A Stricken President Showed the Pluck and Grit His Friends Knew He Had

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

originally published 04/13/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

Political critics of the President have suggested that much of his seeming accomplishment is mostly acting. Last week no one said that about his courage. Like the cowboy hero he once portrayed, Ronald Reagan strode into the hospital emergency room under his own power, joking off the bullet that had jeopardized his life. Throughout his ordeal, he varied rakishness with sangfroid: He told nurses who flocked to his side, "If I'd gotten this kind of attention in Hollywood, I would have stayed"—and quoted Churchill's dictum that life's greatest exhilaration is to be shot at without result. "I know my father," Michael Reagan said with forced confidence while the surgery was in progress. "He'll be running this country again tomorrow." Incredibly, he was: The next morning the President signed the dairy price support bill from his bed in intensive care.

Reagan's stamina surprised even doctors at George Washington University Hospital. "He's an amazing physical specimen," said clinical affairs dean Dennis O'Leary, who called Reagan "physiologically very youthful." A private man with no taste for showy exercises like jogging or pumping iron, Reagan has for years quietly kept fit and trim. He takes pride in the fact that he has kept around 180 pounds—his college football weight—by eating and drinking abstemiously and by doing 10 minutes of sit-ups. He also uses an exercise wheel daily. Until the election he and Nancy regularly went to a Los Angeles exercise studio run by Mike Abrums, who was scheduled to install gym equipment in the White House just this week. Lee Clearwater, 60—Reagan's ranch foreman, fellow woodcutter and best crony—says the doctors should not have been shocked. "I could have told them he was just a kid compared to me," he says. Adds former aide Gordon Luce: "He leads a very disciplined life and just takes good care of himself—and his state of mind is an important part of his physical health."

That stoic side, so rarely displayed in public, is a legend among his friends. "The President has always been a person of great strength and tremendous spirit," says his producer friend A.C. Lyles. "Both Nancy and Ron are. I know their faith and strength will carry them through." Old pal Bob Hope remembers with a shudder the day last November when Reagan pointed out the bulletproof flak jacket beneath his raincoat. "He just said the Secret Service asked him to wear it," Hope recalls. The President may also have a streak of fatalism in him, suggests his longtime barber, Harry Drucker. "He once said, 'If they're gonna get me, they're gonna get me,' " Drucker recalls. "He doesn't entertain any fears."

To some extent, Reagan's grace under pressure may even have its roots in Hollywood. Edward Langley, a writer who worked with Reagan at General Electric, reports that the President was a great admirer of Errol Flynn's panache. "He called himself the B-movies' Errol Flynn," Langley says. "He even walks like Flynn. He's a swashbuckler, and walking into that hospital is just like him." But whatever the other roots of his resiliency, Ronald Reagan clearly has an incurable case of optimism. "Ronald Reagan has no down days," marveled James Stewart the morning after the shooting. "He always keeps going in the face of stress, hitting at those things he believes in. He proved that throughout his campaign. And he did it again yesterday. He is an extraordinary man."

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