The Washington Hilton

The Washington Hilton

The Washington Hilton, sometime referred to by locals as “The Hinkley Hilton,” is located at 1919 Connecticut Avenue (MAP) in Northwest D.C., roughly at the boundaries of the Kalorama, Dupont Circle, and Adams Morgan neighborhoods. The hotel has seen its share of history. It also hosted the first International Conference on Computer Communications which demonstrated new ARPANET technology, the precursor to the Internet. It has also hosted the White House Correspondents Association, the Radio and Television Correspondents Association, and the National Prayer Breakfast. The hotel’s ballroom has also been the venue for a number of concerts, including The Doors and Jimi Hendrix. But The Washington Hilton is most widely remembered for an event that occurred just outside the hotel’s T Street exit. It was there that John Hinckley, Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan as the culmination of his effort to impress teen actress Jodie Foster.

Just 69 days into his presidency, Reagan exited the hotel through “The President’s Walk,” which had been built specifically as a security measure after the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  As Hinckley waited within the crowd of admirers, Reagan unexpectedly passed right in front of him. Knowing that he would never get a better chance, Hinckley fired six times in just 1.7 seconds, seemingly missing the President with all six shots. The first bullet hit White House Press Secretary James Brady in the head. The second hit District of Columbia police officer Thomas Delahanty in the back of his neck as he turned to protect Reagan. Hinckley now had a clear shot at the President, but the third overshot him and hit the window of a building across the street. As Special-Agent-in-Charge Jerry Parr quickly pushed Reagan into the limousine, the fourth hit Secret Service Agent Timothy McCarthy in the abdomen as he spread his body over Reagan to make himself a target. The fifth hit the bullet-resistant glass of the window on the open side door of the limousine. The sixth and final bullet ricocheted off the armored side of the limousine and hit the president in his left underarm, grazing a rib and lodging in his lung, stopping approximately an inch from his heart. Had Parr hesitated for a moment, the President would likely have been hit in the head.

The President, whose Secret Service codename was “Rawhide,” was rushed in his limousine, codenamed “Stagecoach,” to the emergency room at George Washington University Hospital, where it arrived less than four minutes after leaving the hotel. When his wife Nancy arrived Reagan remarked to her, “Honey, I forgot to duck.” Later, in the operating room, Reagan removed his oxygen mask to joke, “I hope you are all Republicans.” The doctors and nurses laughed, while Dr. Joseph Giordano, who was the head of the medical team and a liberal Democrat, replied, “Today, Mr. President, we are all Republicans.” Reagan survived the surgery with a good prognosis, and went on to serve out the rest of his first term as well as a second term on his way to becoming one of the most popular presidents of the modern era. Reagan died 23 years later at the age of 93 of pneumonia brought on by Alzheimer’s disease at his home in Bel Air, California.

Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity on June 21, 1982. The defense psychiatric reports had found him to be insane while the prosecution reports declared him legally sane. After his trial, he wrote that the shooting was “the greatest love offering in the history of the world”, and did not indicate any regrets. Hinckley was committed at St. Elizabeths Psychiatric Hospital indefinitely. Over the years he has been allowed to leave the hospital intermittently for visits with his family, but Hinckley remains confined at St. Elizabeths to this day.

The two law enforcement officers recovered from their wounds, although Delahanty was ultimately forced to retire from the police force due to his injuries. Since the bullet had ricocheted off Delahanty’s spinal cord after striking his neck, he suffered permanent nerve damage to his left arm. McCarthy finished out his career with the Secret Service where he retired in 1993. He subsequently served as Chief of the Orland Park, Illinois Police Department and in 1997, he unsuccessfully ran for Illinois Secretary of State as a Democrat.  Parr came to believe that God had directed his life to save Reagan, and became a pastor. The attack seriously wounded Brady, who sustained a serious head wound and became permanently disabled. Brady and his wife Sarah became leading advocates of gun control and remain actively committed to actions to reduce the amount of gun violence in the U.S.

Although the hotel was considered the safest in D.C. due to the secure, enclosed passageway called “The President’s Walk”, the unenclosed outer door from which Reagan had left the hotel shortly before being shot, was altered subsequent to the assassination attempt. The open canopy above the door was removed and a brick drive-through enclosure was constructed to allow the president to move directly from the door of his car into the hotel without public access.

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