The Invocation That Should Have Been

The only known photograph showing Ronald Reagan and his intended assassin, John W. Hinckley, Jr.

One of the ironies of the history of the 25th Amendment is that while it's been used to fill two Vice Presidential vacancies and have Vice Presidents act as President three times due to medical procedures involving the Commander-in-Chief's colon, on the most clear instance where constitutional scholars unanimously agree it should have been invoked?  It wasn't.

Just 69 days into his administration, President Ronald Reagan was shot by would-be assassin John Hinckley, Jr., on March 30, 1981.  Firing six shots in total, Hinckley's bullets struck the President, White House Press Secretary James Brady, D.C. police officer Thomas Delahanty, and U.S. Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy.

Initially thought unharmed, Secret Service agent Jerry Parr noticed that Reagan was coughing up blood in the limosuine, and immediately ordered its driver to take the President to nearby George Washington University Hospital.  There, the President's wounds would be discovred, and an immediate decision to operate was made due to the bullet's close proximity to Reagan's heart.

With Vice President George H.W. Bush on board Air Force Two over Texas at the time of the shooting, members of Reagan's Cabinet and key staffers gathered in the White House Situation Room to gather intelligence and plot a course of action.  White House Counsel Fred Fielding began making preparations for an invocation under Section 4 of the 25th Amendment, with intent to install Vice President Bush as Acting President.  But that action never occurred.

Rather than invoke Section 4, Reagan's cabinet and staff instead engaged in a cover-up regarding the President's condition, leading the media to believe that the President was fully capable of fulfilling his constitutional obligations - even going so far as to have him sign a piece of legislation in the morning after his shooting.  Vice President Bush himself had real misgivings about taking the reins, feeling it might be perceived as a power grab.

Reagan would remain hospitalized for two weeks, it would be nearly a month before he would be capable of chairing a meeting of his Cabinet, and Reagan's own physicians believed his full recovery would extend over a period of six months.  Nonetheless, Section 4 was never invoked.  In the aftermath, the decision not to invoke the 25th Amendment would have media and public relations consequences - in a situation tailor-made for its use, the fledgling Reagan administration's failure to act left many wondering who, in fact, was "running the country" during Reagan's recovery.

Cognizant of this misstep, four years later they would set precedent by invoking the disability provisions of the 25th Amendment for the first time.  But even then?  They did it in a way that left confusion in its wake.


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