Thursday, May 23, 2024

Though Rick Ahearn was just a few feet from John Hinckley Jr. when he opened fire on Ronald Reagan and his entourage outside the Washington Hilton on March 30, 1981, he was most likely among the last people in the city to know that the president had been shot.

That’s because as soon as Secret Service agents shoved Mr. Reagan into his limousine, just seconds after Mr. Hinckley began shooting, Mr. Ahearn was on the ground giving first aid to James S. Brady, the White House press secretary, who had been hit in the head and was bleeding profusely on the sidewalk.

“All I had to hold that together was my pocket handkerchief and some handkerchiefs given to me by people in the crowd,” Mr. Ahearn told Neil Cavuto of Fox News in 2021.

Mr. Ahearn was the president’s advance man, in charge of planning the logistics of Mr. Reagan’s trips, down to details like the closest medical center. He helped get Mr. Brady into an ambulance and ordered the driver to take them to George Washington University Hospital.

The presidential limousine was already there. But Mr. Ahearn assumed that Mr. Reagan was there to check on Mr. Brady, who was rushed into surgery.

“And it was only after we went into the emergency room, Jim into one treatment room, that I saw Dave Fischer and Mike Deaver” — two other Reagan aides — “on the telephone,” Mr. Ahearn said in the 2021 interview. “And they told me the president was in a treatment room. And they did not know what his condition was.”

Mr. Reagan had been shot in the chest, the bullet barely missing his heart. Mr. Ahearn was the first official to brief the press at the hospital, and he remained there long after the president left on April 11, caring for Mr. Brady and his wife, Sarah. (Mr. Brady died in 2014. Sarah Brady died in 2015.)

Mr. Ahearn, who was regarded as one of the best advance men in Republican politics, died on Nov. 14 at a hospital in New Bedford, Mass. He was 74. His partner, Maria Mastorakos, said the cause was cardiac arrest brought on by recent surgery.

The 1981 crisis cemented Mr. Ahearn’s already valuable place within the Reagan inner circle (he had joined the president’s campaign in 1979). Though he was rarely in the spotlight, he was among the president’s most trusted advisers, planning every second of his public appearances.

“Rick Ahearn doesn’t exactly tuck the Reagans into bed at night, and he is not involved in any policymaking,” The Boston Globe said in a 1980 profile. “But he is one of the first people they see in the morning and the last they see at night.”

He encouraged Mr. Reagan to mix with regular folks — for example by visiting a blue-collar Irish bar in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, or by walking through a Moscow shopping district during a break in arms control talks in the Soviet Union.

Mr. Ahearn did similar work for dozens of other candidates and office holders, including every Republican presidential candidate from Richard M. Nixon in 1972 to Donald J. Trump in 2020, when he led negotiations with the Biden campaign over debate preparations.

Frederick Leonard Ahearn was born on Nov. 6, 1949, in Boston. His father, Francis X. Ahearn, was a Democratic politician who served as president of the Boston City Council and later as Massachusetts deputy secretary of state; his mother, Doris (Johnson) Ahearn, was a homemaker.

Rick got into politics early, handing out leaflets for local Democratic candidates and later working the crowds at election rallies. He worked for Senator Hubert H. Humphrey’s 1968 presidential campaign as a student at Boston College.

Shortly after graduating with a degree in business administration, he worked again for Mr. Humphrey, joining his campaign in the 1972 Democratic primaries. But Mr. Humphrey’s loss to the more liberal Senator George S. McGovern left Mr. Ahearn despondent and angry.

“I consider myself a Democrat without a home, and unless I see some distinct changes in the Democratic Party, I will become a Republican,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press that year.

He not only switched parties; he worked for the Republican incumbent, Mr. Nixon, in the general election. He later worked in the Nixon White House, and then for President Gerald R. Ford’s unsuccessful campaign in 1976.

By the late 1970s Mr. Ahearn had earned a reputation among national politicians as a dependable, detail-oriented professional, and he was always in demand. He worked on George H.W. Bush’s first presidential campaign, in 1979, and when that fizzled, he had no trouble being picked up by Mr. Bush’s rival, Mr. Reagan.

Mr. Ahearn was a creature of politics, not policy, but in between races he did work in various administrations, including as a deputy assistant secretary under Jack Kemp, Mr. Bush’s secretary of housing and urban development.

When Mr. Bush lost the 1992 race, Mr. Ahearn went to work for Mr. Kemp’s free-market advocacy group, Empower America, and then joined the campaign staff of Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, the 1996 Republican presidential nominee. (Mr. Kemp was his running mate.)

Mr. Ahearn married Pamela Gardner in 1990. She died in 2007. Along with Ms. Mastorakos, he is survived by his brother, Kevin.

He continued to serve Mr. Reagan long after he left the White House. He and another Reagan advance man, Jim Hooley, spent decades planning the president’s funeral — especially after 1994, when Mr. Reagan announced he had Alzheimer’s disease. They called the plan Operation Serenade.

They planned every second of the nationwide commemoration, held days after Mr. Reagan’s death in 2004, including details as granular as the condition of the empty boots that sat in the stirrups of the riderless horse following the president’s caisson during the funeral procession. (They were scuffed but not dusty, Mr. Ahearn decided, and he cleaned them himself.)

“One final opportunity to advance a major event for Ronald Reagan,” Mr. Ahearn told The Wall Street Journal, “is something none of us will ever forget.”

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