Six Shots at a Nation's Heart

  • April 13, 1981 TIME Cover: Moment of Madness
    What Happened — and Why • Can It Never Be Stopped?

    Again, a moment of madness threatens a President and tarnishes the U.S.

    The final Sunday of March began with a slight haze and soft breezes; unseasonable temperatures in the mid-70s welcomed the blossoming dogwoods. The day was so balmy that Ronald and Nancy Reagan, after attending services at St. John's Church, took a short noontime stroll back to the White House, passing the pink magnolias in Lafayette Park.

    Shortly after 12:15 p.m., a pudgy young man with unkempt blond hair stepped off a Greyhound bus after a three-day ride from Los Angeles. He leaned against a pole in Washington's seedy terminal, then sat restlessly in a blue plastic seat. He seemed in no hurry to go anywhere.

    Enjoying a rare day without guests or meetings, the Reagans lunched together in the White House. They stayed indoors, catching up on some unstrenuous household chores. One of them was to hang pictures in the President's study in the family quarters.

    The visitor to Washington was John W. Hinckley Jr., 25, of Evergreen, Colo. He was in a surly mood. He snapped at a waitress who served him a cheeseburger in the terminal restaurant. He ate alone at the rear of the room, then walked back into the station's lobby, stalking about impatiently for an hour. He seemed to be waiting for someone.

    The Reagans admired a collection of miniature western saddles given to them by their California friend Walter Annenberg. They carried a dozen of the miniatures to the Oval Office and arranged them for display on a table at the left of the President's desk. Then they dined together in their residence. It had been a comfortable day.

    Hinckley checked into the Park Central Hotel on 18th Street. It is just two blocks west of the White House and directly across the street from Secret Service headquarters. It often houses visiting Secret Service agents. The cheapest room is $42 a night, moderate by Washington standards. Hinckley sat for hours in Room 312. He made two local telephone calls, using the hotel's direct-dial system.

    The sky turned a lead gray on Monday, Ronald Reagan's 70th day in office. A monotonous drizzle formed puddles on the city's streets. But the weather was still warm and the rain did not dampen Reagan's spirits. At an early morning breakfast with 140 sub-Cabinet-level officials of his Administration in the East Room, Reagan gave a pep talk. He quoted Thomas Paine, declaring, "We have it in our power to begin the world over again." Then followed short meetings with his senior staff in the Oval Office and a national security briefing. All were in the normal workday pattern.

    Hinckley got up early. He stopped in the Lunchbox Carryout Shop, just a few doors from his hotel, for coffee at 7:30 a.m. An hour later, he ordered breakfast in Kay's Sandwich Shoppe, adjacent to the hotel. He sat alone at the counter.

    Reagan greeted two dozen Hispanic leaders in the Cabinet Room and conferred with them in private after photographers were allowed to take a few pictures. Aides Lyn Nofziger and Elizabeth Dole sat in on the meeting. One topic of the discussion: Reagan's efforts to place Hispanics in Government positions.

    Hinckley was out of his room at 10 a.m. when a maid checked it. A two-suiter suitcase filled with clothes was

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