John Hinckley Jr. was just another douchebag. American history is littered with these kinds of turds, from John Wilkes Booth to Jared Lee Loughner. Men who, in their own basic smallness, feel the need to take down someone of greatness in order to elevate themselves, without having to put in all of the required hard work. No matter how you break it down, most assassinations and assassination attempts are, at the core, the tiny and putrid screaming like a baby in a crib for someone to pay attention to them.
Hinckley was born in 1955 in Ardmore, Oklahoma to John and Jo Ann Hinckley. At the time, his father was the president of a Christian charity called World Vision and his mother was a pretty, blonde housewife who was called “Jodie” by her friends and family. By all reports, John was a good if unremarkable kid who didn’t stand out, but was also never the target of scorn or abuse by other children. Hinckley floated easily in the middle, his very blandness almost an asset. By the time he was a senior in high school, however, the increasingly affluent family had moved to Texas, where John’s father and his older brother would develop a business relationship with an old money family from the Northeast who had themselves come to Texas to make a bundle in the oil industry. That family was headed by a driven middle-aged oil executive and Republican Party stalwart named George H. W. Bush. John had begun to withdraw from family and friends, spending most of his time in his bedroom, listening to Beatles records and farting around on his guitar.
By the time he was a senior in high school, however, the increasingly affluent family had moved to Texas, where John’s father and his older brother would develop a business relationship with an old money family from the Northeast who had themselves come to Texas to make a bundle in the oil industry.
Even that change in his demeanor was nothing particularly outstanding – no different than teenage boys all over America, then and now. John graduated from high school in 1973, as his family was moving from Texas to Evergreen, an affluent suburb of Denver, Colorado. At first he remained in Texas, occasionally attending college at Texas Tech. By 1975 however, he was having more severe mental problems, requiring both medication and therapy. He had few friends and was extremely socially withdrawn. Eventually, Hinckley convinced his family to finance a move to Los Angeles, where he would pursue a career in songwriting. What is it about these nuts – from Manson; to Koresh; to Hinckley – that makes them want to be rock stars? Perhaps it is a drive to fame or perhaps it is as simple as these guys who can’t seem to figure out a way to actually engage and talk to a woman find it easier to get laid by hiding behind a guitar.
Unlike Manson or Koresh, Hinckley was an abject failure. He wrote letters back to his family filled with bold lies about how he had started to meet people in the music business and how he had a sexy blonde girlfriend named Lynn Collins. None of his letters contained even a grain of truth. Lynn Collins was imaginary, but she was also the first outward projection of Hinckley’s growing fascination with Martin Scorsese’s classic film, Taxi Driver. Hinckley had begun to identify so strongly with the film’s protagonist, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), that he had created Lynn Collins as an imaginary doppelganger of model/actress Cybill Shepherd’s role of icy blonde Betsy. According to his family and psychiatrist, Hinckley’s fiction soon became real in his mind and Lynn Collins existed for him. Reportedly, Hinckley watched the film over and over, internalizing the character of Bickle whom writer Paul Schrader had based on Arthur Bremer, the man who attempted to assassinate pro-segregation presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972. Like Travis Bickle in the film, Bremer had once scared off a potential girlfriend by showing her explicit pornography.
With his rejection by the LA music scene complete (there is no evidence that Hinckley ever made a real effort to contact anyone in the music business), Hinckley returned to his parents’ home. Now, with the imaginary Lynn Collins remaining back in LA, John turned his obsessions onto another woman … this one, a real person. Like Bickle in the film, Hinckley became romantically obsessed with Jodie Foster. In the film, Foster had played a 12-year-old prostitute named Iris whom Bickle “rescued” from a life of prostitution by going on a murderous rampage. Failing to see Bickle’s mental illness, the rest of society (in the film) accepts the mass murder as “heroic” and the Lolita-like Iris returns to her family. Hinckley became convinced that he was in love with Foster herself and began to send her letters containing poetry and declarations of love.
