Not every work of historical significance is authored by a crusty multidegreed professor at a prestigious university.

Del Quentin Wilber is a reporter at the Washington Post. For most of his career, he has covered law enforcement, which generally means the police beat and the courthouse, in Washington and Baltimore.

"Rawhide Down" really is an extended newspaper story, and in the tradition of the best newspaper reporters, Wilber's writing is fact-driven, easy to follow and lean, trimmed of all unnecessary miscellanies.

Except for a brief prologue and epilogue to place the event and main characters in context, the entire book takes place over a 20-hour period, from 7 a.m. March 30, 1981, the day of the Ronald Reagan assassination attempt, to the early morning hours of the next day, when the wounded president was considered out of the woods.

What could have been an admiring journalistic softball, lobbed in the direction of one of the 20th century's most-liked presidents, instead is a masterful job of reporting in what is destined to be the definitive word on the Reagan assassination attempt.

Wilber weaves dozens of characters -- prominent public officials, Secret Service agents, physicians, medical technicians, even orderlies and nurses -- into this fast-paced work. Just to maintain a fast pace over a single 20-hour period is no mean feat.

"Rawhide Down" is an exciting read, a page-turner, right from the opening dozen pages through to the end when medical personnel at George Washington University Hospital finally were satisfied the president would survive.

By now, most readers interested in the U.S. presidency have learned from prepublication publicity that Reagan was much closer to death than was revealed at the time, and that his lead Secret Service agent Jerry Parr undoubtedly saved the president's life with two quick decisions that turned out to be right on the money.

The retelling of the minutes leading up to and following John Hinckley's firing of six rounds into a presidential party walking only 15 feet away is one of those moments that brings back a rush of memories for every journalist who was working that day.

This was before most newsrooms had introduced computers, before cell phones, before live satellite transmission of words and images. The newsroom at The Buffalo Evening News didn't even have a working television set, only a tiny flickering portable in the editor's office that never worked because cable hadn't been run that far down Main Street.

There was only the incessant ringing of alarm bells on the black AP and UPI teletype machines, indicating the highest level of bulletin, the clackity-clack of the slow mechanical printers and the frantic work of news editors Foster Spencer and Bill Malley to make over the City Edition with the story that a gunman had fired shots at the president, but missed.

It would be some time before the nation learned that Reagan had been hit, but even then, the public believed it to be an insignificant wound.

Little did they know that Agent Parr's quick decision to head to the emergency room at George Washington Hospital instead of the White House undoubtedly saved Reagan's life. With no indication that the president had been shot, no knowledge that the president was bleeding to death internally, only the sight of an ashen president who complained he couldn't breathe, Parr traded the safety of the White House for the danger of a public ER.

Even at the hospital, Reagan was initially being treated for an apparent heart attack. This was a big city trauma center, accustomed to treating street shootings, knifings and accident victims. It wasn't long before an alert resident and intern realized an insignificant looking puncture wound on the president's left side was in fact the entry point for a bullet.

Three hours after the assassination attempt, Dr. Ben Aaron, the head of the hospital's cardiovascular unit who was accustomed to patching up street victims' chests, managed to find the flattened piece of lead that had ricocheted off the presidential limousine, slipped unnoticed through Reagan's clothing and skin, and, tumbling as it went, ripped a dime-sized hole in the president's lung.

At about the same time, Hinckley revealed that the shooting was not about politics, the presidency or even Ronald Reagan. "It was about impressing a movie star" he'd never met (Jodie Foster.)

Wilber shifts effortlessly to the White House Situation Room where Secretary of State Alexander Haig stated he was in charge until Vice President George H.W. Bush returned from Texas. White House staffers let the blunder go rather than risk a blowup with Haig. But then Haig went on national TV and revealed his ignorance of presidential succession when he told the nation: "I am in control here."

Next Wilber jumps to the hospital waiting room and the chapel where Nancy Reagan and Sarah Brady prayed for their husbands. Always the superb reporter, Wilber has names and brief descriptions of even the minor characters in the drama, but the characters never disrupt the flow of the narrative.

The author never yields to the temptation to put thoughts in the characters' minds. Instead he reveals his characters through their own words. In this respect, no quotes are more revealing than those of a president near death.:

His first words to Nancy Reagan from an emergency room gurney: "Honey, I forgot to duck."

To the operating room staff: "I hope you are all Republicans."

On a sober note to a technician as he was wheeled to surgery: "What do you think?" Cyndi Hines' answer: "They are taking you to the OR. If you were really bad, they'd open you up right here."

To a recovery room nurse who asked how he felt: (Quoting W.C. Fields) "All in all, I'd rather be in Philadelphia."

As it turned out, Reagan survived the shooting to serve two terms, and in the words of the recently deceased Washington columnist David Broder: "He was politically untouchable from that moment on."

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.


Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan

By Del Quentin Wilber

Henry Holt

305 pages, $27