Ronald Reagan: Grace Under the Scalpel

'Please tell me you're all Republicans,' said the President to the surgeons

Ronald Reagan. Getty Images
The grace and humor Reagan showed after the attempt to assassinate him in 1981 had, more than any other single event, added a mythical quality to his leadership, revealing his character in a way that made it almost impossible to dislike him.

— Garry Wills, Reagan's America: Innocents at Home


I RECEIVED a note from reader Mike Ambrose, whose comments inspired an intriguing course of research into events following would-be assassin John Hinckley's attempt on Ronald Reagan's life in 1981:

At the time, I was a federal government employee. I remember the news media reporting that Reagan was awake and alert when he was wheeled into the emergency room at George Washington University Hospital — so awake and alert that he was said to have looked up at the doctors and nurses and said, "I hope you're all Republicans."

A couple of days after the assassination attempt, the Director of our office came in and told us that a good friend of hers was head nurse in the GWU Emergency Room and claimed that Reagan was not at all awake and alert when they wheeled him in, so he couldn't have looked up at the doctors and nurses and said the Republican line.


So, what's the truth of the matter? Notwithstanding media reports at the time, it's now clear from eyewitness testimony (including that of Reagan himself) that the gravely wounded President was indeed only semi-conscious at best as he was wheeled into the emergency room after the assassination attempt.

In his memoir, An American Life, Reagan remembers:

We pulled up in front of the hospital emergency entrance and I was first out of the limo and into the emergency room. A nurse was coming to meet me and I told her I was having trouble breathing. Then all of a sudden my knees turned rubbery. The next thing I knew I was lying face up on a gurney...

But it's also true that fully an hour went by between the moment Reagan was delivered to the emergency room and when he was anesthetized for surgery — time enough for him to regain enough composure to utter the famous quip. In fact, by all accounts, Reagan turned into a veritable joke machine during the hour-long wait.

'All in all, I'd rather be in Philadelphia'

The first words he uttered upon regaining consciousness were to a nurse who happened to be holding the president's hand. "Does Nancy know about us?" he quipped.

When Nancy herself arrived a few minutes later, Reagan greeted her with the comment, "Honey, I forgot to duck." (He was quoting prizefighter Jack Dempsey, who had said the same thing to his own wife after losing the heavyweight championship to rival Gene Tunney in 1926.)

Reagan even found occasion to pay homage to W.C. Fields. When a nurse asked him how he was feeling, he responded, "All in all, I'd rather be in Philadelphia." (The original line, which Fields had proposed for his own epitaph, was: "On the whole, I would rather be in Philadelphia.")

And, according to Edwin Meese, Reagan's Attorney General, the President stumped him and other members of the White House staff with the greeting, "Who's minding the store?" (Fortunately, no one told him it was Al "I'm in charge here" Haig.)

But the coup de grace, the witticism most repeated and best remembered from that day, was delivered by the President as he was being moved from gurney to operating table just before surgery.

That he looked up at his surgeons and jokingly expressed the hope they were Republicans has been confirmed by eyewitnesses, and is pretty much beyond doubt. But the precise words he used vary depending upon who is telling the tale:

  1. "Please tell me you're Republicans." (Lou Cannon, biographer)
  2. "Please tell me you are all Republicans." (Nancy Reagan)
  3. "Please assure me that you're all Republicans." (PBS)
  4. "I hope you're all Republicans." (Haynes Johnson, historian)

None of the above are firsthand accounts, of course. And although we might hope and expect to find more agreement in the testimonies of those who were actually present in the operating room, alas, we do not.

The head surgeon speaks

Dr. Joseph Giordano, who headed the George Washington University Hospital trauma team that operated on Reagan, recollected the incident in a Los Angeles Times article just a few days after it happened. His version of events, corroborated by Reagan's personal physician, who was also in the room, was later recapped in Herbert L. Abrams' book, The President Has Been Shot, as follows:

3:24 p.m. Reagan was wheeled into the operating room. He had lost about 2,100 cc of blood, but his bleeding had slowed and he had received 4 1/2 replacement units. As he was moved from the stretcher to the operating table, he looked around and said, "Please tell me you're all Republicans." Giordano, a liberal Democrat, said, "We're all Republicans today."

Reagan's own version, reported years later in his memoir, An American Life, differs only slightly, though in a manner that's especially interesting from a storytelling perspective:

Within a few minutes after I arrived, the room was full of specialists in virtually every medical field. When one of the doctors said they were going to operate on me, I said, "I hope you're a Republican." He looked at me and said, "Today, Mr. President, we're all Republicans."

On the question of credibility, let's be frank. The surgeon, Giordano, was lucid, focused and in command when this incident took place; President Reagan, by all accounts including his own, was weak and groggy. Giordano told the story less than a week after it happened; Reagan didn't write it down until many years later. The odds favor Giordano.

That's show biz

But consider, if it were up to you to choose one and only one verbatim account, which you would want for a screenplay of these events:

  1. REAGAN: (to surgeons) I hope you're all Republicans.
    GIORDANO: We're all Republicans today.
  2. REAGAN: (to head surgeon) I hope you're a Republican.
    GIORDANO: Today, Mr. President, we're all Republicans.

It's a no-brainer. As a set-up for Giordano's response, Reagan's line works far better when phrased in the singular and addressed to the head surgeon alone. Indeed, the whole couplet, as rendered by the President, evinces a polish that only an expert storyteller could give it, while Giordano's version comes across as clunky, but, well... real.

They didn't call Reagan "The Great Communicator" for nothing.