What Happened Behind the Scenes After President Reagan Was Shot: Part 4

Chaos ensued in the government in the frantic hours that followed when there were competing claims of who was next in command.
8:13 | 11/24/16

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Transcript for What Happened Behind the Scenes After President Reagan Was Shot: Part 4
Reporter: Now, a day in the life of a country that had no leader. Not a foreign country, but the United States of America. In those frantic hours after we saw president Reagan gunned down in 1981. But what we didn't see was the chaos going on. The competing claims of who was next in command. Martha Raddatz has the incredible story that very few people ever knew. Reporter: March 30th, 1981 started off as an ordinary Monday for the newly elected Republican president. Welcome the 40th president of the United States, Ronald Wilson Reagan. Mr. President. Reporter: Reagan gave a speech before the afl-cio at the sprawling Washington Hilton hotel. When the president was in public, I made it my job to always be there, where the body was. Reporter: ABC news white house correspondent Sam Donaldson. The term is often, in my day, called the body watch. Reporter: At 2:27, a small group of press and onlookers were gathered outside the hotel. Right here was a rope line. Reporter: Okay. And it kept everyone back. Reporter: Del Wilbur is author of "Rawhide down", a book chronicling that fateful day. "Rawhide" was the code name given to Reagan by the secret service. The limousine was 15 feet away this direction. And he came out. He was waving. He was smiling. I began to ask him a question. The president began to turn when -- The president was being pushed into his car and, obviously, I wanted to see if I saw any evidence that he'd been hit. And I did not see any. Reporter: Six shots fired. Three men down. The secret service swarmed the shooter. Unbeknownst to anyone, the sixth bullet had ricocheted off the limo door and struck the president. Reagan's complaining of pain in his back and his chest. Reporter: He doesn't even know he's been shot yet. "I think I hurt my rib or something." Reporter: The press, including ABC's frank Reynolds, also believed that Reagan was unharmed. The president was not hit. He was pushed into his limo and immediately taken away to safety. Reporter: Bru but in the limo, his lead agent could tell something was wrong, and secretly diverted the motorcade to George Washington hospital, as the president's closest advisers huddled in the situation room at the white house. 15:34 in the afternoon. Reporter: This inner sanctum typically eyes and ears only, but national security adviser Richard Allen broke protocol that day, making a split-second decision to record the proceedings with this device. God, what a tragedy. Reporter: Heard here for the first time on television. We'll decide here what the hell we're doing. That's the best way. Reporter: Did anybody notice you were recording? Did anybody care? Nobody objected. I was running the meeting. My tape recorder, my table, my chairs. My rules. Reporter: In the situation room, we hear discussions centered around the motives of the shooter. Do we have any information? Any evidence of his being other than a loner? There was a concern that it could've been a soviet plot or someone inspired by the soviet union. Reporter: Within the hour, the secret service identified the gunman as John hinckley, Jr. His spokesman said he appeared to have acted alone. Reporter: But a crucial fact had still not been revealed publicly. That Reagan in fact had been hit. A bullet was lodged in his left lung and doctors were preparing him for surgery. They are beginning to operate now. But it's not for publication. Reporter: The public still believed that Reagan was awake and unharmed. Reagan was not hit. He was bounced around as the secret service agents flung him into the car. Reporter: Is it right, do you think, to have kept the secrets that were kept at the time? Yes. Reporter: And why? You had to be absolutely certain of your facts. I wouldn't want to be the one to communicate to the American public the niceties of an operation on Ronald Reagan's lung and heart. I think the right thing was done. I can confirm that the president has been shot once. Reporter: When the news of the severity of Reagan's injuries finally broke, nearly 45 minutes after the shooting, it took even veteran newsmen by surprise. He was wounded. God! Reporter: Now the advisers were faced with a dilemma. Who would run the country while the president was under anesthesia? One of the most consequential conversations in U.S. Presidential history, "Do we invoke the 25th amendment or not? Reporter: The 25th amendment of the constitution allows for the temporary transfer of power from the president to the vice president in a time of crisis. They desperately don't want to do this, for political reasons. Reporter: At that very moment, vice president George H.W. Bush was flying back frto Washington from Texas. Did you get to George? No. Reporter: Complicating matters, there was no secure phone line between the white house and air force two. Is there any faster way to get him back? How do we alert him? The Russians are going to listen to everything we have to say anyway. And so, they were like, "We are going to keep it quiet. We're not going to do anything." Reporter: For almost five hours, the country would have no functioning commander in chief. When the white house press corps learned the president was in surgery, the question on everyone's lips -- Who is running the government right now? Reporter: Deputy press secretary Larry Speakes struggled for an answer. Pardon? Who will be determining the status of president? I don't know the -- I don't know the details on that. Reporter: That's when secretary of state Alexander haig headed to the press room. At that point, I did not want us to go into the press room. They're coming back again. The secretary of state. But Al jumped right up on the dais and I just went up after him. First, as you know, we're in close touch with the vice president, who is returning to Washington. Al's knees were shaking and his voice was cracking. There are absolutely no alert measures that are necessary at this time or contemplated. My first thought was, if he collapses, should I just let him fall and step up to the microphone and continue the briefing myself? He was that nervous. As of now, I am in control here in the white house. Reporter: Haig's now famous attempt to calm the media backfired, sounding more like a power grab. Did you realize what affect it would have? You bet I did. Every person in that press room knew that it wasn't true the moment he spoke it. Reporter: But nightfall, vice president Busch returned to the white house. Reagan was finally out of surgery. The public never told, in real time, about the presidential power vacuum. When you look back at this, what lessons, in terms of crisis management, are there? Well, for me, it would be to tell the public everything you can reasonably tell the public without sending it into a panic. Reporter: Is there not a way to do that, and tell the truth? Can you keep calm and tell people what's going on? I think -- you don't have to go 100% of the way to releasing everything until you yourself are absolutely certain of what the outcome may be or what the impact might be. The president is now in stable condition. Reporter: The outcome, of course, was positive for president Reagan, who kept his cool throughout. The consummate showman. From Nancy Reagan, honey, I forgot to duck, was one of the quotes. He comes out of surgery, he's joking with his nurses. "Can we shoot that scene over again from the hotel?"

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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