again, the "out of control" feelings reflected our own fantasies, not reality.
Death in Washington shown the week before the shooting.
The covers of the other two major newsweeklies the week before the shooting likewise contained hidden assassination messages. The New Republic simply ran a cover which displayed gravestones in front of the Capitol Building and Washington Monument, a subliminal message of death wishes toward the head of government. U.S. News & World Report-whose editorial policy was more supportive of the president than The New Republic-was not as open about their death messages. Their cover pictured "Angry Americans" as "frustrated and losing ground" while an uncaring, rich father-figure stood above them as they dropped into a chasm. This alone, however, was not explicit enough to show what must be done by these "angry Americans" to the father-figure looking down upon them with so little sympathy. So the editors of the magazine put a headline above the main headline which gave the fantasy message as a subliminal suggestion. The message, at first glance, seemed innocent enough. It read "$60 BILLION OF FEDERAL WASTE-REAGAN'S NEXT TARGET." As is so often the case with deeply-denied fantasies, part of the headline actually contained two hidden messages:
Waste-Reagan's Next Target
Waste -- Reagan's Next Target
Reagan's Next Target
In addition to these assassination messages appearing on the front covers and lead stories of our national newsweeklies, headlines and pictures in many of the daily newspapers in the few days before the shooting showed an upsurge in violent language, death imagery and gunshot victims.(29) So unprecedented was the number of hidden messages to shoot the president, that at a meeting of The Institute for Psychohistory,
|PERMISSION FROM OTHERS||13|
where hundreds of periodicals and newspapers were being analyzed for their fantasy content during the week before the shooting, concern was voiced about the possibility of some disturbed individual picking up such a flood of hidden suggestions and acting upon them.(30)
One other person picked up the assassination messages at the same time as the gunman did: Alexander Haig. For no apparent reason, during the week before the shooting Haig suddenly began a big fight with others in the Reagan administration about "who will be in charge in case of emergencies" if the president should be incapacitated. At one point, two days before the shooting, Haig even argued about his primary role in the cabinet "in line of succession ' to the presidency, as though succession were for some reason about to become an issue. The succession discussion merged so closely with the actual events on the day of the shooting that Haig's statement seemed to merge in the memory of most people with his proclamation just after the shooting that "As of now, I am in control." The reason, of course, why so far no one has questioned why Alexander Haig began talking about "succession" just before the shooting was that in a real sense the same unconscious assassination wishes he was acting upon were shared by the entire country.
One more person, of course, picked up the assassination messages displayed on tens of millions of magazine covers and newspapers that final week in March: the gunman, John W. Hinckley, Jr. Needless to say, there are at all times many potentially violent people wandering around America with guns in their pockets and murder in their hearts, fantasying killing the president as a representative in their confused minds of figures of authority from their family life. But generally they wait for permission from others - in fact, for a delegation from others - before actually trying to commit the act, as did Oswald when he waited until he read similar subliminal assassination messages in Dallas newspapers before shooting John F. Kennedy. [The subliminal messages were so powerful that President Kennedy even unconsciously picked them up two months before his assassination and made a home movie "just for fun" showing himself being assassinated.](31) Hinckley had been stalking both President Carter and President-elect Reagan with guns in his possession for the previous six months, but just couldn't "get himself into the right frame of mind to actually carry out the act," as he later put it. It was not until March 30th, he said, when he got what he termed "a signal" from a newspaper(32) and told himself "This is it, this is for me," that he walked out and shot Reagan.
Americans were, of course, genuinely upset to learn that someone had actually carried out their fantasies of assassination, but on a deeper level they were relieved too. To begin with, there were the numerous newspaper reports about school children who cheered when told that the president had been shot. Beginning in Texas, and later spreading to Oklahoma, Missouri and Minnesota, newspaper articles appeared which read like the following:
THE 7TH GRADERS WHO CHEERED THE NEWS
THAT THE PREZ WAS SHOT
A group of 7th graders cheered a school announcement of the attempt on President Reagan's life.
"I was dumbfounded. I didn't know what to do," said John Zannini, a teacher at Tulsa Central Academy.
"Here were these kids cheering that the president had been shot. I didn't know what to say."
He said 10 of the 16 pupils in his English class cheered when the principal gave a report of the shooting over the intercom.
Zannini said he checked around and found that some students in the eighth grade had reacted the same way...."Three or four were laughing about it. They asked me if he (President Reagan) was dead. When I said no, that he was doing well, they snapped their fingers and said 'shucks.' "(33)
Other local newspapers describing similar cheering school children read much the same. Apparently the children had picked up the national mood just as their parents had, but were less successful in repressing their reactions.
