Who’s in Charge? The 25th Amendment and the Attempted Assassination of President Reagan

On March 30, 1981,  President Reagan was shot and rushed to surgery. In the midst of this tragedy, his cabinet had to handle a major question: would the President be able to do his job, or would the 25th Amendment need to be invoked? This case study is part of a larger presentation from the Presidential Primary Sources Project distance learning series – to watch a video lecture of the entire presentation, click here. Our blog also has a series that goes in depth on the 25th Amendment: part one, part two, and part 3.

The First Year Project: Looking Back at the Attempted Reagan Assassination  | UVA Today
President Reagan exits the Washington Hilton Hotel.

On March 30, 1981, President Ronald Reagan was shot as he was exiting the Washington Hilton Hotel. President Reagan was rushed to George Washington University Medical Hospital, where he was put under anesthesia and underwent exploratory surgery. The doctors found that President Reagan had been shot in the chest, the bullet hitting him just two inches away from his heart. 

Also at this time, Vice President George H.W. Bush was onboard Air Force Two on his way back to the White House from Dallas, Texas. Though he was made aware of the President’s condition, there were questions around the security of communication between him and the rest of the staff.

The question for President Reagan’s cabinet became this: who was in control of the country? With the President in surgery and the Vice President on the plane, who was in charge?

Secretary of State Al Haig holds a press conference regarding the assassination attempt of President Reagan. When asked who is in charge, he replies “I’m in control here.”

As half of President Reagan’s cabinet sat in the Situation Room, and the other half in a makeshift command center at the hospital, they had to discuss the possibility of invoking the 25th Amendment, and the repercussions it may have on the country. 

The 25th Amendment was passed after the assassination of President Kennedy in order to clarify what happens upon the death, removal, or resignation of the President or Vice President, and how the Presidency is temporarily filled if the President becomes disabled and cannot fulfill his responsibilities. (To read the full text of the Amendment, see below).

Presidential Disability and Succession – 25th Amendment

Section 1: In case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President.

Section 2: Whenever there is a vacancy in the office of the Vice President, the President shall nominate a Vice president who shall take office upon confirmation by a majority vote of both Houses and Congress. 

Section 3: Whenever the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.

Section 4: Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.

At the time, the 25 Amendment had only been invoked three separate times (Section 1 in 1974, Section 2 in both 1973 and 1974). Section 4, which would have been applicable in this circumstance, had never been invoked. 

Below are transcripts from inside the Situation Room that highlight key conversations between Cabinet members.

After much debate between members of the Cabinet, the 25th Amendment was not invoked. President Reagan regained consciousness that evening and continued his duties. 

To this day, the 25th Amendment has only been invoked six times:

  • Section 1 in 1974 when President Nixon resigned.
  • Section 2 in  1973 when Vice President Agnew resigned. Vice President Ford took his place.
  • Section 2 in 1974 when Vice President Ford became President after President Nixon’s resignation. Vice President Rockefeller became his successor. 
  • Section 3 in 1985 when President Reagan underwent colon surgery. 
  • Section 3 in both 2002 and 2007 when President Bush had colonoscopy procedures.

Discussion Questions:

1.) Did Secretary of State Al Haig get it right in his statement “I’m in control here”? 

2.) Some people still wonder if the 25th should have been invoked – who was in charge of the country for the 8 hours the President was in surgery and unconscious? Would you have invoked the 25th? 

3.) Look up more information about the times when the 25th Amendment was invoked – why was that decision made? How does it differ from the situation discussed above?

the situation room experience

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy determined that future presidents would need a dedicated crisis management center and ordered the construction of a secure communications site. This became the first White House Situation Room.

The historic room was used by nine sitting United States Presidents, including Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, to make decisions that still affect us today. In 2006, the Situation Room complex was removed and two of the key rooms – the Main Conference Room and the Secure Video Transmission Site – were preserved and reinstalled at the George W. Bush and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Libraries.

To learn more about the Situation Room Experience, click here. To see other education resources, click here. And to find out how to bring virtual simulations, created with the SRE goals and learning standards, to your classroom, go to https://ithrivegames.org/ithrive-sim/.  

Leave a Reply