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Tom Alderman Headshot

In Politics It's the Charm, Stupid

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Policies, what policies? We Americans really don't vote for presidents because of their policies, do we? Sure, policies matter, but most presidential candidates play to the center -- after their nominations -- so we're left with which jo-jo is the least onerous candidate in a field of onerous-ity, and once-and-a-while, we get to chose someone we'd like to have over for a barbeque.

We've had several presidents whose personalities were a primary sell. Think both Roosevelts, Eisenhower, Kennedy and -- Democrats, hold your breath -- Ronald Reagan. If you listen to or read, Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan by Washington Post reporter, Del Quentin Wilber, you'll begin to get it.

The audiobook sat on the shelf for a while because it seemed redundant to spend eight hours listening, or 576 pages reading about a major event that was well-chronicled at the time. Apparently it was not. The president was closer to death than we were told. That's the what, when and where of this engrossing story.

But this book is mostly about the WHO of it all. We experience it through the eyes of three main participants. The shooter, John Hinckley, Jr.; Special Agent, Jerry Parr, who shoved the president in the limo and threw his body on top; and the president himself who had only been in office for two months. The nub of the story is the way Reagan, code-named 'Rawhide,' handled this personal crisis. His grace under fire penetrated our national experience and significantly affected the rest of his two terms. With chaos surrounding him, and difficulty breathing, Reagan remained genial and reassuring throughout. The one-liners he flipped to his wife and hospital staff, revealed a fundamental character of the man as a genuine -- might even say -- Hollywood-style good-guy hero.

As in all of life's moments, history is in the details and those telling moments are well-covered here. Hinckley, for example, had hollow-point bullets that he did not load into his Saturday night special that day. Why, we don't know but if he had them, things would have turned out quite differently. We also learn he did a dry run at a prior Jimmy Carter rally in Ohio but left his gun at his hotel.

There are two urgent surgeries going on simultaneously at George Washington hospital that day in March of 1981. Press Secretary Jim Brady is in one trauma room with a bullet to his brain while in another, two surgeons are handling the president's beating heart, trying to find bullet fragments.

While Reagan shows calm reassurance during it all, the impatient Alexander Haig is blustering through his 15-minutes- of-crisis-fame. He tells cameras that, according to the Constitution, he is in control of the country because the president is incapacitated, the vice-president is in the air, and he is the third in presidential succession. Unfortunately, the Speaker of the House is third in line. The media pounces on the embarrassing blunder and Haig simply looks foolish.

What makes this story so compelling is Wilber's practiced eye of a fine reporter and his adroit facility in working the words.

The other reason is Macmillan's and producer Laura Wilson's choice of Jason Culp as narrator for the audio edition. It would be easy to over-do the drama of the day but Culp's resonant delivery stays grounded while effectively driving the fast-moving story forward.

In contrast to this sensational moment in history, HarperAudio has put out an exhaustively detailed 21-hour audio biography of our 30th president, Calvin Coolidge, a taciturn gentleman from Massachusetts who spent six years on the job and was called 'Silent Cal' because he didn't say very much -- mostly because he was quite dull and so is his story.