Twenty-three years ago, Jerry Parr made a decision that may have changed history.
The longtime Secret Service agent — the one who pushed President Ronald Reagan into the limousine after he was wounded by an assassin — made the decision to deviate from accepted protocol and, instead of speeding to the White House, head directly for the hospital at George Washington University. This despite the fact that he was unsure what Reagan's condition was at the time.
"Inside the car, the evidence for his injury was abundant bright red, frothy blood, and somehow he was losing air," Parr said. "And so I made a quick decision. It was an intuitive decision and a rational decision to take him to the hospital."
Later, it was learned that the president may have been within minutes of death when he arrived at the hospital, so going straight there probably saved his life.
"Some of my colleagues have said, 'Well, I would have taken him to the White House because it's the safest place,' " Parr said. "You take a chance when you take the president to the hospital. If he's not hurt, then you frighten the nation. But in this case, we were right. And there was a trauma team there that gets a lot of gunshot wounds."
For Parr, who was in charge of the detail protecting Presidents Carter and Reagan, it was a decision he never wanted to make. He joined the Secret Service in 1962, a year before John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
"We never forgot it," Parr said. "We never wanted it to happen on our watch. Unfortunately, it almost happened on mine."
National Geographic Channel goes "Inside the Secret Service" with a two-hour special (Sunday at 6 and 9 p.m.) that goes behind the scenes of how they work to secure the president's safety. There's footage of agents working to protect both the current occupant of the Oval Office, President George W. Bush, as well as his challenger, Sen. John Kerry. In addition to interviews with former and current members of the Service, the special includes comments from Kerry and three former presidents — Bill Clinton, George Bush and Gerald Ford.
The special looks at the massive effort that goes into protecting presidents and presidential candidates — an effort that goes far beyond those guys in suits and sunglasses with earpieces who are always scanning the crowds.
"The idea behind the show is . . . to give you a sense of what it's like from their point of view," said executive producer Peter Schnall.
And give viewers a sense of the constant, unending pressure to protect the president.
"It's serious work. It's work that you go out with every day and you never know what's going to happen," Parr said. "You actually work with the president, and we call that the kill zone."
Not that Secret Service agents are portrayed as supermen and women. "We're very normal people," Parr said. "We want to put a human face on the Secret Service. And that's what I think this National Geographic Channel (special) will do — put this human face on these agents that go out and risk their lives every day."
As it turns out, Reagan's career as a movie actor may have, in a bizarre way, saved his life. Parr recalled seeing Reagan starring in the 1939 movie "The Code of the Secret Service" and "that's what generated my interest in the service. And many years later, I became an agent, and then we find ourselves in this car running to the hospital."