When President Ronald Reagan — my father — was lying in a hospital bed recovering from the gunshots that nearly killed him, he said, “I know my ability to heal depends on my willingness to forgive John Hinckley.” I, too, believe in forgiveness. But forgiving someone in your heart doesn’t mean that you let them loose in Virginia to pursue whatever dark agenda they may still hold dear.
I have no choice but to resign myself to the fact of Hinckley’s release, announced earlier today, but I’m not at all comfortable with the decision. To me, it doesn’t represent justice as much as it does his efforts to methodically wait out and wear down the system.
In 2000, I wrote a piece for Time magazine about Hinckley’s first attempt to get approval for unsupervised visits to his parents’ home in Williamsburg, Va. He was already allowed supervised day trips away from the grounds of Washington’s St. Elizabeths Hospital. It was a lengthy article for which I interviewed Hinckley’s attorney, Barry Levine, as well as a federal prosecutor and a Secret Service agent who would only speak on background. The piece got a lot of media attention, prompting Levine to withdraw his request for the unsupervised visits. But I knew he was only biding his time. He would wait until people forgot and then try again.
That’s exactly what he did, and he succeeded. Over the years, Hinckley’s freedom was increased incrementally so that by 2011, 30 years after the shooting, Hinckley was regularly visiting his mother in Williamsburg. He had to be accompanied by either his then 85-year-old mother, or a sibling, whenever he went out, and was required to carry a GPS-enabled mobile phone.
But now what he’s been working toward all these years has happened: A man who shot four people, including the President of the United States, will be granted his freedom. He’ll have to check in with his doctors, and he’ll have to live with his now 90-year-old mother — who’ll hardly be able to confine him or cramp his style, given her advanced age. His doctors have said that his psychosis and depression have been in remission for decades, and his narcissistic personality disorder has lessened — but that’s quite a feat, since the disorder has no known cure.
When I interviewed Levine, I found him to be loquacious to a fault. He expounded upon Hinckley’s remorse, the hard work he’d done at St. Elizabeth’s and his miraculous recovery. He said Hinckley “regrets this event more than anything. He is haunted by what he did — more so than when he was sick and didn’t fully understand what he had done. Now he understands the stark horror of his actions.” He also wanted me to meet with Hinckley and offer him forgiveness. I didn’t put this exchange in my article, but Levine said to me, “The pope forgave the man who shot him.”
I replied, “That’s why he’s the pope and I’m not.”
To review, while at Saint Elizabeth’s, Hinckley attempted correspondence with mass murderers Ted Bundy and Charles Manson. He’s had girlfriends, most notably Leslie deVeau, who killed her 10-year-old daughter in 1982 with a 12-gauge shotgun while the girl slept, then tried to kill herself but only managed to shoot off her left arm. Mostly, Hinckley’s been patient.
He was also patient on March 30, 1981. Around 1:45 p.m., he waved as my father stepped out of his limousine and walked into the Washington Hilton to deliver a speech. Then he waited. He had a girl in mind he wanted to impress. Surely, Jodie Foster would notice him if he assassinated the president. About 40 minutes later, when my father walked back outside, Hinckley yelled, “President Reagan! President Reagan!” Then he crouched like a marksman and fired six shots, changing four lives in a matter of minutes.
I will forever be haunted by that cold afternoon, when my father almost died, when Jim Brady (my father’s press secretary at the time, who died in 2014) lay in a pool of blood and two other men — Thomas Delahanty and Timothy McCarthy — were gravely wounded. If Hinckley is haunted by anything, I believe, it’s that he didn’t succeed in his mission to assassinate the president.
Now, though, he’s getting what he’s patiently waited for: freedom. In 1982, when the verdict came down — not guilty by reason of insanity — the nation was shocked. CBS News anchor Dan Rather said on his nightly broadcast, “If John Hinckley has the will and the way, he will probably down the road ask to be released from St. Elizabeth’s on the grounds that he is no longer dangerous. And sooner or later, a panel of experts may nod and say yes.” I remember getting chilled when I heard Rather’s commentary all those years ago. Something in me knew he was right even though everything in me hoped he was wrong. I’m not surprised by this latest development, but my heart is sickened.