Ronald Reagan, US President 1981-1989, was twice unconscious and unable to perform his Constitutional responsibilities as president for periods of time. The first took place in March 1981 after John Hinkley’s assassination attempt; Reagan underwent an hours-long chest surgery followed by many days of significant necessary rest, during which his capacities were much limited.
The Twenty Fifth Amendment was ratified by the requisite number of states, becoming law in 1967, fourteen years prior of President Reagan’s incapacity to act as president. But, there was no plan in place for an orderly transfer of executive, and the young administration was in chaos. Vice President George HW Bush was out of town; his air return to Washington would be delayed for several hours. Into the breach rushed Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who ascended to the public podium to announce in a shaken voice, “I am in charge.” Since the Amendment had not been invoked, the person “in charge” was the gravely injured, anesthetized Ronald Reagan. Presidential powers were never relinquished by Reagan to Bush. Moreover, Haig, in the absence of the vice president, was not the third or even the fourth in line of presidential succession; the President Pro Temp ore of the Senate and then the Speaker of the House would precede the Secretary of State.
Dr. Daniel Ruge was the Physician to the President. He was nearby when Reagan was shot; he directed the presidential limousine to the George Washington University Hospital emergency room; he demanded that ER physicians and the Thoracic Surgeon on call immediately treat the patient, and not delay for consultations or time consuming referral to super specialists. Ruge’s decisions were successful and may have saved his patient’s life. And then Ruge disappeared from the case, at least publicly. Dr. Dennis O’Leary, the smooth talking Hospital Chief of Communications became the spokesman for addressing the public. Moreover, Nancy Reagan and Daniel Ruge hated each other.
Next time – Reagan and the Misuse of Amendment XXV.
Karen Tumulty, The Triumph of Nancy Reagan. Simon & Schuster: 2021. 276-82.