Question-and-Answer Session With Reporters Helen Thomas and Jim Gerstenzang on the President's Recovery Period
April 22, 1981
Ms. Thomas. All the reports seem to be true, rosy-cheeked and -- --
The President [laughing]. No, I'm feeling fine.
Ms. Thomas. Can you tell us a little bit about how you felt at the time of the shooting? Did you ever feel you were in mortal danger? I know you didn't even know you were hit, but -- --
The President. No, that's right, and as a matter of fact, it still seems unreal. I knew there had to be shots, and my first instinct was to take a look and see what was going on from where they were. But the Secret Service man behind me had a different idea, and the next thing I knew I found myself pushed into the car. But it still seems kind of unreal.
Ms. Thomas. It's unreal to us, too, because we've come out of that hotel so many times and -- --
The President. Yeah.
Ms. Thomas. -- -- nothing -- --
Mr. Gerstenzang. What were your first thoughts when you realized that you had been hit?
The President. Actually, I can't recall too clearly. I knew I'd been hurt, but I thought that I`d been hurt by the Secret Service man landing on me in the car. And it was, I must say, it was the most paralyzing pain. I've described it as if someone had hit you with a hammer.
But that sensation, it seemed to me, came after I was in the car, and so I thought that maybe his gun or something, underneath, when he had come down on me, had broken a rib. But when I sat up on the seat and the pain wouldn't go away, and suddenly I found that I was coughing up blood, we both decided that maybe I'd broken a rib and punctured a lung. So, that's when we headed for the hospital. And I walked in and gave them my own diagnosis, and the next thing I knew I was on a cart and it was then, I guess, that they found the wound and that I actually had been shot.
Ms. Thomas. Then, you were awake and everything? I mean -- --
The President. Oh, yes.
Ms. Thomas. -- -- but had lost a lot of blood and -- --
The President. Yes. And my main concern, even as I was getting to the hospital, was that -- and I voiced this several times to them -- that the more I tried to breathe and the deeper I tried to breathe, it kept seeming as if I was getting less air -- and you know that panic that you can get if you're strangling on something. I almost had the feeling that it was going to diminish to the place where I wouldn't be getting any. And then they shut me up by sticking a pipe down by throat and oxygen on, and that's when I had to start writing notes -- [laughter] -- because I couldn't talk with that pipe in there.
Ms. Thomas. But you always felt that you were alert enough to know what was going on and -- --
The President. Oh, yes. Yeah, I knew that in the manner in which I was unclothed that I probably wouldn't wear that suit again.
Ms Thomas. Do you have any feelings about going out again? I mean, are there any -- is there trauma or instants that you say, ``Oh, God, do I have to face this again?'' Or do you feel that, you know -- --
The President. I have a hunch I'll be more alert in going again.
Ms. Thomas. We will, too.
The President. That's the other thing.
I look back now in some of these reviews that they've shown of the first few months and so forth. I see some of the milling in crowds and so forth that we've done, and I find myself wondering, ``Well, why didn't this happen 27 times before?'' But, no, there's not going to be any change in the way we do things.
Mr. Gerstenzang. Do you have any recurrent thoughts about it? Does it become a nightmare or a dream?
The President. No. That's where I say, the whole unreality of it.
Ms. Thomas. How do you actually feel? I mean, do you hurt at times and you feel good at times?
The President. Well, as the doctors will tell you, I have never had a chest injury before. They will tell you that it is one of the longest enduring discomforts, and it doesn't go away. There is just that kind of pain or discomfort there constantly that you hope day by day is getting less, and I think is getting less and less. But other than that -- I've resumed at a little slower pace my regimen of exercises that I've always done for keeping fit. And I don't think I'm going to hurdle any tables in the room here for a while, but, really, the recovery is astonishing to me as I think it is, in the reaction, to the doctors, because the only comparison I have to go by is I once had pneumonia, and that was 36 years ago when I was making a picture. And I lost 17 pounds at the time and was months in regaining strength or anything. And I'm so far ahead in this than I was then, that I have to -- --
Ms. Thomas. You are. I know we keep pushing because we keep forgetting what a short time it's actually been.
