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Friday, November 22, 2013

I still remember where I was. When it happened. When he got shot.

I still remember where I was. When it happened. When he got shot.
You never forget a day or time like that.

Monday, March 30, 1981. I was in Grade 10.
My friend Ronnie's mom picked us up at school. It was just another day. Nothing special. She did that everyday. Overcast skies and mild. I remember that clearly for some reason. It was at the tail end of one of our cold Canadian winters, but while there was still some patches of snow on the ground, there was none falling. It was almost a spring-like day.
We made our way down Willowbrook Rd. towards my house. By the time we had cleared Willowbrook and turned left onto Green Lane we heard it. I think the news bulletin came right as we were stopped at the light waiting to turn left. That is my memory.
The President had been shot. President Ronald Reagan had been shot.

It was around 2:45pm. School usually ended at 3pm, but for some reason we had finished by 2:30 and were on our way home. My house was the first stop, because it was the closest to the school. It was just another minute to my house. The first thing I did was turn on the TV. I remember that. I sat on the couch in the den and watched for hours. I rarely did that. We had Intellivision in the basement and I always played a lot of that when I got home. Not this time.
It was really my first experience with a serious political story that resulted in violence. I did vaguely remember the FLQ crisis of 1970, but I was only 5 then and I had only heard a news clip in the car when they announced the hostages had been killed. I don't think that event really sunk in until many years later. The Reagan shooting was immediate and sank in right away. 
I do remember the Gerald Ford assassination attempt in 1975. Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, a Charlie Manson cult follower attempted to kill U.S. President Gerald Ford in California. She wanted to make a statement to people about environmental pollution and its effects on Air, Trees, Water, and Animals.

"Although Fromme stood a little more than an arm's length from Ford that Friday morning and pointed a M1911 pistol at him in the public grounds of the California State Capitol building, her gun failed to fire and no one was injured." 
-From Wikipedia
 
If her gun had not failed to fire, that likely would have been my first experience with the type of thing I experienced in March,1981. But the world was a much different place only 6 years later.
In 1975 there was no cable news network, and in fact many people didn't have cable. Networks would break in to regular programming if something happened, but they wouldn't stay at it 24/7 like they did that day in 1981. It was really the first TV reported shooting of a major person that we ever experienced start to finish.
Was I glued to the TV set that day? You bet I was. Most people were.
It wasn't supposed to happen. Only 18 years earlier, the President of the United States had been shot in broad daylight, in an open car traveling down the middle of a street in Dallas loaded with easy shots. Only 7 years earlier, President Gerald Ford was almost shot by a crazy woman in a crowd. Security was supposed to be higher now. Tighter now. Nobody was supposed to be able to get that close. But they did? One crazy loon who was misguided and star crossed into thinking he was professing his love for Jodi Foster--in some crazy re-enactment of a Taxi Driver scene--aimed and shot the president. And a few others.
 
"Hinckley's motivation behind the attack was from his obsession with actress Jodie Foster due to erotomania. While living in Hollywood in the late 1970s, he saw the film Taxi Driver at least 15 times, apparently identifying strongly with Travis Bickle, the lead character portrayed by Robert De Niro. The arc of the story involves Bickle's attempts to protect a 12-year-old child prostitute, played by Foster. Towards the end of the film, Bickle attempts to assassinate a United States Senator who is running for president. Over the following years, Hinckley trailed Foster around the country, going so far as to enroll in a writing course at Yale University in 1980 after reading in People magazine that she was a student there. He wrote numerous letters and notes to her in late 1980. He called her twice and refused to give up when she indicated that she was not interested in him.
Convinced that by becoming a national figure he would be Foster's equal, Hinckley decided to emulate Bickle and began to stalk President Jimmy Carter. He was surprised at how easy it was to get close to the president—only one foot away at one event—but was arrested in October 1980 at Nashville International Airport for illegal possession of firearms."
-From Wikipedia
If 1963 ended the innocence that everyone had, 1981 brought us back to the reality. The leader of the free world could still be taken out at any time. In this case, he almost was.
There are many theories as to why JFK was shot. Who really knows? Well, somebody knows. But as for the rest of us, we don't know. We likely will never know. We can just speculate, like a bunch of fiction writers conjuring up a sexy plot for our story to wow our readers. But it is all fiction. We don't know. We never really know. Or will know.
But on that day in 1981 a crazy named John Hinckley Jr. tried to kill the president. He didn't have any political or ideological motives. Nope. He was just a crazy doing what crazy people do.
However, his actions and their results still had the same chilling effect as the ones that someone or some people did back on November 22, 1963. Our leader could be assassinated. Hinckley just wasn't successful. That was the only difference.