In 1980, Hinckley convinced his parents that he was going to go to Yale. (It had become widely known that Foster would be starting at the school in the fall of 1980.) John actually tracked Jodie Foster down at school. He approached her more than once, finally forcing the young actress to tell him, “I can’t carry on these conversations with people. I don’t know. It’s dangerous. It’s just not done. It’s not fair, and it’s rude.” We know this is exactly what she said to Hinckley because he recorded the conversations. Foster would go on to file a police report on Hinckley, but by that time he had become convinced that in order for Foster to take him seriously he would have to become, like her, a celebrity. Again, he turned to Taxi Driver for inspiration. He would make himself famous by murdering someone famous.
Hinckley started to stalk President Jimmy Carter during the final days of the 1980 campaign. This led to Hinckley being arrested at the airport in Nashville, Tennessee for trying to take a gun aboard an airplane. He was charged a $62.50 fine and released. Hinckley never got closer to Carter and in November, Ronald Reagan was elected president. By that time, Hinckley was back in the Northeast once again actively pursuing Foster. He even wrote a letter to the FBI warning them that there was a plot afoot to kidnap the young actress. Foster and officials at Yale were notified.
On Valentine’s Day 1981, feeling that Foster had rejected him, Hinckley actually went to the Dakota building where Lennon was killed. He stood on the spot where Chapman had stood when he fired into the Beatle.
On December 8, 1980, another dickless wonder like Hinckley, named Mark David Chapman, murdered John Lennon of The Beatles. When he was younger, Hinckley had idolized Lennon. John made his way to New York City where he attended the famous candlelight vigil for Lennon that was held in Central Park. Hinckley wrote that he was touched by the service, but the lesson he took away from the event was that Chapman had become an instant celebrity. Hinckley even purchased the same kind of gun Chapman had used to assassinate Lennon. On Valentine’s Day 1981, feeling that Foster had rejected him, Hinckley actually went to the Dakota building where Lennon was killed. He stood on the spot where Chapman had stood when he fired into the Beatle. His intention was to commit suicide, but like most narcissistic murderers, he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
Hinckley visited family down South, then on March 30, 1981, he found himself in a Washington, DC bus station, eating breakfast and reading the paper. His plan was to go back to Yale and commit suicide in front of Jodie Foster… maybe then she would take him seriously. While reading the paper he saw the new president’s schedule. Reagan would be at an AFL-CIO luncheon off of T Street later in the day. Hinckley saw that as his opportunity to finally impress Foster. He would assassinate Ronald Reagan.
Many of us who grew up in the 1970s and ‘80s will remember what happened at 2:30pm that afternoon for the rest of our lives. The shaky video footage as the president waves to a crowd across the street, followed by six hard cracks from Hinckley’s gun. Pandemonium followed with Reagan being shoved into the presidential limousine while a labor official from the AFL-CIO knocked Hinckley to the ground. John was quickly bum-rushed by Secret Service agents and police who held him down and shielded him. Agents are trained to protect the assassin, if possible, in a situation like that. No one wants another Dallas where the killer is murdered himself, leaving only doubt and suspicion behind.
No one died by Hinckley’s hand. James Brady was hurt worse than anyone, besides Ronald Reagan, in the attack. Eventually, he too recovered and became a staunch advocate for common sense gun control. Hinckley, however, had gotten what he wanted. He had become instantly famous. Jodie Foster, understandably, has never spoken of Hinckley again.
Hinckley would have another legacy as well. At his trial, his lawyers would successfully use the insanity defense to get him leniency. Today, in 2011, Hinckley remains locked up in a mental hospital for much of his time, but is allowed extended visits with his mother, as well as even being allowed to have a driver’s license. In response to this legal result, Hinckley would become famous once more. Because of his acquittal by reason of insanity, the US Congress and many states either outlawed the insanity defense for murder or made it nearly impossible to mount
Ironically, because of that legacy, the latest numbnut to take up arms against his betters, Jared Lee Loughner, has zero chance of using his mental state as a justification for his crimes.