Of course, most adults did not openly cheer when they heard the news of the shooting. Yet even they could admit, if asked directly, that some surprising feelings had gone through their minds when first hearing of the shooting. The only poll to actually ask people precisely what the first thought was which occurred to them after they had heard about the shooting found that about half admitted that their first thought was one of relief,(34) thinking "good" or "I laughed" or "I felt relieved" or "I wished he had had better aim" or some other identification with the shooting. The other half of those polled said the first thing that went through their minds was some form of conspiracy theory, such as "Haig did it" or "Bush did it" or "somebody wants to get revenge for the cuts he's made" or "the Russians did it." All responses, in other words, indicated that the shooting was equally wished for, but the wish for the second half of those asked was attributed to some person other than the respondent. No one answered the poll by saying that they were surprised at the shooting.
The media reaction, too, was one of lack of surprise. Many articles recalled the earlier expectation that he would be killed in office. "PRESIDENT ONE INCH AWAY FROM BEING 8TH VICTIM OF ZERO YEAR JINX" was how the N. Y.Post reported the shooting, as though it was due to magical sorcery somehow in the air. Others simply admitted that the shooting was not unexpected, only the timing was off. Mary McGrory reported in her column that her immediate reaction on
|IRON MAN REAGAN||15|
hearing that Reagan had been shot was the thought that "Reagan had been in office only 70 days'. Yes, his policies alarmed and unnerved some. But he was a nice man, and nothing irretrievable had happened. It was TOO SOON."(35)
"Too soon," perhaps, but not unexpected, and somehow oddly a relief. The editorials during the week following the shooting seemed thoroughly puzzled by our feelings, by our lack of remorse, and par-ticularly by the complete absence of any action on gun control. With James Gannon, editor of the Des Moines Register, the nation asked itself:
WHY ISN'T REAGAN ANGRY?
WHY AREN'T WE ALL ANGRY?
A madman shooting the president wounds the entire nation grievously. Yet the reaction has been shock but not surprise. The question is merely: When will it happen again? Next month? Next year? Next president?(36)
The reason, of course, why we weren't either surprised or angry at the shooting was because so many of us unconsciously wanted it. The president had to be tested to see if he could really be tough enough to contain our anger. He had been, and he had come through with flying colors. He was indeed as hard as steel.
|He be shot one inch from
the heart and could then spit out the bullets, all the
while joking with the doctors. Nothing could stop him.
"IRON MAN REAGAN" had shown himself as strong
as steel, and could do anything we required of him.
What's more just as ancient kings had gone through
death-and-rebirth rituals at the beginning of their rule,
so, too, Reagan had been put through a death-and-rebirth
ritual, and had emerged stronger than ever. Our national
rage could be contained in his "shining steel
In the weeks following the shooting, all violent language in the media simply disappeared, and was replaced by images more appropriate to a new, strong president. Reagan's "honeymoon period" only then began, with stories not only about his own amazing personal strength but about how strong the nation now felt.
Reagan was seen as made of iron
for surviving our test of his strength.
|Most of these images were displaced to other strong, phallic objects, such as the space shuttle, which Time's cover story said "gives the U.S. a mighty life... shouts rose... high over the distant buttes... Powerful... delight... buoyant... exhilaration..."|
After the shooting, images of violence
were replaced by those of strength.
| and so on.(37) A similar
"mighty life" was given to Reagan's public
opinion polls, which had previously slipped to only 59
percent approval before the shooting (as compared to 73
percent for Carter at the same moment), and The New York
Times announced that Reagan now enjoyed a "SECOND
HONEYMOON" with the Congress and the public.(38)
Reagan's understandably shaky first speech to Congress after his shooting was experienced by the country and Congress in tones of pure hero-worship.
SPEECH BRINGS DOWN THE HOUSE
President Reagan took the roof off the Capitol last night as Republicans and Democrats cheered his triumphant return..."It was inspiring-absolutely inspiring," Sen. Alphonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) told The Post. "President Reagan's speech was one of the most dramatic events I have ever witnessed in my 14 years in the Congress"... "It was thrilling... He out-Wayned John Wayne."(39)
"Iron Man Ron," John Wayne reincarnated, hardened in battle, could now be depended upon to be strong enough to embody our national rage and lead us, wielding his sacrificial ax, in the great task to come-the cleansing and renewal of our dying land.
Yet so far we have explained very little about the nature of the feelings with which we began Reagan's America. Where did all this anger come from in the first place? Why did Ronald Reagan start his presidency with such a buildup of feelings of impotence, disintegration and rage, feelings so powerful we needed an assassination attempt before we could experience the normal strength of the honeymoon period?
|SLIPPING TOWARD IMPOTENCE||15|
If our economy and our crime rate weren't really "out of control" at the beginning of 1981, what was?
To answer these questions, we must return to the source of this buildup of rage and try to understand why we shared the fantasy that we were "slipping toward impotence" during the presidency of Jimmy Carter.