Attempted Assassination of Ronald Reagan

Attempted Assassination of Ronald Reagan
Attempted Assassination of Ronald Reagan

On 30 March 1981, John Hinckley, Jr., shot and nearly killed President Ronald Reagan outside a hotel in Washington, D.C. Hinckley was fascinated with the movie Taxi Driver, and imagined himself as Robert DeNiro’s character, Travis Bickle.

Just as Travis Bickle stalked a presidential candidate, Hinckley stalked a number of politicians. Hinckley became fixated on Jodie Foster, who played a prostitute in the movie, and hoped to prove his love for her by killing the president.

Conspiracy theorists note the links between the Hinckley family and the Bush family, and between the Bush family and the CIA, and suggest that Hinckley was a chemically programmed assassin (like Sirhan Sirhan, the assassin of Robert Kennedy) designed to remove Reagan and bring Bush to power.


John Hinckley enjoyed a life of affluence and privilege growing up as the son of a petroleum engineer in Oklahoma and Texas. Hinckley’s elder brother and sister were popular and successful, but John became increasingly withdrawn and isolated in high school.

After graduating in 1973, he drifted for seven years, too lazy, immature, and irresponsible to hold a job or obtain a college degree. He depended on his parents for money, and several times returned to live with them.

He became fascinated with assassins, extremist groups, and death, and purchased a number of firearms. He was also obsessed with the movie Taxi Driver, and after his efforts to achieve any sort of personal relationship with Jodie Foster proved futile, he began to think of assassinating politicians to get her attention.

In 1980, he stalked President Jimmy Carter and Senator Edward Kennedy. When his father threw him out of the family home in March 1981, Hinckley took the bus to Washington to stalk President Reagan.

Hinckley loitered outside the Washington Hilton, and when Reagan emerged, Hinckley fired six shots from a distance of 10 feet with a .22-caliber pistol loaded with “Devastator” exploding bullets. Shots hit the White House press secretary, a policeman, and a Secret Service agent, and one shot ricocheted off the limousine and struck the president under the arm.

The bullet lodged in Reagan’s lung, a short distance from the heart, but the president eventually recuperated. Hinckley was arrested, but his father hired powerful attorneys and psychiatrists to defend him. Acquitted on grounds of insanity, Hinckley remains institutionalized today.

Conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination attempt focus firstly on the connections between the Hinckley family and the Bush family. Vice-President Bush and Jack Hinckley (John’s father) were both Texas oilmen, and naturally knew each other.

Jack Hinckley had contributed heavily to Bush’s 1980 presidential campaign, and the day of the assassination John’s older brother was scheduled to meet Neil Bush, the vice-president’s son. Bush obviously would have benefited from the death of Reagan, not least because Bush was the leader of the northeastern “liberal” faction and Reagan was the leader of the western “hawkish” faction.

The northeastern faction—which conspiracy theorists usually associate with Kissinger and the Rockefellers—favored d├ętente with the Soviet Union, and in 1981 was locked in a bitter policy struggle with the westerners, who favored confrontation with the Soviets.

Reagan’s death would instantly have brought the d├ętente faction to power, but his survival meant that U.S.-Soviet confrontation continued until the westerners were fatally compromised in the Iran-Contra scandal (which conspiracy theorists regard as a “silent coup”).

Conspiracy theorists note that Bush was long associated with the CIA. Bush was director in the late 1970s, but some theorists contend that he served CIA interests as far back as the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. In this view, Bush could have employed his CIA contacts to turn John Hinckley into a chemically programmed assassin, like Frank Sinatra’s character in The Manchurian Candidate.

Some conspiracy theorists note that the CIA has experimented with mind control in the past (Project MK-ULTRA), and believe that the CIA has manipulated many notable “nuts”—including Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan, James Earl Ray, David Berkowitz, Charles Manson, and the 2002 Beltway Snipers—into committing murder.

These theorists note that before the assassination attempt, Hinckley’s father hired psychiatrists to treat John. They believe that these psychiatrists gave John psychoactive drugs and hypnotically programmed him to kill.

Some conspiracy theorists argue that Hinckley was a patsy—he was at the scene of the crime, and fired a gun, but did not shoot the president. They reject Hinckley’s testimony on his actions that day, since Hinckley was mentally disturbed and under the influence of valium.

They analyze the videotapes of the event with the same painstaking attention to detail applied to the Zapruder film, and insist that Reagan was already inside the limousine when Hinckley fired the shot that supposedly hit him.

They note the confusion at the hospital regarding exactly what type of bullet struck the president, and argue that a second gunman would explain this confusion and the discrepancies in the government version of events. Interestingly, just after the assassination attempt, NBC correspondent Judy Woodruff reported that someone fired a shot from the hotel above the presidential limousine.

Other theorists contend that the Secret Service was part of the plot—they deliberately “gave Hinckley a chance” outside the hotel, or shot the president themselves. These theories are analogous to the theories that the Secret Service purposely botched their protection of John F. Kennedy and may even have shot him themselves.

There can be no doubt that conspiracy theories would flourish even more richly around this assassination attempt if Reagan had died. This assassination attempt has parallels in other assassinations— the lone nut, sloppy security, the question of “who benefits?”—but the theories in the Reagan case have not been as fully fleshed out as in the cases of successful assassinations.

A successful assassination of President Reagan would doubtless also raise conspiracy questions about Soviet involvement, since Reagan was relentlessly anti-Soviet, and at the time of the attempt, the Soviets were on the verge of invading Poland.