People forget though. By the time that Reagan was shot, most of us thought of Dallas as a place where the Ewings fought over oil and family rivalries. I still get a special chill when I see those opening credits and hear that opening theme to that show. It was larger than life.
But, while the JFK murder was certainly a landmark and watershed moment in American and World history, if you mentioned "shot" and "Dallas" around the time Reagan was shot at most people would think of J.R..  Many still would.
Who shot J.R.? That was much more a topic of conversation than who shot JFK by the time Reagan was shot and very nearly killed. I still remember the talk about who shot J.R.,  leading up to the show where they revealed it, being a much bigger discussion topic in school than the Reagan shooting. I doubt that was the case in the JFK days. Time stopped that day in 1963. Reality changed. Life changed. Peoples lives were forever altered. I don't know of anyone of my generation who would say that about the Reagan shooting. Possibly if he had died. Since he didn't, we will never know for sure. 
Those were also very turbulent times. The country was divided. Reagan was a hardliner, and the threat of nuclear war was very real. They even made a TV movie about the likelihood of it happening and what life would be like if it came to that.
There was also the thought that Reagan would not be afraid to send troops into war. Vietnam was still very fresh in the minds of many people then, and being very close to 18 years old I was glad I was not an American.
But back to that day. It was a very long day. We were the TV generation. Glued to the TV.
There were reports that Press Secretary James Brady had died. First he was dead. Then he wasn't dead. It was that kind of day. The reporting came faster than the actual facts.
Reagan survived that day and it solidified his presidency, clout and power. In a way, it showed Americans they could triumph over an obstacle where the JFK assassination showed that they were vulnerable and it ended the innocence of that time.
Which brings me to my thought of the day at hand. What if Obama or the next President was shot and killed? Just as JFK was 50 years ago today? Would people think of it is as great a tragedy as that event?
I don't think so. Here is why I think that.
The President meant something back in those days. Both 1963 and 1981. We believed the President actually ran the country, and had confidence that if he was good at his job it was good for America and the world. He was the King without being the King. He was the leader without being the dictator.
We don't think that anymore. At best, we view the President as one of many. The Senate and Congress have many leader types who have as much influence as the President. Also, business leaders and bankers have a lot of clout and power. They did then too. But not like today.
Just last month, the government was shut down by a bunch of junior Senators who rallied against the President's health care plan. We can't even imagine of that happening back in the days of JFK or Reagan.
When Ronald Reagan wanted something done he got it done. For better or worse.
The air traffic controllers found that out when they tried to strike. He fired them all and broke the union. Those were very different times. That sort of power just doesn't exist anymore. In short, the President doesn't matter like he once did. Or how we thought he did. Whether he actually ever did have that power back in the days of JFK or Reagan is up for debate. But, I don't think we would even debate that these days it isn't a reality.
Would it be a personal tragedy if Obama was shot and killed? Certainly. People would mourn. But while it would be a tragedy, I don't think it would effect us like it did our parents and grandparents back 50 years ago.
The world is a much different place now.
It seems that you can't even get near the President these days. We have learned our lessons there. Even in Reagan's day, after Lincoln, JFK and Ford (and some other failed attempts) the President was still within reach. 

"On March 21, 1981, Ronald Reagan, the new President of the United States, visited Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. with his wife Nancy for a fundraising event. He recalled, "I looked up at the presidential box above the stage where Abe Lincoln had been sitting the night he was shot and felt a curious sensation... I thought that even with all the Secret Service protection we now had, it was probably still possible for someone who had enough determination to get close enough to a president to shoot him."
-From Wikipedia

Back in that day, the president was untouchable, until he was touched. That was the shock. The man who always seemed untouchable was within grasp of those who wanted him removed.
But what we didn't really think about is why someone wanted to kill the President. Each incident had a different reason.
We understood back in Lincoln's day, when there was a great divide in the country that caused a horrific civil war. In those days, the President was a tipping point around which many were divided. When JFK was murdered, it was thought that the President was a rallying point. The country was one and the murder took that away. It began the divide that evolved into the 60s strife and Woodstock type anti-establishment sentiment.
In Ford and Reagan's case, it was just two crazies in isolated incidents.
Today, the country is very divided. So, it could have the opposite effect. A country divided might be united by the loss of the leader. It might bring some sober thought about how all the bickering is destroying the country, not have the murder destroy the unity that was perceived in 1963.

"We lost our heat and soul (in 1963) in America. America changed."

-Marshall Evans.

America has changed. It changed on that day in 1963. It had already changed quite a bit in 1981. And certainly these days, it is a much different place. As such, the reactions to the events would change. It doesn't mean the same thing to kill a President as it did back 50 years ago, or 32 years ago.
The world has changed as well. Many countries have begun to take a leadership role economically and politically in the world that we could have never imagined back in 1963 or 1981. 
It would be just as big a news event but in terms of lasting memories and effecting our lives, I don't think it could ever approach the level of innocence that it took away that day in 1963.
That time and those perceptions just don't exist anymore.
 

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