Pope John Paul II had extended his hand to the man who tried to kill him, and Reagan apparently was inspired to do the same.
So the president in 1983 asked the White House physician to see whether a meeting with Hinckley was possible, according to people involved in the effort. Hinckley was at St. Elizabeths Hospital, a Washington psychiatric hospital, after being found not guilty by reason of insanity in the shooting of Reagan and three others.
It would be a remarkable moment, the president face to face with the man who tried to assassinate him.
"I had the feeling he really wanted to do it," said Dr. Roger Peele, then head of psychiatry at St. Elizabeths.
But Reagan wanted to know what Hinckley's caregivers thought. Peele found himself on the phone with the president, who called from Air Force One.
"He said he only wanted to do what was in Mr. Hinckley's best interests," Peele recalled in an interview. The psychiatrist joked that the president should join the treatment team. "He laughed," Peele said.
The conversation then turned serious. Peele said a meeting would be unwise.
"I was concerned that it would diminish Mr. Hinckley's sense of responsibility," said Peele, who oversaw but was not involved directly in Hinckley's treatment.
Peele, now 73 and chief psychiatrist for the suburban Montgomery County, Md., health department, first recounted the conversation with Reagan in a letter yesterday in The Washington Post.
On March 30, 1981, Hinckley tried to take the president's life in a bid to impress actress Jodie Foster, a sign of his narcissistic personality disorder and delusions of grandeur. Reporters were pleading for interviews, and autograph seekers were sending $5 and $10 checks, hoping he would sign and cash them. A meeting with the president would only compound the problem, Peele believed.
"I didn't want him to feel rewarded in any way for what he did."
Telling that to the president wasn't easy. St. Elizabeths then was a federal institution, and a debate was raging about its future. The federal government was considering handing over the hospital to the District of Columbia, which it ultimately did, and the staff wanted to remain part of the federal government.
"Even so," he said, "I thought it was my role to say what was in the patient's interest."
Dr. Daniel Ruge, then the White House physician, arranged for Reagan and Peele to talk. The president had first broached the idea with Ruge at Camp David, Ruge, now 87 and living in Denver, said yesterday.
Awaiting the call from Reagan, Peele said he knew that he had to say what needed to be said — without angering the president. Besides worrying about Hinckley, Peele was concerned about the other people injured in the shootings, including what Press Secretary James Brady would think of Reagan forgiving Hinckley.
Peele didn't raise the issue. But later, during a visit to the White House, "seeing the condition that Brady was in made me even more comfortable" with the decision.
It was not the last time that Reagan expressed compassion for Hinckley. The revelation that the president wanted to meet with him, said Hinckley's lawyer, Barry Levine, "demonstrates the magnanimity of the president, a man of grace, great grace."
Washington Post reporter Timothy Dwyer and researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.