Mr. Deaver. (Assistant to the President Michael K. Deaver) Thank you, Helen.
The President. 3 weeks and 2 days.
.Ms. Thomas. And 2 days? You haven't counted lately. Who's counting? I mean -- [laughing] -- --
The President. Yes.
Ms. Thomas. When do you think you'll be feeling well enough to go back to the Oval Office, or do you like working in the family quarters or -- --
The President. Well, actually, I don't think I'd be doing anything different. And I'm just going to, you know, I'm going to do it my way. It's convenient this way, because there still are calls by the doctors who want to come and check. There is the convenience of being able to get up and, for example, the telephone calling that I've been doing, which I'd be doing from the office, but I can get up in the morning without bothering to get dressed yet, put on a robe, and sit and do the calls.
So this, you know, with the Congress on recess, I don't think there'd be anything different or I'd be doing anything different than I've done other than possibly some appearances that have been scheduled and which had to be canceled or which George Bush substituted for me. But other than that I've been doing what I'd be doing. Remember, the schedule actually called for me to be in California for a few days.
Ms. Thomas. Going to a wedding and -- --
The President. Yes.
Ms. Thomas. -- -- making a speech and meeting the Mexican -- --
The President. Uh-huh -- --
Ms. Thomas. When do you think you'll be able to -- --
The President. -- -- and going to the ranch.
Ms. Thomas. Going to the ranch, right. But going to the ranch won't be so much fun unless you can ride a horse and -- --
The President. Well, I think that'll come along pretty soon.
Ms. Thomas. Do you think your first travel will be Notre Dame?
The President. I don't know whether that's the frst trip on the schedule or not.
Mr. Deaver. Well, we haven't confirmed anything yet, Helen.
Ms. Thomas. How about your program itself? Do you think that everything's been sort of on hold or slowed down because of -- --
The President. No, I really don't. As I say, the Congress is on recess. I'd be doing the same thing, telephoning them while they're back there, with things that I think might be helpful in meeting their constituents. There isn't anything more that we could do in pushing up on the Hill. So, no, I think everything's going along all right.
Mr. Gerstenzang. Could you, maybe in describing how you are working up there each day, sort of show how your day goes?
The President. Well, they vary from day to day. Usually we start with a staff meeting, and we do that -- which was normal before. Yesterday I had a series of meetings, finishing up with almost an hour's meeting with those Governors who came to see me. We have security briefings.
So, that some days -- now, today, for example, has been -- well, there`s been some sizeable amount of paper signing and so forth that went on, and then mainly after the staff meeting, the telephone calling, which I've been doing. And that will continue, because you don't get them the first call.
Ms. Thomas. You might find them at a radio station. [Laughter]
The President. And believe me, that was a total accident. They didn't make it sound exactly that way. Usually I say to them, ``Where did we find you?'' And I'll tell you why I say that, because early in the calls, I called a Congressman and we'd found him in New Zealand at 4 a.m. [Laughter]
Ms. Thomas. You mean recently?
The President. Yes.
Ms. Thomas. Oh, my God.
The President. I wanted to tell him that I was somebody else. [Laughter] It was too late. He knew who it was. [Laughter]
Ms. Thomas. Was he awake?
The President. Yes, I must say he was most pleasant about the whole thing. So, I usually ask that. And yesterday I asked that question, ``Where'd I find you?'' and he told me, ``In Beaver Falls, at this radio station.'' He said, ``I'm on a talk show here.'' And I said, ``You mean, we're on the talk show now?'' And he said, ``Well, no, they've put me on another phone for this call.'' But he said, ``I think they'd appreciate it very much if you'd say hello to their'' -- well, his forum. ``They know you're on the phone.'' And I said, ``Well, okay.''
So, they put him on the other phone, the one that is audible to the radio audience, and we carried on our conversation there on the talk show.
Ms. Thomas. Do you go to bed earlier now? Do you take naps? Do you sort of try to ease into it?
The President. The only routine that I'm continuing is an afternoon nap. And that was never -- in spite of some stories to the contrary -- that was never a habit of mine. As a matter of fact, I've never been one who naps very well in the daytime. Everybody else sacks out on the plane and everything else, and I don't.
