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RON COHEN: FROM HIS NEW BOOK
Ron Cohen
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Ron Cohen

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Posted 04.07.16
Near Washington DC

RON COHEN

[EDITOR'S NOTE:] This is an excerpt from Ron Cohen's forthcoming memoir, "Of Course You Can Have Ice Cream for Breakfast: Love Letters to My Grandkids". Cohen retired after four decades with United Press International and Gannett News Service, and is the author of the award-winning "Down to the Wire: UPI's Fight for Survival" He was running UPI's Washington bureau when President Reagan was shot.

"Then Came the Gunshots and a Hell of a Story That Monday Afternoon"

"The President has been shot!"

In 40-plus years in journalism, I heard these words twice. The first time was on November 22, 1963, and nobody alive then will forget where they were and what they were doing when John F. Kennedy was assassinated while riding in an open limousine in a presidential motorcade in Dallas.

I was then a junior staffer in the small UPI bureau in Hartford, Connecticut, and was scarcely more than a spectator as UPI's national reporters monopolized the wires for four days with stories covering every angle of the assassination. The distance between Connecticut and Washington is but 400 miles, but the Hartford bureau might as well have been on Mars that weekend. I hunched mesmerized over our clackety-clacking teletype machines, reading one riveting story after another carrying bylines of UPI colleagues I knew only over the wire.

For his brilliant coverage of the murder of the young president, UPI White House reporter Merriman Smith would win a Pulitzer Prize. But that weekend in Hartford, as I marveled at the skills of Smitty and his colleagues, I could only dream that someday I might win a transfer to Washington to "play with the big boys."

A decade later I joined UPI's most important bureau, but not as a playmate. I would become their boss.

On March 30, 1981, a couple of months after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as America's 40th president, I heard those words for the second time: "The president has been shot."

Reagan was targeted by John Warnock Hinckley, a young man haplessly, hopelessly lovesick over an actress he never could possibly have. And I found myself smack in the middle of a story as difficult to grip as a bowl of Jello.

It was the Monday after Gridiron Club weekend. The Gridron has nothing to do with football. Members are journalists who cannot throw a tight spiral but can throw a white-tie-and-tails dinner each spring to poke fun at "Official Washington."

Guests, usually including the president, must at least act like they are enjoying four hours of speeches, skits, and song parodies lampooning easy targets -- politicians, pundits, and the journalists themselves.

Attending his first Gridiron as president, Reagan was surprised and delighted to discover that his wife, Nancy, the target of merciless criticism for her imperial tastes, had slipped from her head table seat and reappeared on stage in tattered rags, singing new lyrics to the old Roaring Twenties hit, "Second-Hand Rose." Her parody, "Second-Hand Clothes", delighted her husband, charmed detractors, captured front-page encomiums, and melted her "ice queen" image. But, less than 48 hours later, the president would fighting for his life at George Washington University Hospital.

I showed up for work that Monday morning with a big-time headache. In my first Gridiron show I had sung on stage with my fellow hams. And the first song parody I wrote for the club had been Nancy Reagan's "Second-Hand Clothes." I had partied, perhaps too heartily, all weekend.

Then came the gunshots and a hell of a story that Monday afternoon.

Things are quiet in the newsroom so I tell desk editor David Wiessler that I'm going to return my rented tuxedo, then head home to nurse a throbbing head. Before boarding the bus to Potomac, I decide to make a quick stop at the bureau, just to be certain everything is still under control,.

It isn't. The lazy tableau I left 20 minutes ago is a bedlam of teletype bells clanging out bulletins and staffers barking into phones.Wiessler shouts, "The President's been shot!"

I rush to a computer to join the rewrite deskers who will serve as UPI's nerve center for the next 12 hours. We begin assembling a preliminary main story based on the bits and pieces of information from our White House reporters, especially from Dean Reynolds, who was UPI's man on the scene at the Washington Hilton Hotel.

