Looking back on the attempt on his life two years ago, President Reagan said yesterday that he bears no grudge against the man who shot him and has accepted the assassination attempt as "something that goes with the territory" of being president.
In an interview in the Oval Office with The Washington Post, the president calmly discussed the events of March 30, 1981, when he was wounded outside the Washington Hilton hotel in a burst of gunfire that seriously injured his press secretary, James S. Brady.
"I don't hold any grudge or anything," said Reagan of John W. Hinckley Jr., the man who shot him and later was acquitted by reason of insanity.
"I just think it would be fine if he could be cured, also."
The president last year sent legislation to Congress that would abolish the plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. Reagan said yesterday that he favors changing the law so that a defendant could be found "guilty but insane." He explained:
"There seems to be something wrong with 'not guilty by reason of insanity' when the person has performed the deed, which to me 'not guilty' has always meant."
Reagan said the assassination attempt was not much on his mind these days, but acknowledged that it sometimes concerned his wife, Nancy, who said in an interview on NBC's "Today" show last year that when the president leaves the White House "my heart stops until he gets back."
"I knew it was much worse for her," Reagan said, referring to one-day trips outside the White House. " . . . She didn't reveal it too much, but I knew what she was thinking."
The president expressed a religious feeling about what had happened, saying that he had felt, ever since the shooting, "whatever time I have, I owe the Lord."
"I think someone was watching out for me," Reagan said. "There was a series of coincidences there that I now realize it could have been much worse than it was had it not been for the coincidences."
Doctors said afterward that Reagan's life might have been in danger if the Secret Service had not taken him directly to George Washington University Hospital.
When the presidential limousine left the scene of the shooting, it was headed for the White House because Reagan did not yet realize that he had been shot.
Reagan said that when he thought about the possibility of an assassination attempt before he was shot, "I always had a feeling I'd see it coming." When it actually happened, the president said, "I didn't even know I'd been shot until someone in the hospital told me. I thought I'd broken a rib. But you can't go around constantly worrying or fearing about that. Life would be too miserable."
Some Reagan intimates have contended that the president experienced a heightened sense of his own mortality and became more determined to carry out his agenda after the shooting. Reagan denied this yesterday, saying he had always been "pretty firm in my belief and the things I wanted to accomplish" and the shooting didn't leave him thinking that he should "speed up and do things faster."
Reagan praised the Secret Service, and said he "didn't know of anything they could do" to make a president's life safer.
He acknowledged some chafing at tight security, but said he had become used to it as governor of California during the demonstration days of the late 1960s.
However, Reagan sounded wistful when he talked about the freedom presidents once enjoyed.
"Sometimes, in looking at some of the old books at the White House of former presidents, . . . you see a photograph of a president of the United States taking a horseback ride out here on Pennsylvania Avenue, only one man with him, and keeping a horse here inside the yard," Reagan said. "There has been a change in the world."
Asked whether he would like to have been president when this was possible, Reagan replied: "Well, it must have been a lot freer . . . . FDR used to delight in trying to lose the security, particularly when he used to get a car of his own down at Warm Springs, and sometimes he would drive as I do up at the ranch . . . .
"Harry Truman slipped out of the White House one day and managed to get all the way across Lafayette Park for the church service over there on a Sunday morning. Slipped into a back pew, no one even noticed he was there. Slipped out at the end and got back.
"Well, I think by now you have a consciousness that you can't do that.
"Remember that even then when Truman was living at Blair House because of the remodeling of the White House there was an actual assault in broad daylight made on Blair House in which one Secret Service agent was killed.
"So, as I say, you can't spend your time thinking about that."