A Sense of Where We Are

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Reflections on a week of anxiety, sadness and outrage

It took a week to get the picture. First came the gasps and "not agains"; then the nation assumed its old too familiar position before the tube, reluctant pros in this business by now, ready to take in the slow-motion replays, the testimony of experts, the edgy reporters, a bloody head, a shot-up limousine, another blank-faced gunman. There was a jumble to sort out. The President was O.K. But then he wasn't. They took him to the White House. No, to a hospital. Was it serious? Not very. Yes, very. Maybe ... And so on through the long Monday afternoon, the emotions buffeted by every bulletin—sinking at the report of White House Press Secretary James Brady's death; rising warily when the report is denied; a freeze at news that the President is undergoing surgery; a thaw when someone repeats a Reagan joke. Who was that fool who asked if the operation was going to be filmed? More questions still—the public's tensions not at all alleviated by the figure of Alexander Haig claiming "I am in control here," in a voice full of jelly.

The press was hard on Haig after the recent who's-in-charge tempest. Suddenly the Secretary of State is playing air raid warden again and rearranging the order of succession to the presidency to suit his pride. Yet he was only trying to do what everyone wanted: to establish order and clear things up. By 7 p.m. there was at least the start of a clearing up. To stage center stepped Dr. Dennis O'Leary of George Washington University Hospital, a gentle, cool customer, another instant media star. Secret Service Agent Timothy J. McCarthy was hit in the stomach, but doing well. D.C. Policeman Thomas K. Delahanty was hit in the shoulder and neck; his condition was stable. A .22-cal. bullet passed through Jim Brady's brain. And the President? He became his chest for the moment: the bullet entered here, bounced off this, settled in that. There was "oxygenation" and a "thoracotomy" and some "peritoneal lavage" to boot.

But was he O.K.? Yes, he was fine, chipper. By nightfall the country was beginning to do some oxygenating of its own.

Within a day or two pieces were beginning to fit, even the weirdest. To the bare fact of the suspect's name, John W. Hinckley Jr., were added the details of a strangely American life, or half life. The son of oil-rich respectability quits school, takes to the road, joins the American Nazi party, but can't make it there.

He has a guitar, of course; drives a tan Plymouth with Texas plates; watches TV in cheap motels where he stops briefly. He is a traveling man. Soft-spoken and polite. He dines on Whoppers and writes love notes to a teen-age movie star at Yale—while going madder by the minute, buying guns and hitting the dream cities of Denver, Nashville, Dallas and L.A., until he arrives by Greyhound at the city of the country's heart, which he is driven to penetrate. So after a while even he becomes real. At week's end one understands not everything, but a lot more than seemed possible on frantic Monday. The people were in control here.

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