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Ronald Reagan

Talk about a small world! At about 2:30 in the afternoon of March 30, 1981, it became positively microscopic for President Reagan.

Crouching on the sidewalk in front of the Washington Hilton, a young man who modeled himself on Robert DeNiro’s not-so-right Travis Bickle character from the movie, Taxi Driver, drew a bead on the new president. Steadying his .22-caliber pistol in both hands, John Hinckley, Jr., began firing explosive “devastator” bullets at Ronald Reagan. In the ensuing pandemonium, the sixth slug found its mark.

Apparently, before Secret Service agents could muscle the elderly president into his bulletproof limo, a shot had ricocheted off the armored sedan’s fender, plowing into Reagan’s armpit and puncturing the Gipper’s lung. Had Hinckley scored a more direct hit that day, Vice President George Bush almost certainly would have ascended to the presidency, sloughing off his second-banana status eight years ahead of schedule.

Small world, indeed. For that very same day, John Hinckley’s older brother, Scott, had a dinner date with an old friend of the family: Neil Bush, son of the vice president. What some saw as merely an odd coincidence prompted more conspiratorially attuned eyebrows to arch like divining rods. After all, what are the odds of the president’s constitutional successor and the president’s would-be assassin knowing each other? Probably zero.

But the Bushes and Hinckleys went way back, to Texas of the 1960s, where both George Bush and John Hinckley, Sr., had amassed personal fortunes in the booming oil industry. Both were blue bloods who circulated in the same privileged circles, which the transplanted aristocrats liked to call their “Texas Raj.”

Of course, socializing with the prominent family of a would-be assassin is hardly a hanging offense. Still, in the foggy nebula of a forming conspiracy hypothesis, circumstantial details have a way of radiating suspicious import:

In the NBC special reports aired immediately after the shooting, correspondent Judy Woodruff said that at least one shot was fired from the hotel, aboveReagan’s limousine. She later elaborated, saying a Secret Service agent had fired that shot from the hotel overhang. Could Reagan’s wound have been inflicted by friendly fire? Or, more ominously, did Woodruff glimpse a bona fide “second gunman” – a la JFK in Dealey Plaza? Either way, Woodruff’s account might explain how a slug managed to strike Reagan when his limo’s bulletproof door stood between him and Hinckley. Sizing up the Hinckley-Bush nexus, conspiracy researcher John Judge has theoretically dubbed this “the shot from the Bushy knoll.”According to conspiratologist Barbara Honegger, White House correspondent Sarah McClendon made the somewhat more subjective comment that Reagan’s Secret Service retinue wasn’t in its “usual tight formation” around Reagan in front of the Hilton. Were the Gipper’s bodyguards out to throw the game?

Then there was Hinckley, himself. The Jodie Foster obsessed space cadet had been prescribed psychoactive drugs by a hometown psychiatrist. According to press reports, at the time of the shooting he was dosed with Valium. Before targeting Reagan (supposedly to gain the “fame” that would redeem him in the eyes of Foster and the world), Hinckley had stalked Senator Ted Kennedy and President Jimmy Carter. He devoured books on Sirhan Sirhan, Robert Kennedy’s assassin (suspected by many conspiracy researchers to have been hypnotically programmed), and Arthur Bremer, who shot George Wallace. Theorists ask the inevitable questions: Was Hinckley a mind-controlled assassin, a Manchurian Candidate programmed to “terminate with extreme prejudice”? They point to the CIA’s longtime obsession with mind control and the fact that during the 1980 presidential primaries, Bush – the former director of Central Intelligence – enjoyed the zealous support of Agency regulars, who preferred their former boss to Reagan.

For an antisocial pariah, Hinckley sure got around. In October 1980, he had flown to Nebraska in an attempt to contact a member of the American Nazi Party. Columnist Jack Anderson later claimed that Hinckley had ties to an American faction of the pro-Khomeini “Islamic Guerrilla Army.” According to conspiracy author Barbara Honegger, a member of that group told Anderson he had warned the Secret Service about Hinckley’s designs on Reagan – two months before the shooting. If Anderson’s source is to be believed, the Secret Service did nothing to stop the Jihad-happy gunman.

The day after his Nazi-seeking mission, Hinckley flew to Nashville to stalk Jimmy Carter, but was arrested at the airport when authorities discovered three handguns in his suitcase. Oddly, after only five hours in custody, this unstable character – who had attempted to transport weapons across state lines and into a city soon to be visited by the president of the United States – was fined and released without further ado. Even more oddly, the authorities apparently didn’t bother to examine his journal, which in Dear Diary fashion, detailed Hinckley’s plans to kill Carter. Was this a case of bumbling negligence or something more ominous?

