Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Non-Fiction: Rawhide Down by Del Quentin Wilber

While the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert are still somewhat shrouded in mystery, more details about the 1981 attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan emerge as time goes on. As Pulitzer Prize-finalist and Washington Post reporter Del Quentin Wilber writes in the prologue to his new book, Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan (Henry Holt), the broad outlines of the day -- John Hinkley Jr. firing six shots at Reagan as the recently inaugurated 40th U.S. president exited the Washington Hilton -- are well-known. The title comes from Reagan’s Secret Service code name, and the image of a cowboy Reagan, who walked into the hospital on his own two feet and joked to his wife, “I forgot to duck,” looms large in American culture. But insider knowledge has been parsed out sparingly over the years, and among those tidbits is the fact that Reagan actually came much closer to dying than we realized.

Based on fresh interviews, historical documents and records, Rawhide Down purports to be the definitive account of what happened on March 30, 1981. Wilbur chooses to focus just on the events of March 30, and while it makes the book short, it serves it well. However, I found myself wanting to know more about the aftermath and investigation into the shooting. Hinkley, such a focus of the book’s first half, all but disappears from view once he is arrested, with Wilbur instead choosing to highlight the doctors and hospital staff who saved the life of a president.

Wilbur’s reporting on Hinkley makes up some of the most compelling sections of Rawhide Down. Rather than a cultural boogeyman or super-soldier in the shadows, the attempted assassin -- in Wilbur’s hands -- is shown as a human being. A wise decision. That’s not to say that the author shies away from showing Hinkley as anything but a sad, mentally unbalanced young man, obsessed with the film Taxi Driver and its star, Jodie Foster. One of the many revelations in Rawhide Down comes during Wilbur’s exploration of Hinkley’s fixation on Foster. For example, I knew that he was obsessed with her; I did not know that he moved to New Haven, Connecticut, and called her dorm room at Yale University in a scene reminiscent of that scene in Swingers. Much like author Dave Cullen does with his portrayal of mass-murderer Eric Klebold in Columbine, Wilbur leaves the reader with great sympathy for Hinkley -- that this was a youth in need of psychiatric care, angry and in his 20s, but not a psychopath. Not beyond saving.

The Hinkley section, however, is also where Wilbur falters in the writing of Rawhide Down. Throughout this book, but no more so than in the early chapters about Hinkley, Wilbur attempts to create a false sense of suspense. He describes Hinkley’s obsessions with Foster in broad, vague terms, obfuscating her identity. Wilbur is trying to make the moment of revelation that it is in fact Jodie Foster, Oscar nominee, into one of those stunning twists that, were this a 1940s suspense flick, might be punctuated by a “dun-dun-dun.” Perhaps Hinkley’s obsession with Foster isn’t as well-known as I think, but by the second time Wilbur tried hiding the fact that it’s Jodie Foster Hinkley’s thinking about, I exclaimed, “IT’S JODIE FOSTER, ALREADY!”

While Wilbur continues to develop this false suspense in the sections dealing with Alexander Haig, who was secretary of state at the time (and who, after misunderstanding the line of succession, claimed that he was in control of the White House in the aftermath of the shooting), it’s less obvious and annoying than in the Hinkley sections.

Wilbur’s prose is clean, crisp and indicative of his background as a longtime reporter. He’s concise when discussing the players in Rawhide Down, using elements of their past to emphasize the importance of their roles in the aftermath of this attempted assassination. Wilbur’s real gift in Rawhide Down is handling the many characters involved -- from Hinkley to the president’s chief of staff, the police and Secret Service members, and the doctors and nurses saving Reagan’s life. Even the president himself comes off as a person rather than an icon -- though early in this book, I worried that it would be become some “why Reagan was great” hagiography.

In many ways, Rawhide Down succeeds. Although this isn’t In Cold Blood, it is a brisk, engaging read that’s precise and exhausting in its detail. Wilbur shows his research with dozens of pages of footnotes. So even if you’re not interested in fact-checking, Del Quentin Wilbur has written an excellent non-fiction thriller about one of the most notable close-calls in American history. It’s worth your time. ◊

Brendan M. Leonard lives in New York City and is a regular contributor to The Rap Sheet.

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