this truly special man, all at the same time:

Getting shot hurts. Still my fear was growing because no matter how hard I tried to breathe it seemed I was getting less and less air. I focused on that tiled ceiling and prayed. But I realized I couldn’t ask for God’s help while at the same time I felt hatred for that mixed up young man who had shot me. Isn’t that the meaning of the lost sheep? We are all God’s children & therefore equally beloved by him. I began to pray for his soul and that he would find his way back to the fold. I opened my eyes once to find Nancy there. I pray I’ll never face a day when she isn’t there. Of all the ways God has blessed me giving her to me is the greatest and beyond anything I can ever hope to deserve . . . Whatever happens now, I owe my life to God and will try to serve him in every way I can.

God mercifully allowed President Reagan to continue his work here on Earth. But what if the day had gone in a far darker direction and the president’s life had been cut short?

There are some things, of course, we can only speculate about. Would the United States have recovered economically like we did under Reagan’s leadership? Would America’s spirit have been restored like it was? Would the Berlin Wall have been torn down in 1989? Would the Soviet Union have collapsed in 1991? We’ll never know the answers to these questions — and thank God we never had to find out.

Here’s what we know for certain — these historic speeches by President Reagan would have never been delivered:

May 17, 1981, University of Notre Dame

“The years ahead are great ones for this country, for the cause of freedom and the spread of civilization. The West won’t contain communism, it will transcend communism. It won’t bother to dismiss or denounce it; it will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.”

June 8, 1982, British House Of Commons

“What I am describing now is a plan and a hope for the long term — the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.”

March 8, 1983, Orlando, Florida

“So, in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride — the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.”

June 6, 1984, Normandy, France

“And behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there. These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. And these are the heroes who helped end a war.”

June 12, 1987, Brandenburg Gate, West Berlin, Germany

“There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

January 11, 1989, The Oval Office

“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”

Putting together these quotes today, it’s hard for me not to shed a tear, remembering once again the moral clarity and optimistic message of this extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime patriotic American, who truly epitomized the phrase “Leader of the Free World.”

Citizens United Productions’ critically acclaimed film, Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous With Destiny, explores Reagan’s achievements as president and contains a skillfully produced section on the assassination attempt as remembered and studied by cast members Sam Donaldson, James A. Baker, Edwin Meese, and Douglas Brinkley. For more about the documentary, and the full life of this great man, please visit www.reagandocumentary.com.

David N. Bossie is the president of Citizens United and Citizens United Productions, and the executive producer of “America at Risk.”