During the dozen hours that follow, the frenzy never abates. The lead writers put out perhaps 30 updated versions of the main story, every word under Dean's byline. Reynolds was inches from the presidential limousine, parked and idling outside the hotel, when Hinckley fired six shots and wounded Reagan; his press secretary, Jim Brady; a D.C. police officer, and a Secret Service agent.

Racing the wrong way up a hotel escalator, Reynolds dashes across the lobby to the check-in desk, grabs the phone from a startled clerk and dictates UPI's bulletin to Wiessler:

"The President has been shot."

My computer screen is just a few steps from where Wiessler sits in "the slot," through which all of our stories will flow before being sent on the wires to UPI subscribers. I position reporter Pat Koza at my side to act as my eyes and ears; she clutches the TV remote for dear life, and, like Siamese twins, we are inseparable for what seems like forever. Pat knows what is needed: Keep clicking and tell me whatever the networks are reporting.

Across the city, our reporters scramble for tidbits. Secretary of State Alexander Haig takes the podium in the White House briefing room and proclaims: "As of now, I am in control here, in the White House..."

Haig, a retired Army general accustomed to having orders obeyed swiftly, has blithely ignored the presidential order of succession stipulated by the Constitution: The vice president, in this case George H.W. Bush, takes over when the president is incapacitated. Then come the speaker of the House and the Senate president. Secretary of State is fifth in line, so Alexander Haig wasn't even close to being "in control here, in the White House." He is bedeviled by that careless burst of bravado the rest of his life.

On Capitol Hill, UPI staffers buttonhole everyone, hunting for any nugget they can provide for our story. We transmit everything we can quickly report -- reaction, analyses, a history of attacks on presidents, how the country will be governed until Reagan recovers. If he recovers.

Several of our reporters are working from a makeshift briefing room at George Washington University hospital, where the president is in surgery. In a nearby operating room, press secretary Jim Brady lies unconscious as a neurosurgical team races to control his hemorrhaging. The prognosis is beyond grim. We expect any moment to hear Jim Brady has died.

This stuff is the meat and potatoes of a wire service. Using our internal message wire, we implore bureaus around the country to unearth anything, however insignificant it may seem, on John Hinckley and Jodie Foster, the young actress who is the unwitting muse behind his rampage.

Our reporters perform with alacrity and excellence. The Denver bureau tracks down the gunman's family in suburban Evergreen. John Hinckley Sr., chairman of Vanderbilt Energy Corp., had contributed big bucks to George Bush's unsuccessful primary challenge to Reagan in 1980. Hinckley's older brother, Scott, has a dinner date scheduled the following night with Bush's son, Neil. Interesting, if not crucial. It finds its way into our story.

Sixteen minutes after the shooting, our Dallas bureau reports that the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has learned that Hinckley purchased a $47 handgun at Rocky's Pawn Shop in Dallas. Plus Hinckley had been a vaguely intermittent student at Texas Tech University. Into the story.

The six illegal "Devastator" bullets Hinckley fired are designed to explode on impact. The first two hit Brady and Thomas Delahanty, a D.C. cop, the third a building across the street, the fourth Timothy McCarthy, a Secret Service agent, the fifth bounced off the bullet-resistant window of the presidential limo. The final one ricocheted off the limo through Reagan's left rib cage, settling in his lung. Luckily none exploded or four men likely would be dead on the scene. Into the story this info goes.

UPI staffers in Nashville tell me that Hinckley had been arrested on gun charges in 1980 for stalking Reagan's predecessor, Jimmy Carter. Into the story.

My old bureau chips in, too. Hartford staffers get in touch with Jodie Foster in New Haven, where she is a student at Yale. She has no idea this deranged young man has shot the president in a wildly aberrant effort to impress her. Jodie Foster, famous actress and Ivy League coed. Into our story.

From UPI's Vernon Scott in Los Angeles comes word that Hinckley's infatuation with Foster began a few years earlier, when he had seen the film "Taxi Driver" for the first of at least 15 times. Hinckley apparently identifies with Robert DeNiro's character, Travis Bickle, a cabbie who befriends a 12-year-old prostitute -- played by Foster. Toward the end of the film, to impress her, Bickle attempts to assassinate a senator running for president. Could this get any more bizarre?

