Ronald Reagan at 100: The President, the Pope and the Medicine of Forgiveness

On my father's 100th birthday, I think back to the assassination attempt on his life in March 1981. That day, the Secret Service told me that my wife Colleen and I, our two children, and my sisters Maureen and Patti would take a military transport from Los Angeles to Washington that night. My brother Ron would arrive separately.

"You'll stay in the White House tonight," the agent said, "and you'll visit your father at the hospital tomorrow."

That night, we boarded a C-130 transport and took off from a private terminal at LAX. It was a long, miserable flight, made worse by our worries about Dad. We were exhausted when we arrived at the White House.

The next morning, Colleen and I got into an aging armor-plated Cadillac limo. The agents in our Secret Service detail were on edge, worried that their might be more attacks.

As we drove, the bullet-proof window next to me slowly slid down by itself. I leaned forward and tapped the agent on the shoulder. "Excuse me," I said, "but should this window be going down?"

The agent looked—and turned white! He grabbed the window glass with both hands, swearing and struggling to pull the window up again. Apparently, the White House limo fleet was falling apart like everything else left over from the Carter administration.

Colleen, Maureen, and I arrived at the hospital as Ron and Patti were leaving after their visit. Someone ushered us into a holding room, where we waited a long time. Finally, an agent came in and said, "The president isn't strong enough to see the rest of the family right now. You can come back in twenty-four hours."

I said, "Let me talk to the doctor!"

"Sorry, the doctor's not available."

After the agent left, Maureen said, "Michael, you've got to get us in to see Dad."

"Leave it to me," I said.

I went out and poked round until I found one of Dad's doctors. I said, "Why are you keeping my sister and me from seeing our father?" The doctor began stammering—and I knew we were in.

Minutes later, Maureen, Colleen, and I were escorted into Dad's room. I remember it being dark and hot—the drapes were closed for security reasons. Dad was awake and alert—and he was clearly glad to see us.

He deadpanned, "Michael, if you're ever shot, make sure you're not wearing a new suit."

"Excuse me?"

"Do you know what happens when they bring you into the emergency room? They don't say, 'Please remove your suit, Mr. President.' They cut your clothes right off of you! The last time I saw that suit, it was on the floor in shreds."

It was good to hear him joking—but later he told me seriously, "Michael, I believe God spared me for a purpose. I want you to know that I've made a decision to recommit the rest of my life, and the rest of my presidency, to God."

One evidence of that commitment was his response to the troubled young gunman. Dad publicly forgave John Hinckley before he left the hospital. In fact, I believe Dad's expression of forgiveness truly sped his recovery.

Forgiveness, of course, was a central theme of Dad's Christian faith. God forgave us through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ upon the cross, and we in turn are to forgive one another. Dad believed that resentment is a poison and forgiveness is good medicine.

In June 1982, my father visited Pope John Paul II. As they met in the Papal Library, Dad reminded the Holy Father of a bond they shared: On March 30, 1981, a bullet missed my father's heart by a fraction of an inch. Six weeks later, on May 13, a Turkish gunman shot the Pope multiple times. Both men narrowly survived the attacks—and both men freely forgave their attackers.

My father told the pope that he believed God had called him to help bring down the godless Communist system—and the Holy Father agreed. At that moment, they forged a partnership that ultimately toppled Soviet Communism.

I believe forgiveness is the most important bond Ronald Reagan shared with Pope John Paul II. Many of us can recite The Lord's Prayer. We know the words, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us"—but Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II exemplified those words. They expressed forgiveness even before they left the hospital.

God used these two men to change the world. And that change began with the power of forgiveness.

Michael Reagan is the son of President Ronald Reagan and a political consultant. He is the founder and chairman of The Reagan Group and president of The Reagan Legacy Foundation. Visit his website at Portions of this column are adapted from his book "The New Reagan Revolution" (St. Martin's Press). Copyright © 2011 Michael Reagan.