The historical accident that saved Ronald Reagan’s life

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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On this date in 1981, a mentally ill man attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. A lot of Americans still don’t know how close the president was to dying, or the fascinating historical accident that probably saved his life.

(Note: What follows is an excerpt of a post I previously authored at the now-defunct Politics Daily, during the celebration of what would have been Reagan’s 100th birthday.)

The story was told well by Peggy Noonan in her excellent book, “When Character Was King.”

As Noonan recounted,

[Reagan aide] Mike Deaver would become emotional in the weeks after the shooting, but he knew why, there was no mystery. When the shots rang out he had just put someone in harm’s way. [Reagan press secretary] James Brady would never be the same, and it was his fault. . . .

“When we were walking out of the hotel and [AP reporter] Mike Putzel fired the question, I grabbed Brady and moved him. And I’d let the press person field the question, and I’d take his place with the president and we’d get in the car. I heard Putzel, I moved Brady. And Reagan was waving, and I went around the back of the car just as a shot crossed my right shoulder. A shot right across my shoulder. I ducked down and then immediately got in the car and looked back and it was a war zone.”

Deaver struggled with the fact that he had put Brady in the line of fire.

Instead of pushing Brady toward the reporter, Deaver could have answered Putzel’s question himself — and that would have spared Brady from being shot. This greatly troubled Deaver — until his wife suggested he talk to the neurosurgeon who operated on the press secretary.

The doctor listened, thought about it. When Deaver had told his story, the doctor asked, “How tall are you?”

Deaver was startled. “I told him, ‘I’m five foot nine.’ ”

And the neurosurgeon said, “Jim Brady is six feet tall. And if he’d stayed there where he had been before you moved him Ronald Reagan would be dead. Because Brady took the bullet that would have killed Reagan.”

If it had been Deaver standing where Brady was, the bullet would have gone over his head and hit the president.

Matt K. Lewis