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Read President Reagan’s Best Jokes About Being Shot

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When President Ronald Reagan was shot on this day, March 30, in 1981, it was anything but funny. The assassination attempt by John W. Hinckley Jr. required the President to undergo surgery and seriously wounded three others.

But Reagan knew it was also important to convey to the country that he was going to be OK. And — before he was told that others had been injured — he knew that humor could get that message across, perhaps better than any other official reassurance. According to TIME’s coverage of the assassination attempt, the very first thing he said to the First Lady when she arrived at the hospital was, “Honey, I forgot to duck,” a reference to a one-liner used by boxer Jack Dempsey.

The magazine compiled this list of his best reactions to the shooting and his own injuries:

> To surgeons, as he entered the operating room: “Please tell me you’re Republicans.”

> In a written note, upon coming out of anesthesia in the recovery room (paraphrasing Comedian W.C. Fields): “All in all, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”

> In another note, recalling a Winston Churchill observation: “There’s no more exhilarating feeling than being shot at without result.”

> In a third note: “Send me to L.A., where I can see the air I’m breathing.”

> In yet another note written while surrounded by medical staff: “If I had this much attention in Hollywood, I’d have stayed there.”

> Complimented by a doctor for being a good patient: “I have to be. My father-in-law is a doctor.”

> To an attentive nurse: “Does Nancy know about us?”

> To a nurse who told him to “keep up the good work” of his recovery: “You mean this may happen several more times?”

> To Daughter Maureen: The attempted assassination “ruined one of my best suits.”

> Greeting White House aides the morning after surgery: “Hi, fellas. I knew it would be too much to hope that we could skip a staff meeting.”

> When told by Aide Lyn Nofziger that the Government was running normally: “What makes you think I’d be happy about that?”

And TIME wasn’t Reagan’s only admirer on the humor front: That year’s Oscars took place the following day, and host Johnny Carson joked that he wanted to call in the President to help punch up the script.

Read TIME’s full coverage of the assassination attempt, here in the TIME Vault: A Moment of Madness

Front Row Seat at the Reagan White House

Ronald Reagan
Cheers "After Walter Cronkite's last interview with the President as the anchor of the CBS Evening News, there was a little celebration in the room off the Oval Office," recounts photographer Diana Walker. "White House staffers, including Vice President Bush, enjoyed a good laugh over a joke that has never become public."Diana Walker for TIME
Ronald Reagan
Tickled Pink The British Queen makes a joke at a 1983 state dinner. "I came without a tripod that evening," recalls Walker. "I remember borrowing a monopod, which I promptly broke. I could only get it halfway up, so I took this picture almost sideways and doubled over — and not from laughter."Diana Walker for TIME
Ronald Reagan
Always the Gentleman "I always felt the President had old-fashioned manners, as in this photo, where he leans over to ask his First Lady to dance at one of the balls held in their honor during the 1985 Inauguration."Diana Walker for TIME
Ronald Reagan
Positive Sign "A pool of photographers stood vigil in the driveway of the hospital for days after President Reagan's cancer surgery in 1985. Suddenly, two windows opened. Using very long telephoto lenses, we were able to shoot this picture of the upbeat President, indicating everything was A-O.K. — a very reassuring image for the front pages of newspapers around the world."Diana Walker for TIME
Ronald Reagan
Ever the Showman "Reagan still had that Hollywood touch, always completely comfortable in front of a crowd. Here, he looks like he's about to break into an old soft-shoe at Rickman High School, where he was made an honorary Kewpie, the school's mascot."Diana Walker for TIME
Ronald Reagan
Pledge of Allegiance "This was such a perfect photo op of the President and First Lady under the guns of the U.S.S. Iowa during a Fourth of July celebration — it looked much like a Busby Berkeley musical! I thought everyone would break into a dance any moment!"Diana Walker for TIME
Ronald Reagan
Hail Fellow "Look at the way Reagan holds Mikhail Gorbachev's hand during the U.S.S.R. leader's first visit to the White House, in 1987. You could tell they were going to be friends."Diana Walker for TIME
Ronald Reagan
Well WIsher "Mrs. Reagan had been diagnosed with breast cancer and had been successfully operated on. There seemed something so poignant to me about this image of the President heading to the helicopter to visit the First Lady, carrying an enormous get-well card from the staff under one arm and a small basket of cookies in the other."Diana Walker for TIME
Crowd Pleaser "Reagan was the only politician I've ever known who dared take a hat, oblivious to its size, cock it to the side and charm everyone. Here, he's seen speaking before the National Law Enforcement Council, where he dons a trooper's hat presented to him by the association."Diana Walker for TIME

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com