Grace Under Fire
Just 69 days into his presidency, Ronald Reagan was nearly killed by an assassin’s bullet.
The outcome of that event, interestingly, is that the 70-year-old Reagan, while at his weakest, took on an aura of formidable strength, even while one of his “strongest” cabinet members appeared to falter before the watching world.
On March 30, 1981, John Hinckley Jr. fired six bullets in the space of 1.7 seconds as Reagan exited the Washington Hilton Hotel.
Two of the Devastator bullets, designed to inflict maximum damage, missed. One hit press secretary James Brady. Another hit a DC police offer. Yet another hit a Secret Service agent.
The sixth bullet bounced off the presidential limo and entered Reagan’s body under his left arm. It lodged in his lung, just one inch from his heart.
At first Reagan believed himself to be unhurt. But as the limo raced toward the hospital, the gravity of his situation gradually became evident. After walking into the ER under his own power, the president collapsed. “I feel really awful. I can’t breathe.”
His heart was barely pumping. The attending physicians would later report that they feared for his survival.
What many Americans remember about that day was Ronald Reagan’s amazing sense of humor.
As doctors prepared him for life-saving surgery, the president turned to Jerry Parr – the Secret Service agent who had thrown him onto the back seat of the limo – and said, “I hope they’re all Republicans.”
Dr. Joseph Giordano – a lifelong Democrat who would ultimately locate and remove the bullet from Reagan’s body – replied, “Mr. President, today we are all Republicans.”
When a distraught Nancy Reagan arrived at the hospital and rushed to his side, her husband removed his oxygen mask and said, “Honey, I forgot to duck.” He then scribbled a note to one of the nurses, using the old W.C. Fields line: “All in all, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”
This is called grace under fire. In Reagan’s case the “under fire” part was literally true.
Grace under fire is that special quality of leadership by which someone becomes a non-anxious presence, even in the midst of chaos. It helps bring centeredness and calm to others.
Meanwhile, at the White House, things were anything but calm.
Leaders of the Soviet Union, hearing the news that Reagan had been shot, immediately moved their nuclear submarines closer to the American coast. Vice President George H.W. Bush, who would himself one day be the Chief Executive, was on a jet returning from Texas.
Who was making strategic decisions? Who had access to the Football, the briefcase with America’s nuclear launch codes?
Tough-minded Secretary of State Alexander Haig decided to fill the gap. Completely forgetting (or ignoring) the chain of command as specified in the Constitution, Haig stepped before live TV cameras in the press room and announced, “As of now, I am in control in the White House.”
Several reporters in the room actually laughed. Haig looked pale. Fretful. Anything but in control. That moment of anxious, grab-the-bull-by-the-horns “leadership” actually raised the country’s level of anxiety.
And it doomed Haig’s dreams of winning any future national elections.
Are you in the midst of stress and chaos this week? Ask God for the gift of Spirit-empowered grace under fire.
“Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life” (Philippians 4:6-7, “The Message”).
You can be a non-anxious presence that will help bring God’s peace to others.
And you won’t even have to deliver clever one-liners.