The Day Reagan Was Shot
Think about the sun, Pippin
Think about her golden glance
How she lights the world up
Well, now it’s your chance
With the guardian of splendor
Inviting you to dance
Think about the sun
—Finale, Pippin by Stephen Schwarz
We were standing near the glass doors at the back of the theatre waiting for the bell.
Bishop DuBourg High School’s theatre doubled as its theatre classroom. The last class of the day was almost over. We were waiting for the bell to ring. The last bell of the day.
At the other end of the room, the stage held the set for Pippin which opened two weeks later. I would play Pippin’s half-brother Lewis in that production. My first musical.
The bell didn’t ring on time. We could see through the glass doors that some teachers had released students early. But not Mr. Leibrecht. Jim Leibrecht, the best high school theatre teacher and director you could ask for, stood and chatted with us.
Leibrecht and I didn’t agree on politics. He was not a Reaganite. Nor a Republican. I was. I appreciated and respected Jim Leibrecht too much to talk politics with him. Not worth it. Why risk a friendship or mentorship. I don’t remember what we talked about, me and the class’s dozen students and Leibrecht, but it wasn’t politics. It was probably Pippin.
Five minutes after the bell should have rung, our principal Floyd Hacker come on the PA. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I’ll pretend I do:
“The news is reporting that President Reagan was shot in an assassination attempt in Washington DC this afternoon. This is a sad moment in our lives and in the life of the United States. We’ve been through this too many times in my life. I do not know the President’s condition, but he alive and has been taken to a hospital. The shooter is in custody. Now, let’s offer a prayer for the President’s recovery and for our country before dismissal.”
Then, nearly 2,000 Catholic teenagers and the faculty prayed a Hail Mary and an Our Father in unison. We were not alone. From Time magazine’s issue immediately after Reagan was shot:
When the President was shot, Americans prayed very hard, not for the life of an abstraction, but for a man, one who as leader of the democracy carries some thing of everyone in that mortal chest.
The bell rang. No one moved.
Girls were crying. Maybe I was, too. The halls were silent except for muffled yelps and sniffles. Teachers and students who had never been shy about voicing their dislike of Ronald Reagan looked shocked and sad. An attack on one was an attack on all. At 3:05 p.m. CST on March 30, 1981, we were all Reagan’s children (or grandchildren).
I don’t remember if we had Pippin rehearsal after school. I watched Nightline that night, as I did most nights. Stories were already emerging about Reagan’s remarkable humor and humility. “Does anybody know what that' guy’s beef was?” “I hope you’re all Republicans,” the Gipper told the doctors. “I forgot to duck.”
There were stories of people cheering the news. I didn’t see anyone celebrate firsthand. I did hear people joke about it. I probably did, too. Generation X never held back except around elders we wanted to impress. Among that generation at that time, pulling punches on irreverent jokes was a crime. And, besides, Reagan sort of gave us permission to crack wise about it. He went first.
How does this memory of the day Reagan got shot make you feel now? Deep inside where the dark and light fight for attention and dominance, how does the idea of a President’s mortality fall out?
And what if Trump got shot? How would you handle the reaction from the left? From the NeverTrump establishment types?
What would happen to society if some selfish leftists or some rogue Secret Service agent attacked President Trump? Would Time magazine write about a nation praying together for his recovery?
I usually discount the notion that people have fundamentally changed. But culture does change. In the culture of 1981, we all still followed the lead of our WWII-era guides. That generation still dominated boardrooms, school administrations, and politics at every level. In 1981, Baby Boomers like the Clintons were busy climbing the culture’s social ladders. The Silent Generation had arrived and relaxed in its middle management haven. And Gen X was busy sarcastically critiquing the phoniness and pointlessness of everything like real-life Holden Caulfields.
Whatever the generational undercurrents each cohort stirred beneath, in 1981 the surface of American cultures remained firmly in the hands of the Greatest Generation
But times have changed now. The World War II generation, typified by George H. W. Bush don’t get around much anymore. The Silents are in the back half of their retirement years. Baby Boomers, desperate to hang on to the youth they misspent, cling to the last vestiges of power in politics and business and entertainment. Sober and skeptical, Generation X wields its growing power quietly as our Millennial siblings and children climb out from their parents' basements. And the decorum imposed on our culture by the Greatest Generation has been replaced by angry hatred fomented by the clinging Boomers who encourage the worst behavior on the part of their Millennial grandchildren. David Horowitz, Boomer radical turned conservative Trump supporter, warned us in 1989 that his generation was the most destructive in US history. And they weren’t done.
David Horowitz, Boomer radical turned conservative Trump supporter, warned us in 1989 that his generation was the most destructive in US history. And they weren’t done.
Pippin, in the play by that name, wants to do something great with his life. He tries academia, sex, war, religion, and politics. All leave him empty.
In the end, Pippin is torn between two extremes of greatness: the greatness of self-immolation and the greatness of being a good husband and stepfather to a young boy.
I wanted magic shows and miracles
Mirages to touch
I wanted such a little thing from life
I wanted so much
I never came close, my love
We never came near
It never was there
I think it was here
—Finale, Pippin by Stephen Schwarz
When I reflect on that day in March 1981, before my generation even had a name, I feel like America has walked millions of miles in Pippin’s shoes. The Boomers beckon us to go out in one perfect flame that will absolve humanity, at least American humanity, of its many sins. Behind those Boomers stand these Gen Xers. We’re too chastened by life to tell the Boomers their wrong. They wouldn’t listen, anyway. But we’re also too wise to think that they’re right.
The Boomers wanted something perfect. Something shiny and pure. But, as Pippin tells us, there’s no color you can have on earth that won’t finally fade.
Maybe America isn’t perfect. But anyone who takes a look around the world will see that no one’s ever done better. No one’s even come close. But we nearly came near during that magic moment called the Eighties. Thank God that bullet missed its mark.
Maybe we can come a little closer this time. If Donald Trump, like Reagan, can survive the hatred and selfishness of that most destructive generation.