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An Eerie Foreshadowing of Last Week's Assault Underscores the President's Vulnerability

updated 04/13/1981 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/13/1981 01:00AM

The tableau is hellishly familiar to America. As a public figure works his way through a crowd, a revolver suddenly appears from a sea of outstretched arms. Sometimes the result is tragedy, sometimes just a nerve-shattering scare. As this dramatic 1975 photograph illustrates, Ronald Reagan knows the scene all too well. In Miami in November, just a few hours after Reagan launched his unsuccessful 76 presidential campaign, a 20-year-old college dropout named Michael Lance Carvin pulled a gun from a paper bag and took aim at the candidate. For just a split second, before he was wrestled to the ground, Carvin had a clear shot at Reagan. Although Secret Service agents later discovered that the "gun" was only a toy, Carvin was convicted of intimidating Reagan and interfering with federal officers; he is now in prison in North Carolina. This was the second attack on Reagan—the first came when two men attempted to firebomb the California governor's home in 1968—and he reacted with smiling and predictable nonchalance. "I'm fine," he told supporters 30 minutes after the incident. "It doesn't change my view about campaigning."

But every public figure in America must live with the possibility of irrational violence, or even death, not least the First Family. "I think you always have it in the back of your mind," Nancy Reagan said that day in 1975. "I hope it doesn't happen again." In her memoirs, Sheila Rabb Weidenfeld—the press aide to Betty Ford during both attempts on Gerald Ford's life—observed of their constant anticipation of disaster that "in some ways, it's more difficult for the relatives of potential assassination targets." Adds former Reagan aide Nancy Reynolds, a close friend of the current First Lady: "The concern and tension are always there whenever you go into a public place."

Last week's tragedy transformed that permanent anxiety into an acute agony for the President's family. Reagan's younger daughter, Patti Davis, was particularly "devastated" by the news, according to family friend Mary Jane Wick, who reports: "The fear of assassination was one of the reasons Patti didn't want her father to run in the first place." The normally unflappable Nancy Reagan was also deeply shaken. For years she had been able to put the possibility of violence out of her mind with a finely developed strategy of avoidance. "I've never asked about the threats on our lives," she wrote in her autobiography, Nancy. "I don't know how many there have been and I don't want to know." Last week, an assailant's bullet had finally converted all those threats from an abstraction to a terrifying and constant reality.

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