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How the 1981 Assassination Attempt Changed Nancy Reagan

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Nibbling on chicken pot pie with a small group of friends at a private dinner in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Nancy Reagan kept the conversation light until she turned to the guest on her left, a beloved former Secret Service agent who three decades earlier had saved her husband’s life.

Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan dances with former First Lady Nancy Reagan in this undated file photo. (Photo courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidental Library/Getty Images)

Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan dances with former First Lady Nancy Reagan in this undated file photo. (Photo courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidental Library/Getty Images)

The former first lady began to speak, then suddenly stopped short. Her eyes glistened and her hands trembled. Something in Jerry Parr’s 80-year-old face had brought her back to the painful day when her husband, President Reagan, was nearly killed.

“Jerry,” she said haltingly, “thank you for giving me my life back.”

It was clear that night in 2011 that the memory of the assassination attempt on President Reagan remained vivid in the former first lady’s mind, even 2,500 miles distant and thirty years removed from the shooting scene outside a Washington hotel. Friends and former advisors say there was rarely a day that Nancy Reagan didn’t hark back to the trauma of March 30, 1981, an event that recalibrated her husband’s presidency and ultimately played a role in reshaping his legacy, and hers.

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