As Hinckley's obsession with Foster grew, he followed her around the country, even enrolling in a creative writing course at Yale in 1980. He began writing and phoning her, refusing to take no for an answer. At her wit's end, reports our Hartford bureau, she turned the matter over to New Haven police, but Hinckley fled before authorities could investigate. Appropriating the film's narrative, he decides to kill a politician to impress Foster. Muttering "You couldn't make up this crap," we fold in Vernon Scott's contributions.

In mid-afternoon our wire service competitors, the Associated Press and Reuters, report that Brady, whom reporters adore and call "The Bear," had died on the operating room table. UPI-only subscribers, on deadline, jam our switchboard demanding our matcher. We cannot and are getting creamed on an important piece of the biggest news story in years.

I call our reporter, Peter Brown, at GW: Find out if Brady is dead. I don't care how -- steal hospital scrubs and burst into the operating room. We are getting drubbed and we cannot get back into this crucial game without first-hand confirmation. I try to stay calm but cannot:

"Peter, dammit, FIND OUT IF BRADY'S DEAD!"

Pat Koza has switched channels; Frank Reynolds, ABC's highly regarded anchorman, tells viewers that Brady is dead, quoting both AP and Reuters.

From Capitol Hill, veteran chief Senate reporter Steve Gerstel calls to say that Tennessee Senator Howard Baker had told him Brady is dead. I never trusted a reporter more than the peerless Gerstel, and Baker is his great pal. But I won't use it -- it has to come from a responsible source at the hospital.

Peter Brown is on the phone.

"Brady's alive!" he shouts.

"Who says?"

"Nofziger."

Lyn Nofziger had been at Reagan's side from the back lots at Warner Bros. movie studios in Hollywood, to the governor's mansion in Sacramento, to the White House. Nofziger's word is plenty good enough for me.

We send a bulletin that basically says: The other guys are wrong, UPI is right. Brady is alive. Stay tuned.

Frank Reynolds, eyes flashing angrily as he reads our bulletin, demands that someone resolve the conflict. This is a man's life, he thunders, and pounds his desk.

I take a few seconds off from my computer keyboard and shout at the TV: "Believe the UPI story, you idiot -- the one with YOUR SON'S NAME ON IT!"

He can't hear me but it's true. Frank Reynolds is Dean's dad. Brady's continued presence on the planet goes into our story. Thank you, Lyn Nofziger. Great job, Peter Brown.

That's how it worked at UPI and the other wires: The reporter at the scene got the byline and glory, the supporting cast must be satisfied with contributing in anonymity. Some of the best rewrite men and women spent entire careers crafting brilliant stories under somebody else's byline. Teammates selflessly subjugating ego for the greater good was just one reason UPI was the best job I ever had. By miles.

When the last loose ends are finally tied up, about 2 a.m., I glance at the stack of stories spilling off oversized clip-boards. Tens of thousands of words from dozens of reporters, crafted by brilliant rewrite men and women under competitive deadlines. Never a false step. Nary a correction. Flawless contributions from Unipressers in bureaus from the Atlantic to the Pacific. I had been a Unipresser for 20 years, and I still knew some of that day's biggest heroes only by their bylines on the wire. And that day still gives me goose bumps.

Merriman Smith would have been proud.

Pat Koza had missed her last bus hours ago, so I drive her home. We silently replay our dozen hours as a makeshift tag-team.

Pat opens the car door and steps into the darkness in front of her house -- then leans back in through the window.

"That was the most amazing day I've ever spent," she says. "Thanks for letting me be part of it."

I love you, Pat Koza.

On April 5, 1982, a few minutes before the Pulitzer Prizes are announced by Columbia University, my journalism alma mater, UPI managing editor H.L. Stevenson phones from New York. The Pulitzer board had just told him UPI's Washington bureau was the runner-up in the national reporting category.

