John Hinckley, Jr. will be forever remembered as the man who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and confined to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, DC for treatment for narcissistic and schizotypal personality disorder and major depressive disorder.
In an ironic bit of foreshadowing, history records that 25 years earlier John Hinckley, Jr. entered this world in another mental health institution. He was born at Hardy Sanitarium, in Ardmore, Oklahoma.
On March 31, 1981 Secret Service Agent Jerry Parr helped change the course of history as he acted to save President Ronald Reagan from an assassination attempt. In doing so, he proved himself equal to the motto of the Secret Service: “Worthy of Trust and Confidence.” Continue reading →
President Ronald Reagan devoted his presidency to combating an ever-growing and intrusive federal government. He recounted his days in the Army Air Force during World War II when he first faced the bureaucratic mindset:
“I remember one of my first experiences with government was as an adjutant for an Army Air Corps base in World War II. There was a warehouse filled with files, and the files containing documents and records and so forth — but which upon going at them you recognized that they were of no historical value. And they were totally useless, their time had passed them by. So, we started a message in the usual military style of sending a message, endorsing it up to the next in command, asking permission to destroy those papers so we could make use of the files for current documents. And then the next echelon — they endorsed it up and up and up, and finally to the top command. And then back down through the channel it came, and the answer was yes. We could destroy those papers, providing we made copies of each and every one.”
At a White House press conference ABC reporter Sam Donaldson directed a question to President Ronald Reagan: “Mr. President, in talking about the continuing recession tonight, you have blamed Congress and mistakes in the past. Does any of the blame belong to you?”
The President’s response: “Yes, because for many years I was a Democrat.”
Not a lot of people were laughing on September 22, 1862. The Civil War was about a year and a half old, and it was proving to be much more trying than either side had imagined. When President Abraham Lincoln called his War Cabinet into session that day, his advisors arrived in a grim and determined mood, prepared to deal with the serious business of the war.
They found President Lincoln already seated in the meeting room, reading a book. When everyone had gathered, he turned to them and asked, “Gentlemen, did you ever read anything of Artemus Ward? Let me read a chapter that is very funny.”
He then read from a skit entitled Highhanded Outrage at Utica.(read the chapter here) Upon finishing the reading, Lincoln laughed heartily, but his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, was furious that Lincoln would waste valuable time with such a trivial thing. Lincoln shook his head sadly and asked, “Gentlemen, why do you not laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me day and night, if I did not laugh, I should die. And you need this medicine as much as I do.”
With that, he pulled out a piece of paper from his stovepipe hat and asked the cabinet’s opinion on the matter. That piece of paper became the Emancipation Proclamation.
Humor and the presidency do not, at first glance, appear to go together. History has proven the truth of Lincoln’s claim about the necessity of laughter and how much it can help in difficult times. We have become accustomed to hearing jokes from our modern presidents, but it has not always been that way.
Our culture has formed an image of our Founding Fathers as stern, serious, patriarchs who rarely cracked a smile. It is for that reason that one may have difficulty picturing George Washington laughing so hard that he had tears running down his face, as he did when he saw two respected clergymen lose their hats in a lake due to an unexpected gust of wind. It is also difficult to imagine that he was the inspiration for a much-quoted statement made popular by Mark Twain. This occurred when he wrote to his brother after the Battle of Monongahela (1755), “The report of my death was an exaggeration” and continued, “As I heard . . . a circumstantial account of my death and dying Speech, I take this early opportunity of contradicting the first, and of assuring you that I have not, as yet, composed the latter.”
John Adams retains the image of a curmudgeon, even though his wit is evident in many of his writings. It was, for example, rumored by his political opponents that his vice president, Charles Pinckney, acted as a pimp, traveling to England to “procure four pretty girls as mistresses, a pair for each elderly gentleman.” Adams laughed heartily upon hearing the report, and wrote to a friend, saying, “I do declare upon my honor, if this be true, General Pinckney has kept them all for himself and cheated me out of my two.”
Despite this wealth of wit, presidential historians strive in vain to find evidence of humor from some of our chief executives. One historian completed his study of the wit of President James Polk, by concluding that the funniest thing he ever did was to have gallstone surgery without the benefit of anesthesia.
Polk’s solemnity, however, proves to be the exception, rather than the rule. Even the reserved, aloof academician Woodrow Wilson had his moments of mirth. His Secret Service Agent, Col. Edmund Starling, reported seeing the president embrace his bride on the day of their wedding, and spin her around, while singing, “We’re getting married! We’re getting married!” Later, after the ceremony, the president was again overheard singing to his bride, “Oh, you wonderful girl!”
Perhaps no president summed up the need for a good sense of humor better than President Richard Nixon, who expressed frustration with the constant demands of the press by saying, “People in the media say they must look … at the president with a microscope. Now, I don’t mind a microscope, but boy, when they use a proctoscope, that’s going too far!”
President Ronald Reagan was not someone who let a disappointment get in the way of greatness. The opening words to his presidential memoir: “If I’d gotten the job I wanted at Montgomery Ward, I suppose I would never have left Illinois.”