President Ronald W. Reagan former advance and body man told the Star News Network he remembers where he was when he heard 40 years ago that President Ronald W. Reagan was shot.
James F. “Jim” Kuhn said he first met Reagan in October 1975.
“He was giving a speech at the Union Club in downtown Cleveland at a businessman’s gathering and the head of the group was the CEO of the company that I worked for in Canton, Ohio, and that’s how it all got started,” Kuhn said.
Throughout the rest of the 1970s and 1980s, Kuhn was at Reagan’s side, a bond that was forged during the GOP Ohio primary, the following year, said Kuhn, who wrote the book “Ronald Reagan in Private” about his years at the Gipper’s side.
From those days until Reagan November 1994 withdrawal from public life, he was either at Reagan’s side or going ahead with the advance team to ensure the president’s trips and events were properly prepared.
Kuhn said he saw Reagan for the last time just before the 1996 GOP national convention in San Diego.
“It was in his office in Century City, Los Angeles, at that time, he was so-so” he said. “There was some recognition, but he was not the same.”
Kuhn sent to Springfield, Illinois to plan Reagan’s rally, address to legislature
Although, Kuhn was Reagan’s body man and would have been with the president the day of the shooting, about a week before the shooting, White House Chief of Staff James Baker A. Baker III, took Kuhn off that assignment and sent him to Springfield, Illinois, he said.
Kuhn was made part of the advance team for Reagan’s March 31, 1981 trip to the Illinois capital, where he would meet with the four-term Republican Gov. James R. Thompson and address a joint session of the legislature.
“Thompson said to Baker: ‘Get him in now. We need him if you want to get this thing gone. We’re ready to receive.’ We get out there six days ahead of time, put it all together, big event on the lawn. We’re planning on, we’re building toward 10,000 people outside,” he said.
While Kuhn was in Springfield, President Ronald W. Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan seemed to strike a new tone when they attended a liturgy at St. John Episcopal Church, which stands on the other side of Lafayette Park from the White House’s North Lawn, he said.
“The Reagans walked, they walked out the Northeast gate across Lafayette Park and went to church and I remember, we were set up in Springfield at the hotel, the Springfield Hilton, and it was the Sunday morning, and I was in early, feeling pretty good about what was going to happen in 48 hours,” he said.
“I was watching CBS and I saw the Reagans walking across the way,” he said.
“I said: ‘Man, this is just fantastic. This is, this is just, it doesn’t get any better than this. We’re going to have a different kind of presidency. We’re going to be with the people. We’re going to be out doing things. We’re going to be exposed. We’re not going to be cloistered in the Oval Office and all this underground stuff. We’re going to be out about,’” he said. “I thought: ‘We’re off to a great start.’”
No metal detectors deployed for Reagan’s speech
On the fateful day, Reagan was in the process of drumming up support for his tax and budget reforms that would cut income taxes, raise defense spending, along with significant increases in military pay and allowances, ranging from 10 to 17 percent, depending on the paygrade.
That day, he spoke to a luncheon of AFL-CIO union labor leaders, it was the 69th day of Reagan’s eight-year presidency, he said.
Kuhn said at that time, it was not standard to use metal detectors for every presidential event.
“We didn’t even use them as a rule,” Kuhn said.
“I mean, it has always been it was the Secret Service deterrent that: ‘We’re here and we’ve got the area covered and we’ve got people on rooftops, we’ve got people across the street, we have people in the motorcade, we got people inside the hotel, outside the hotel. We’ve got this thing covered, so nobody really has a visual on Reagan,'” he said.
Inside the hotel, the Secret Service presence was sufficient, said the former executive assistant to the president.
“Inside the ballroom, inside any room, prior to that, there were not magnetometers, but it was always you’re in a confined area, you’re in an enclosed area, the Secret Service deterrent was enough,” he said.
“It was what was working, had worked for years, for decades. That was fine, it was considered to be absolutely secure, as absolute as anything can be in life,” he said.
“But after that, everything changed. Metal detectors everywhere, unless you were going into event that was unannounced, that was not scheduled,” he said.
Another key factor is that the Secret Service was not aware of the would-be assassin John W. Hinkley Jr., he said.
