“History never looks like history when you are living through it.”
-John W. Gardner
March 30, 1981. A chilly Monday afternoon in Washington, DC with on-again, off-again drizzle. The kind of day that can’t decide whether to be the vanguard of spring or winter’s last hurrah. So it acts like both. I was a 20 year-old college kid from the country’s Heartland back then, in awe of the city’s showy trappings of power and its perpetual love affair with history.
That’s the thing about history – it’s like lightning: you never know when or where it will strike next. Fate had decided to touch that afternoon and make it historic. And it did so in the unlikeliest of places. Fate gets a kick out of doing that; it has selected box seats in a packed theatre, a crowded train station, and even a quiet street in downtown Dallas as venues where American history made abrupt sea-changes. Now Fate’s attention was turning to a hotel.
And I just happened to be staying in it.
The Washington Hilton was a big, rambling place that looked like a visual reminder of the time it was built, the Swinging Sixties. Jimi Hendrix and The Doors had played its ballroom when it was hip. Those days were long gone. But because it was situated perfectly for important gatherings (a few blocks off Embassy Row and just north of DuPont Circle) the Hilton was still one of Washington’s “go to” hotels.
A large labor union confab was underway there. And on that drizzly Monday afternoon in March 1981, the union boys were preparing to hear a speech from the country’s new president, Ronald Reagan. He had been on the job for just 69 days, and Washington hadn’t seen anything like him in a long time.
Reagan went into the 1980 election with pollsters saying the outcome was too close to call. He went to bed on election night having won 489 electoral votes and 44 states in a surprise landslide. Just minutes after his inauguration, Iran released the 52 American hostages it had held for 444 days. So the old movie star swept into Washington with a winner’s glow. After lengthy national funks caused by Vietnam, Watergate and the one-two punch of runaway inflation and crippling unemployment, Americans were ready to feel good again. And Reagan was just the guy to make that happen.
The board meeting of the student group that brought me to Washington had wrapped up the day before. I checked out of the Hilton and was getting ready for a late afternoon flight back to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I was a college sophomore. A friend overheard someone talking in the hotel lobby. He asked me, “Did you know Reagan is going to be here in a little while?” No, I didn’t. “Want to hang around and see him?”
Did I? Reagan’s poster had hung on my dorm room wall the year before. I had volunteered on his campaign, had seen him nominated for president at the GOP convention in Detroit and had heard him speak at three rallies. I had even got to shake his hand and chat with him at one event. Did I want to see him now that he was actually President of the United States? You bet I did!
We lugged our suitcases to a nearby restaurant for lunch, then returned to the hotel’s T Street NW side entrance. The Secret Service had cordoned off the site, so we took up position directly across the street.
Sirens wailed a few minutes later, and the presidential motorcade sped into view. If you’ve never seen one in person, it’s quite a sight. There’s the obligatory black (always black) SUV with headlights flashing, local police officers riding escort, another SUV filled with Secret Service agents, and finally, the long limo carrying POTUS.
Reagan got out. Even from across the street, with the big car between us, you could clearly see his face. He waved. I still remember his smile. In an instant he was gone, disappearing with his entourage inside the hotel.
My friend turned to me. “Want to stick around and see him when he comes out?”
That’s when I spoke the words I’ve kicked myself these past 33 years for saying : “Naw, we’ve seen all there is to see here. Let’s go.” My friend agreed, and we left.
And so I missed seeing Reagan when he exited the hotel a little over 30 minutes later. I missed seeing a mentally unhinged man named John Hinckley, Jr. pull out a gun and open fire, thinking his deranged act would somehow impress actress Jodie Foster. In short, I missed American history happening right before my eyes.
“History never looks like history when you are living through it.” You can sure say that again.
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