But I have found that I do go to sleep and sleep for a brief period. So, I guess that is part of the recovery.
Ms. Thomas. Do you think your life has changed?
The President. Only temporarily, such as not getting on a horse for a while yet.
Ms. Thomas. It's not like in the movies.
The President. Oh, I thought you meant just changed in - -
Ms. Thomas. I mean the impact itself, of everything that's happened in terms of the Presidency, yourself -- --
The President. Well, of course, you know, I had 8 years of a job that was similar enough that there hasn't been any great surprises to me in this. But I'm enjoying it, to be able to deal directly with the things I've heretofore talked about. I enjoy doing that.
Ms. Thomas. You don't want to hang up your cleats or anything because of this incident?
The President. No, no.
Ms. Thomas. Does it give you any kind of new sense of -- I mean, I think the country's kind of worried about your security and -- --
The President. Well, again, you get -- maybe this is part of it -- that you get a little used to it. In all those 8 years and those hectic times when I was Governor, I was aware that there were constant threats. And I could usually tell when there was a slight difference in the security precautions and the normal -- something new must have been suggested. And in the two campaigns, having had national-type security, Secret Service, no, I've been -- you're aware of that. And you sometimes wonder in your mind when and how it's going to happen or any attempt or what it would be like.
You remember '76; there was that fellow with the toy gun. Well, I never saw that; I was busy saying hello to someone. And I didn't see this.
Ms. Thomas. Do you have any feelings about your assailant? Of course there's nothing you can really feel, I guess. It's something that's senseless.
The President. Well, yes, the feeling is I hope, indeed I pray, that he can find an answer to his problem. He seems to be a very disturbed young man. He comes from a fine family. They must be devastated by this. And I hope he'll get well too.
Ms. Thomas. That's very kind of you. You don't have any feelings of real anger, then, or -- --
The President. Well, I don't know how I could ask for help for myself and feel that way about someone else.
Mr. Gerstenzang. If you were to speak to his parents, what would you tell them?
The President. Well, I think I'd tell them that I understand and -- [pause] -- hope for a good outcome there, to end their problem.
Ms. Thomas. Do you think that you will get your budget and taxes through now?
The President. Well, I still continue to be optimistic. After all, the argument from whether we should have a plan or not has become an argument of -- --
Ms. Thomas. How much.
The President. -- -- how much and where. So, I think we've gained some ground.
Mr. Gerstenzang. Has this in any way changed your thinking on gun control at all?
The President. No, and let me explain why. I'm not just being closed-minded or stubborn.
We have the laws now. Granted that all States aren't uniform. But I don't know of any place -- there may be some -- but I don't know of any place in the country where it is now not against the law to carry a concealed weapon. Now, we've found that that can't prevent someone. Your District of Columbia here has such a law. But a man was carrying a concealed weapon. So, I don't see where we believe that adding another law that probably will be just as unenforceable as this one is going to make a difference.
In fact, if anything, I'm a little disturbed that focusing on gun control as an answer to the crime problem today could very well be diverting us from really paying attention to what needs to be done if we're to solve the crime problem.
Ms. Thomas. Which is?
The President. Well, I do think we're showing the results of several decades of growing permissiveness, unwillingness to hold individuals responsible for their misdeeds, blaming society instead. In other words, quicker, more effective justice.
Mr. Deaver. One more.
Ms. Thomas. One more. We've got to make this one good. [Laughter]
In terms of [Press Secretary] Brady, will he continue on? Are you going to keep the slot open for him?
The President. Oh, you bet. And I think all of us -- as I say, when I finally did learn that three others had been hit, including the agent who deliberately placed himself between me and the gunman -- but Jim, of course, was the most serious, and I am so gratified by the optimism about his recovery that that's a daily prayer.
Ms. Thomas. A miracle.
The President. Yes. For him.
Ms. Thomas and Mr. Gerstenzang. Thank you very much.
Note: The question-and-answer session with Helen Thomas of United Press International and Jim Gerstenzang of Associated Press began at 12 noon in the Map Room at the White House.