From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
As Ronald Reagan walked from the Washington Hilton Hotel toward his armored limousine that March afternoon in 1981, Secret Service agent Dennis McCarthy kept his eyes on the crowd, just as he had done for other Presidents, day in and day out, for the better part of 16 years. Suddenly, McCarthy heard "a pop, no louder than a firecracker."

"Here it was, the moment I had waited for, thought about constantly, trained for and dreaded," writes McCarthy in his forthcoming book, Protecting the President—The Inside Story of a Secret Service Agent (William Morrow, $15.95). "I had to get to that gun."

By the third rapid-fire shot McCarthy saw the weapon, with two hands gripping it, protruding between TV cameras about eight feet away. He dove for it, landing on John Hinckley's back just as the sixth shot was fired.

Hinckley, lying beneath McCarthy, offered no resistance, dropping the gun to the ground. As McCarthy was pulling Hinckley to his feet, the hands of a bystander encircled Hinckley's throat and began to choke him. McCarthy hit the man in the jaw. "My responsibility had shifted from protecting the President to protecting my prisoner," McCarthy explains. "It was essential that we be able to question him."

McCarthy, then 46 and making about $40,000 a year, had discharged his responsibilities heroically. Ultimately he received a medal for his efforts, although President Reagan, whom he calls "a real gentleman," didn't get around to thanking him until he appeared at a photo session in the Oval Office more than three months later.

When McCarthy got home on the night of the shooting, he did not expect a hero's welcome. His relationship with his second wife, Helenmae, was foundering, in part due to the same Secret Service syndrome that had sunk his first marriage: the frequent travel, the job's stress and the parties that offered relief from that stress. The lukewarm reception did not surprise him.

But McCarthy was surprised that night when he flipped on the phone-answering machine and heard a man's voice asking Helenmae—in a hopeful tone, McCarthy thought—whether the "agent McCarthy" reported wounded by Hinckley was her husband. (It was another agent, Tim McCarthy, who had been shot.) What had already been a very rough day at the office was turning into one of the worst days of Dennis' life. At that moment he knew his marriage was over.

During the following week McCarthy focused his attention on the assassination attempt. "I blamed myself for not acting fast enough. I began to think that I might have acted like a coward outside the Hilton." Even after he and fellow agents reviewed the television footage of the shooting and determined that he had reacted as fast as humanly possible, his mood grew steadily worse.

"I thought I was on the brink of a nervous breakdown," he says. "It's like being in a jack-in-the-box for 16 years. All of a sudden that stress and emotion is let out in just an instant and it's difficult to deal with. You wonder, 'Do I get back in the box or what?' " Two months later McCarthy accepted a transfer to the State Department liaison office, where he was only occasionally called upon to guard the President. In December 1984 he retired from the Service.

Now divorced, working as a private security consultant out of his Springfield, Va. home, McCarthy has found the time to reflect on his varied career and gives a rare glimpse of the high and mighty he protected. He joined the Secret Service in 1964 and four years later was assigned to the White House detail guarding President Lyndon Johnson. McCarthy and the other agents could hardly stand Johnson, who treated them like servants.

Compared to LBJ, Richard Nixon was a delight to work with. "He was courteous and at times even friendly," McCarthy recalls. He describes the time in 1970 when a fire broke out at Nixon's San Clemente home. McCarthy was so busy putting out the fire, spraying the dining room wall with a hose, that he lost track of the Chief Executive. "Who's got the f——— President?!" he yelled. "I'm right here; everything's fine," Nixon answered calmly. When Nixon surveyed the damage—mostly caused by McCarthy's hosing—the President said, "Oh, Pat's going to be pissed off when she sees this."

If Nixon could be a regular guy, his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, was not. McCarthy and the other agents detested him. "More than once I heard frustrated members of the White House detail say that if there was ever a gun-fight around the President, Haldeman had better get his ass down in a hurry or he might catch a stray bullet from a Secret Service gun," writes McCarthy. "Such talk was never serious."

McCarthy describes Henry Kissinger as "a real pain," citing a trip to Acapulco in 1977 with the former Secretary of State and his wife, Nancy. Though there were signs posted warning of sharks in the bay, Nancy said she wanted to bathe, so Henry asked the agents to stand in the water and guard against the sharks. "Dr. Kissinger," McCarthy says he replied, "if you're concerned about sharks, my suggestion is that you don't swim." He explained that battling sharks in the sea was not in the Secret Service agents' job description, but, he solemnly assured Kissinger, "if the sharks come up on this beach, my agents will fight them."

  • Contributors:
  • Margie Bonnett Sellinger.