Among our nation’s many curious fixations, celebrity is but one of them. Millions of Americans spend hours each week reading about stars, watching them dance on television and following their every move. For the overwhelming majority, it’s a benign passion. Once in a while, however, passion turns into obsession and things get scary.
Del Quentin Wilber’s Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan (Henry Holt) is a procedural account of the March 30, 1981, near-assassination of President Ronald Reagan. Wilber spends the majority of his narrative delving into the events, both large and small, that led up to the fateful day when America almost lost its second president in 20 years. He recounts Reagan’s schedule almost to the minute, and does the same for Secret Service Agent Jerry Parr, the man in charge of protecting Reagan, and the doctors and surgeons who treated the president’s nearly fatal gunshot wound.
But the most fascinating and, let’s face it, sadly relevant parts of Rawhide Down are the glimpses into the twisted mind of John Hinckley, Reagan’s would-be assassin. The dark heart of Wilber’s story concerns Hinckley’s steady descent into mental illness and his eventual fixation on a young actress. It was an obsession that nearly brought down the most powerful man in the free world.
By 1976, the 20-year-old Hinckley was little more than a college dropout and failed musician with no direction or purpose. He found his purpose after seeing the Martin Scorsese masterpiece Taxi Driver starring Robert De Niro and a teenage Jodie Foster. He fell into a trance and watched the film at least fifteen times. While Hinckley strongly identified with De Niro’s portrayal of Travis Bickle, it was Foster who quickly became the focus of his entire life.
Hinckley fell in love with Foster, or at least his notion of love, but took no action on his dark fantasies until 1980, when a People magazine profile of Foster described her rather atypical choice to leave fame behind and enroll at Yale University. In short order Hinckley sold off thousands of dollars of stock in his father’s company and followed her to New Haven, Conn. He sent letters and poems, and eventually screwed up the nerve to call Foster a few times. Predictably, this ended poorly.
Rejected by the one he felt should love him most, Hinckley returned home to Colorado and spiraled even further into the abyss. He attempted suicide and went through almost a dozen sessions with a psychiatrist. He wrote shockingly disturbing stories with graphic images such as, “a mind being destroyed by ‘dozens of ravenous lice,’ of ‘a hypodermic penis caught inside a working meat grinder,’ of a ‘few more hungry animals’ chewing on a man’s bones.”
One of the most curious aspects of Hinckley’s case is that he never seemed to want to physically harm Foster. While she was no doubt unnerved and likely frightened by Hinckley (Wilber provides the transcripts to a few phone calls Hinckley made to Foster at Yale, and they are beyond creepy), his own writings make it clear that while he was infatuated with her, she was not intended to be that target of any violence. In this way, Hinckley set himself apart from someone like Mark David Chapman, who only several months earlier gunned down John Lennon.
Wilber could have devoted at least a few more chapters to Hinckley without the book becoming bloated (it checks in at an economic 229 pages), but opted instead to weave bits of his story in between the larger accounts of Reagan, Parr and the other key players of the day. The result is that even though Hinckley is fleshed out to a decent degree, he remains as much a mystery to me as he must have seemed to the FBI agents who first interviewed him 30 years ago. In fact, Wilber devotes a mere 10 percent or so of Rawhide Down to the man responsible for the whole thing.
Ultimately, this is the only aspect of the book that I found to be a disappointment. In approaching his subject with the analytical and detailed approach expected of a newspaper reporter, Wilber missed a real opportunity to dig just a little deeper into the mind of someone who almost became Mark David Chapman and Lee Harvey Oswald in one twisted package. A more riveting narrative could have been told by simply framing the story as a long-developing collision of sorts between Hinckley and Reagan; a nonfiction Day of the Jackal if you will.
Still, as a factual account of a tragically historic day, Rawhide Down is a great read. I would simply caution anyone from coming away from it with the idea that Hinckley was an aberration. In an age when access to and information about celebrities is no more than a few clicks away, it’s frightening to consider the prospect of more Hinckleys out there.
Chris Holmes used to run a website about former football great Howie Long, but otherwise thinks celebrities are just people like us. He lives in New Jersey and is a staff writer for Popdose.com.