What could possibly have beaten out our impeccable coverage of the attempted murder of the President of the United States?

I soon found out. Rick Atkinson of the Kansas City Star, for "a series of national articles" about water problems in greater Kansas City. I have never met Atkinson and I am sure he is a fine fellow. But c'mon, jurors, you are supposed to be the cream of our profession. Water in Kansas City vs. The President has been shot?

Atkinson also would share a Pulitzer in 1999 as a reporter for the Washington Post, and he won another four years later for the first of a trilogy of best-selling books about World War II.

Pulitzer scoreboard: Rick Atkinson three, Ron Cohen none.

Jim Brady spent 10 hours on the operating table and still was unconscious when they wheeled him, after midnight, into his room in the intensive care unit. A nurse sat with him, periodically moistening his lips she watched the tiny lights on his respirator blink an eerie green against the ICU's blackness. Suddenly her eyes snapped wide open. Was she hallucinating? Had Jim Brady's right hand moved?

She stared at that hand, and several seconds later. . ."There! He did it again!"

The Bear's claw slowly reached toward his nightstand, pulled a single sheet from the Kleenex dispenser, crumpled it, and tossed it, slow motion, toward the trash can. The nurse wakes Dr. Arthur Kobrine at home.

Not only is Jim Brady alive, she tells Kobrine, he is conscious.

"And shooting hoops!"

Kobrine, a world-renown neurosurgeon, is a brusquely no-nonsense, outwardly unsentimental man. Whoever coined the praise-phrase "good bedside manner" never met Arthur Kobrine. Yet his heart leaped at the nurse's words. Against all odds, he had saved Jim Brady's life. When he reached the hospital he saw for himself -- Kleenex balls littering the perimeter of Brady's wastebasket.

It just so happens that Dr. Kobrine would later perform three surgeries on my wife Jill's bad back. I've never seen a better doctor.

Brady's speech and brain functions had been badly compromised, but he would survive for 33 years, largely confined to a wheel chair. He and his wife, Sarah, were tireless advocates for handgun control, and, in 1993, Congress passed "The Brady Law" requiring federal background checks for handgun purchases. Sarah died early in 2015, eight months after her husband.

Nine months after the shooting, in my capacity of chairman of the Washington Press Club's annual "Salute to Congress" dinner, I secretly invited Jim and Sarah Brady.

With 800 formally clad diners settled in their seats in the darkened ballroom of the Shoreham Hotel, a huge spotlight suddenly shone on the large double doors as Sarah Brady wheeled her husband into the room and up to the head table -- his first public appearance since that horrible March afternoon. Hard-bitten journalists, shedding their shell of cynicism, leaped out of their chairs, whistling and shouting and stomping and cheering -- and shedding tears of shock and happiness.

UPI's chief political reporter, Clay Richards, greeted his fraternity brother with the Sigma Chi handshake and said, "Hi, Brother Bear."

Brady, eyes moist, haltingly rasped his reply.

"Thanks to UPI for not killing me."

Rick Atkinson, you can keep your stinkin' Pulitzers.

Jim Brady's thanks is prize enough for me.

This excerpt is from a chapter of Ron Cohen's under-construction memoir, Of Course You Can Have Ice Cream for Breakfast! Love Letters to My Grandkids. Fifteen months after Reagan and Brady were shot, UPI was sold by Scripps-Howard and subsequently plunged into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It emerged with a new owner, the first of a rapid succession of new owners. It never again approached its glory days.

Dean Reynolds became a highly regarded on-camera reporter for ABC-TV, then for CBS-TV, based in Chicago

[LCC Editor's Note: That JFK day in 1963 I was in Derby Line, VT, on the job for my (failed) weekly-start-up The Northeast Observer.Two years later Ron Cohen, who had become one of my reporter heroes, had fixed it so I was hired to take his place as UPI bureau guy at the State House in Montpelier, VT. Half a century (and a lot words and photographs later) we reconnected. And Ron is still one of my writer heroes.]

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