Twenty years ago this spring, on March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan was shot by a young man named John W. Hinckley Jr. while leaving a Washington hotel. The time was 2:30 p.m. As the President's national-security adviser, I was informed of the shooting almost at once and went immediately to the White House.
A crowd of shocked but curious White House staff members had gathered in the office of James A. Baker, Reagan's chief of staff. Baker himself was at the hospital, along with the White House counselor Edwin Meese. Secretary of State Alexander Haig arrived at the White House shortly after I did. I asked Haig, Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan, the White House counsel Fred F. Fielding, the domestic adviser Martin Anderson, and David Gergen, a member of the White House staff, to accompany me to the Situation Room, located in the basement of the White House, secure behind electronic locks and guarded by uniformed Secret Service agents. That would prevent superfluous staffers from barging into the meeting, limit leaks, and effectively activate "crisis management," about which there had been a major flap only a few days before, when the White House made the decision to entrust that function to Vice President George Bush, much to Haig's consternation. The group was soon joined by Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger; Attorney General William French Smith; Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis; Richard Darman, a presidential deputy assistant; and Admiral Daniel Murphy, the Vice President's chief of staff. At about 3:30 Meese called from the hospital. He reaffirmed that "the national command authority" rested with Cap Weinberger, in the absence of the Vice President, and said that "Al is to calm other governments."
All we knew in the first hour was that the President had been shot. We had virtually no information about the assailant or his motives, or about whether he had acted alone. Vice President Bush was in the air over Texas. (I remember vividly the image of Haig, in a trench coat, shouting over a bad connection, "George, it's Al ... turn around ... turn around!") Bush was on his way back, but he had no means of secure voice communications from his aircraft. The first assessments by the Pentagon revealed that more Soviet submarines than usual were off the East Coast.