“Hinckley had been watching things and had planned this and knew Reagan was going to be there and just simply made his way in there when nobody was looking,” he said. “That’s when it all happened with John Hinckley, making his way into a secure area, into the press, into the Secret Service White House credentialed press zone–made his way in and was so close, and Reagan was an easy target.”
Hinkley fired six shots as Reagan was walking out of the Washington Hilton, waving to supporters as he made his way to the waiting limousine.
Kuhn said he also remembers the other shooting victims from that day, Secret Service Agent Timothy J. McCarthy, Washington Metropolitan police officer Thomas K. Delahanty and White House Press Secretary James S. Brady.
Of the three men, he knew Brady from both from the campaign and from working in the West Wing, he said. “Everybody recovered fully, except for Jim. Jim Brady suffered immensely for decades, as you know, with the brain injury and he is a paraplegic.”
Kuhn remembers Jim Brady
Brady joined Reagan’s 1980 campaign soon after the future president was endorsed by former Texas Gov. John B. Connally Jr., whose campaign Brady had been working on.
Kuhn said it was Reagan’s practice to hire the best people from opposing campaigns after their candidate got out of the race. Soon after Brady joined the campaign, the two found themselves seating together on the campaign plane.
“I was amazed at how quiet and reserved he was on that first flight, although I was pretty quiet too,” he said. “Later on, I learned to find that he was a very gregarious guy, wonderful sense of humor, delightful to be around, smart, substantive, your perfect kind of human being—and then his life was destroyed by one bullet in the brain.”
Part of the reason Kuhn was so quiet is that he was obsessed with his own workload, but he thinks Brady was quiet because he was nervous about being the new kid on the block, he said.
“As time went on, you saw the real side of Jim Brady,” he said. “I mean, he was like a stand-up comedian. He had a sense of humor, very gregarious. One of the nicest guys you could ever meet.
Funny, easy going, smart, articulate.”
In the years after the shooting, Brady remained active in public affairs through his advocacy for limiting gun rights, but also privately, he made a point of attending Reagan alumni events with his wife Sarah.
“He lived for decades afterwards, but you know how he struggled as a paraplegic and the damage to the brain that he suffered and to his wife, Sarah and the family, just everything, the suffering was immense,” he said.
“Whenever you saw Jim Brady, he always recognized you,” Kuhn said. “You could always talk to him, obviously you kept your conversations brief and everything, but he would go to events. If the Reagans were in town in the beginning, Reagan himself and Nancy, and then Nancy without Reagan later on for different things, he was always there. Sarah was always there with him.”
When Brady died in 2014, his death was ruled a homicide.
Kuhn hears news as he was briefing Thompson
“Thompson was a very hands-on kind of guy, very decent guy, very approachable, and so I was called in, the middle of the day, noon hour Central Time the day Reagan was shot to brief him on his role,” he said.
“Thompson was going to be with Reagan every step of the way,” he said.
“He was going to meet him at the stairs of Air Force One, ride in the motorcade with him, go to all the events with, go back to Air Force One,” he said. “I’m sitting there with the governor. He didn’t want anybody in there. He had no staffers, just the governor and myself in his office,” he said.
“In the middle of the briefing, his press secretary came in and said: “Governor, we got a news report that there was a shooting in Washington at the Washington Hilton. I said, ‘Oh my God. Reagan’s there.’”
The press secretary confirmed Kuhn’s fears: “Yes, but they’re reporting that Reagan was fine. He wasn’t shot. But there were people that were hit.”
Thompson told his secretary to keep him posted and before the briefing continued, he asked Kuhn: “Jim? Are you OK?”
Kuhn said he shook it off. “Yeah, we got to keep going here.” Then, he said the press secretary: “Keep us apprised of what’s happening,” he said.
“Less than 10 minutes later, Governor Thompson’s chief of staff came into the office and said, ‘We got news now. All the networks are reporting that Reagan was shot and is on his way to George Washington University Hospital.’ And then, it was total chaos after that.”
At that point, Thompson invited Kuhn to the governor’s mansion, where they could have some privacy and be in a better position to take the phones call that were coming in for both men, he said.
“We got back there, and you know the first thing he did was? He pulled out a bottle of single malt and he said: ‘I could use some of this, what about you?’”
