Dennis S O’Leary, who died last month, was a Harvard-educated doctor and medical administrator, roles in which he would have achieved great distinction without ever making the news.
But he was fated to become an unexpected celebrity one day in March 1981, after a deranged young man attempted to assassinate the US president, Ronald Reagan.
As Reagan underwent life-saving surgery at the capital’s George Washington University Hospital, an in-house spokesperson was urgently required to deal with the tsunami of press interest.
The GWU chief executive was out of town, however. So the job fell instead to the Dean of Clinical Affairs, O’Leary, who knew plenty about how hospitals work but had no experience with media.
The day’s big breaking news story first reached him in the form of a colleague announcing that “the President” was on the way. “The president of what?” inquired O’Leary.
Five hours later, he was conducting the first of many press conferences in a packed lecture room where, he joked years later, he had often “put students to sleep”.
But even if he exaggerated its soporific qualities, his calming manner that evening won admiration from the great BBC broadcaster Alistair Cooke, among others.
In one of his famous Letters from America, a few days afterwards, Cooke said of O’Leary:
“By great good luck, he was one doctor in a thousand, in that he had an immediate air of candour and authority; he sensed in a flash what would enlighten people without alarming them. He had humour, when it was appropriate to have it . . . And he was able, as doctors very rarely are, to translate the abominable jargon of his trade into sensible and even subtle English that any of us could understand.”
O’Leary had a head start in his use of English. His paternal grandfather was a university professor of the subject. His father (Ted, no less) was a veteran journalist, for Sports Illustrated and the Kansas City Star.
O’Leary Snr reviewed books for the Star, and after decades on the job, estimated his library had 60,000 titles. It was sometimes put to unusual uses. As he explained in a piece for Sports Illustrated, he once drew on this rich literary resource to try and expel a raccoon that had gnawed its way into his house.
Raccoons can be very reluctant to leave, unless given safe passage. So he built this one “a high, winding lane to the door, constructed of volumes of O’Hara, Marquand, Bellow, Roth, etc”. Alas, charming as the plan was, it didn’t work.
Story telling gifts apart, another advantage O’Leary Jnr may have had in 1981, as diagnosed by Cooke, was a generational shift in understanding of how the media worked:
“He was young enough to take for granted what actually scandalised an older generation: the expectation that the press would want to know all the medical details and had a right to have them.”
This revolutionary idea had first taken hold in 1955, when President Eisenhower had a heart attack and, during the recovery, his doctor gave daily reports on everything, including the consistency of the patient’s bowel movements.
“Ever since then,” said Cooke, “a public man hides from the press the symptoms of any affliction, however mild, at his peril.”
This seems to have assumed that the GWU spokesman told nothing but the truth in the Reagan crisis. In fact, there were limits to the “candour” Cooke so admired. O’Leary claimed the bullet was “several inches” away from the president’s heart and told the press repeatedly that the patient had never been in real danger of death.
On the contrary, the bullet was one inch from the aorta, and the surgeon who removed it with difficulty said later that Reagan would have been in “big trouble” if he had not received almost immediate trauma care.
Another embellishment in the hospital’s bulletins had unforeseen, if harmless, consequences.
At the time it was announced that the recovering patient would be moved to a “VIP suite”, they didn’t have one. Rooms were quickly upgraded to fit the bill.
The attempt on Reagan was, in general, a bad day for the Irish. His White House press secretary James Brady was shot in the head and never fully recovered. When he died in 2014, 33 years later, it was officially a homicide.
Two other men were also wounded in the 1981 attack: secret service agent Timothy McCarthy and policeman Thomas Delahunty.
But for O’Leary – the descendant of a Cork teacher who emigrated in the early 1800s – the crisis was a defining opportunity.
It later justified a memoir, Calming America.
And among the honours it brought him was an invitation to the White House on St Patrick’s Day 1982, when a recovered Reagan hosted taoiseach Charlie Haughey.