When Ronald Reagan Forgave John Hinckley

When Ronald Reagan Forgave John Hinckley
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The diagnosis was devastating, but he took it calmly.

To a person, no one ever came forward and said Ronald Reagan ever felt sorry for himself, ever asked God, "Why me, Lord?" He never got down in the dumps, never moped around, simply accepting and working around his Alzheimer's disease -- and maintaining his uncanny optimism.

Always a man of devout faith, the experience of having narrowly escaped death drove Reagan's Christian faith even deeper into his character.

From Harrison to Lincoln to Garfield to McKinley to Harding to FDR to JFK, all were elected at twenty-year intervals, and all had died in office, including four via an assassin's bullet. Reagan, through the grace and hand of God, the speed of his Secret Service detachment, the decision of Jerry Parr to go to George Washington Hospital rather than the White House, the skill of the attending physicians, nurses, and staff, and his own strength, stamina, and mental toughness, broke the curse; he did not succumb to the assassination intentions of John Hinckley.

But no one would really know Reagan's immense capacity for Christian forgiveness until 1983 after Hinckley's incarceration at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, a mental institution in Washington, DC.

Astonishingly, Reagan sought a meeting with Hinckley to tell him in person that he forgave the young man. Reagan had first raised the idea of talking to Hinckley with the White House physician Dr. Daniel Ruge one weekend at Camp David. After Ruge initiated the conversation, Reagan reached out to the head of psychiatry at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, Dr. Roger Peele.

"Ruge said that Reagan would like to talk with me," Peele recalled. A call was arranged but "the striking thing for me was how modest they were. They were concerned about interrupting my schedule." Reagan and Peele chatted amiably, and Peele said he recalled the kindness and professionalism of Reagan and his staff asking several times if he was being inconvenienced in any way. Further, he told of Reagan saying he wanted to pardon Hinckley, not legally but "personally" and "in private."

But Reagan also made clear he wanted to do what was best for Hinckley. After a fashion and a good talk, Dr. Peele said such a meeting would not be an advisable course for his patient.

He had already spoken with Hinckley's psychiatric team, and upon their advice Peele counseled Reagan against it, as he felt "Hinckley's sense of responsibility should not be reduced." He told Reagan that a pardon or a meeting would only empower the young man, whose ego was out of control and whose sense of guilt was nonexistent.

Hinckley was a sociopath who did not feel the pain of others but only his own. Indeed, Peele said Hinckley had four official diagnoses, including depression. At some point he said Hinckley was "the only patient that ever came to St. E's and got four personality disorders." It was a principled decision by Peele and his team, as St. Elizabeth's was underfunded, and telling Reagan to go ahead and meet with Hinckley might have brought more federal dollars to the hospital. Peele said the phone call was anomalous because it seemed as if Reagan was talking "from the clouds."

He later found out to his amusement that indeed, Reagan had been on Air Force One when he made that call. He and Reagan parted warmly and later he was invited to have lunch with Ruge in the White House. Peele was deeply impressed with the thoughtfulness of the Reagan White House. Dr. Peele and Reagan did have a good laugh together, though, when it was suggested that the president could join his "treatment team."

The debate over Reagan's legacy is ongoing, including the meaning of the "Reagan Doctrine." What was never debated was Reagan's faith. 

He invoked it often and said in his inaugural remarks of 1981 his belief that God intended man to be free. "We are a nation under God, and I believe God intended for us to be free."

Adapted from Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan by Craig Shirley, published October 2015 by Thomas Nelson.

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