Kuhn said he replied: “Start pouring.”
By this time, there were now two planes in the air heading back to Washington, one with Vice President George H.W. Bush and the other with a White House advance team that had been working on a proposed Reagan trip to Tajuana,” he said.
Thompson flies Brady’s mother to Washington, Kuhn stays with Brady’s father
As the White House advance and presidential body man helped the governor of Illinois empty the bottle of single malt, Thompson brought up to Kuhn that Brady was from Illinois and that the governor knew him and his family, he said.
The governor told him that Brady grew up in Centralia, Illinois, a small city 60 miles due east of St. Louis, Missouri, and 210 miles due west of Louisville, Kentucky, and 110 miles south of the Springfield, he said. Thompson told Kuhn that if he would have one of his two official planes fly members of Brady’s family to Washington to be with him there.
“Thompson knew all of this,” he said. “I didn’t know any of it. I just didn’t know Brady that well, I didn’t know where he was from—Thompson said: ‘Look, he’s from here, his family’s here, we got to get his family back to Washington.’”
The news from Washington was that Reagan was in surgery, but Brady was in tough shape, he said. “It didn’t look like there was any possible way he was going to survive.”
Thompson used one plane to fly Kuhn to Centralia and the other one to fly members of Brady’s family to Washington.
Before he got to Brady’s parents’ house, the governor told Kuhn Brady’s father Harold J. Brady was unable to fly, because he was recovering from a stroke, he said. Brady’s mother Dorothy and other family members took the flight to see her son.
“I went down there just to create any kind of calm that I could,” he said.
“When I got there, it was dark,” Kuhn said. “The police had already taped off the block, I had my White House ID, got into the Brady house, introduced myself to his dad. They had NBC on, I stayed for a little while—I was in the kitchen, and they were all in the living room—all the networks stopped their programming, you know, it was minute-by-minute news.”
Standing in the Brady family’s kitchen, Kuhn said he heard NBC News anchorman Tom Brokaw giving an update on Brady’s condition.
“Reagan was out of surgery. He was fine and stable, but Brady was in severe trouble,” he said.
“I remember Jim’s father, there with the neighbors, saying after Tom Brokaw gave that report: ‘Don’t die, Jimmy. Please don’t die, Jimmy.’ I was in the kitchen and I thought: ‘Is there any way? Is there any possible way this man, this young guy, Jim Brady can survive? And he did. It was unbelievable that he made it,” Kuhn said.
Reagan recovers, completes two successful White House terms
“Reagan’s mind was so unique,” Kuhn said. “Everything he did was from a big-minded, big-vision approach. Getting shot had no impact on that. Physically, it was a total recovery—and he didn’t think about it after that.”
It was Reagan’s ability to focus on his agenda and not dwell on the past that led to his successful post-shooting presidency, he said.
“It was the Reagan approach, the Reagan style, the Reagan mentality, the Reagan vision—he was right back at it again,” he said.
“He didn’t think about his security,” he said. “He didn’t think about what had happened that day. He put it all behind him.”
Kuhn, who developed a very close relationship with the first lady, said she told it all very hard and never put it behind her.
“Nancy had a tremendous burden on her shoulders for the next seven-plus years” he said.
“It was like, there were days that were like living hell for Nancy, worrying about his security—worrying about everything, but first and foremost, the security of her husband.”
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Neil W. McCabe is a Washington-based national political reporter for The Tennessee Star and The Star News Network. In addition to the Star Newspaper, he has covered the White House, Capitol Hill and national politics for One America News, Breitbart, Human Events and Townhall. Before coming to Washington, he was a staff reporter for Boston’s Catholic paper, The Pilot, and the editor of two Boston-area community papers, The Somerville News and The Alewife. McCabe is a public affairs NCO in the Army Reserve and he deployed for 15 months to Iraq as a combat historian.
About the Headline Photo: Executive Assistant to the President James F. “Jim” Kuhn speaks with President Ronald W. Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan, holding on to the leash of the Reagans’ pet dog Rex Feb. 27, 1986 in the Oval Office. From 1975 to 1981, Kuhn worked as Reagan’s “body man,” as well as working with the advance teams and Secret Service agents. (Photo courtesy of the Reagan Presidential Library)