Is The Media Culture Around Politics Putting Candidates At Risk?

The lines between celebrity and politics have blurred—National Geographic Channel takes a look at what put Ronald Reagan at risk 35 years ago in the new film Killing Reagan.

A little before 2:30 p.m. on March 30, 1981, newly appointed President Ronald Reagan makes his way through the “President’s Walk,” a secure entryway built at the Washington Hilton Hotel following the assassination of President Kennedy less than twenty years earlier. Fifteen feet away from Reagan stands a group of people who haven’t been screened by the Secret Service. Among them, 25-year-old John Hinckley, Jr., carries a revolver in his pocket. An hour earlier, Hinckley wrote a letter to actress Jodie Foster, claiming he was assassinating President Reagan in order to impress her. “I’m asking you to please look into your heart and at least give me the chance, with this historical deed, to gain your respect and love,” he wrote. Hinckley fires off six shots aimed at the president, missing him with all but one of the bullets, which hits Reagan in the chest. He strikes White House Press Secretary James Brady in the head and police officer Thomas Delahanty in the back of the neck. Hinckley is quickly apprehended as Reagan is sped away to George Washington University Hospital, where doctors will save his life.

In 1960, the lines between celebrity and politics began to blur with America’s first “TV President,” John F. Kennedy, whose assassination Hinckley closely studied. His obsession with 19-year-old actress Foster—which began in 1976 after seeing her portray a child prostitute in the now-classic film Taxi Driver—sparked within him a desire for fame. His plan: he’d gain this notoriety by shooting the former movie star President Reagan, knowing this would gain the attention of not only Foster, but the entire world.

For the attempted assassination of Reagan, Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity and admitted to St. Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C., in 1981. Thirty five years later he was released on September 10, 2016, during the presidential election, the world of politics now even more inextricably linked with that of celebrity than even Hinckley could’ve likely predicted.

Given Republican nominee Donald J. Trump’s not-so-distant past as a reality TV star—hosting The Apprentice on NBC for fourteen seasons, beginning in 2004—he epitomizes the phenomenon of celebrity infiltrating politics. Hillary Clinton, as the first female presidential nominee of a major party and former First Lady, Secretary of State, and Senator, is likely one of the most famous public figures in the world. With this election being one of the most publicized in history, both Trump and Clinton have been endlessly scrutinized by the press, with the media favoring more sensational stories—ones that will incense rather than inform.

Hinckley’s attempted assassination of Reagan demonstrates how dangerous the intersection of celebrity obsession and politics can be. After stalking Foster for years—even following her to Yale, where he enrolled in a writing class—sending her letters, and calling her several times, Hinckley saw killing the president as the only way to reach celebrity status and win Foster’s heart.

On Sunday, Oct. 16, National Geographic Channel takes an in-depth look at this harrowing event in U.S. history with the film Killing Reagan, based on the New York Times best-selling book by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. This will be the fourth film in the network’s Killing series, including Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy, and Killing Jesus.

It’s fascinating to look back at a time when political coverage and tabloids were just beginning to become virtually indistinguishable. Killing Reagan shows all too well the dark side of the marriage of politics and fame.