Finally, a pall of suspicion quite naturally fell over George “Poppy” Bush, the preppy achiever and future president whose spooky pedigree was longer than a Texas limo. Bush’s father Prescott Bush, Sr., had served as an army intelligence operative during World War I. Perhaps determined to prove himself a chip off the old block, George, like father Bush before him, joined Skull and Bones, the elite Yale “society” that weaned more than a few powerhouse polls, Wall Street lions, and CIA superstars. Of course, everyone knows that much later in his life, Bush leap-grogged the career spies and became director of the CIA, where he deftly curtailed congressional investigations into various Agency misdeeds that had begun to ooze into public view following the wildcat gusher that was Watergate.

Of course, there is circumstantial evidence – denied by Bush – that he did in fact pay his dues to the Agency long before becoming its head honcho spook. As a young oilman, Bush founded Zapata Offshore Oil Company, which according to one former CIA operative, was used by the Agency as a front for clandestine operations during the early 1960s. “I know [Bush] was involved [with the CIA] in the Caribbean,” the ex-CIA man told the Nation in 1988. Interestingly, according to retired colonel Fletcher Prouty, who acted as liaison between the Pentagon and CIA during the 1961 Bay Pigs invasion, that disastrous operation was code-named Zapata, while two Navy ships assigned to the attacking armada had been rechristened Houston and Barbara. Could these have been sentimental references to Bush’s adopted home and the future First Lady?

More evidence that George Bush had been a spook with portfolio as far back as the early 1960s would surface during the 1988 presidential campaign. Joseph McBride, writing in the Nation, caused a stir when he reported on an interesting FBI memorandum signed by director J. Edgar Hoover, addressed to the State Department, dated November 28, 1963, and bearing the subject heading, “Assassination of President John F. Kennedy November 22, 1963.” In it, Hoover reports that the FBI had briefed “Mr. George Bush of the Central Intelligence Agency” about the reaction of anti-Castro Cubans in Miami to the assassination. Twenty-five years after Hoover sent his memo, Bush would deny that it referred to him. “Must be another George Bush,” a campaign flack muttered.

The CIA agreed, and, breaking with its longstanding policy of “neither confirming nor denying” the identity of its personnel, claimed that the employee referred to in the memo was “apparently” one George William Bush, who had left the CIA in 1964. Journalist McBride managed to track down the less famous Bush, who acknowledged that he had in fact worked for the CIA for about six months in 1964-1964. But he certainly wasn’t the George Bush of the memo, he said, because as a short-term “lowly researcher and analyst” he had never been briefed by the FBI or any other government agency, for that matter. “Is that the other George Bush?” he asked.

Indeed, there’s another espionage link between George Herbert Walker Bush and outré characters orbiting the assassination of JFK. When Lee Harvey Oswald moved to Texas, the socially maladroit young man made an unlikely friend in the suave Baron George De Mohrenschildt, a White Russian emigré connected to the oil industry and, some suspect, the CIA. In 1978, Gaeton Fonzi, an investigator for the House Select Committee on Assassinations, called on De Mohrenshildt to question him about his unlikely friendship with Oswald. The baron’s daughter told Fonzi that De Mohrenshildt wasn’t home, so the investigator left his business card and said he’d call again. Later that day, Fonzi learned that De Mohrenshildt had returned home, gone upstairs, and lethally blasted his head with a .20-guage shotgun. (That is, if he wasn’t “suicided.”) When the police found him, the police found him, the Baron had Fonzi’s card in his pocket. In De Mohrenshildt’s address book, Fonzi found this entry: “George H. W. (Poppy) 1412 Ohio also Zapata Petroleum Midland.”

If George Bush – the Skull and Bonesman who moved with equal ease among Eastern elites, Western oil tycoons, and Republican Party bosses – had also been a lifelong member of that fusty men’s club of veteran intelligence operatives, his later fraternizing with the like of Manuel Noriega, the Iran-Contra boys, Bay of Pigs/Watergate godfather Dick Nixon, and “new Hitler” Saddam Hussein would certainly make a lot more sense.

Of course, Bush’s potentially Janus-faced background doesn’t prove anything about the Hinckley hit. But it does suggest an underrated capacity and talent for deception, which is what keeps conspiracy trackers focused on the Bushy Knoll.

So where was George, the future conspiracy president, on the day of Hinckley’s dirty deed? Out of town, on official vice presidential business. Hmm.

OK, you could probably demolish the whole Bush-Hinckley theory by posing a simple question: Assuming the vice president had “foreknowledge,” why on earth would Poppy’s son risk meeting with a Hinckley sibling on the very day of the coup? Then again, we are talking about Neil Bush, whose common-sense deficit would later embarrass Dad when the Savings and Loan scandal made him its official poster child.