Lately I‘ve seen Ron Reagan, son of the late president, on TV several times in conjunction with his new book about his father on the occasion of the centennial of his birth. Titled My Father at 100, it’s an interesting read, except we’ve been on this road before, familiar apart from several turnouts affording us new vistas such as Ron’s suspicion that his father may have already been displaying incipient Alzheimer’s disease when he fell into sudden, prolonged silence, fumbling for notes and looking confused, in the first presidential debate with Walter Mondale in 1984. Of course, he subsequently routed his opponent on the age issue in the second debate with his rejoinder that he would “not exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
What we do know is that Howard Baker, the respected Tennessee senator who replaced Donald Regan as White House chief of staff, found the President mentally lucid and focused.
Much of what Ron says about Dad is speculative, as in the preceding. He offers that Reagan embroidered the facts when it came to his own father, hardly a profligate alcoholic heedless of his family: “If he was weak, he was also principled.” But how does Ron come by this knowledge?
Whatever one’s political persuasion, Reagan was hardly the “affable dunce,” as Clark Clifford dismissively remarked. During his tenure, the country prospered economically, regained its pride, halted inflation, and saw an end to the gas crisis. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was negotiating a nuclear arms reduction with Gorbachev, ultimately moving the two Super Powers towards an ending of the Cold War to the chagrin of many conservatives and the surprise of most liberals. It can be argued that a revived economy and massive defense outlays ultimately weakened the competitive Soviet economy, precipitating communism’s collapse.
Yet the fact remains that, domestically, the Reagans had a strained relationship with their children. When Patti moved in with an Eagle rock singer, Reagan could not accept its morality. Nancy, not just Reagan, quarreled with Patti on other issues and the two did not reconcile until 1993, when Reagan’s Alzheimer’s affliction became known.
When Ron dropped out of Yale, opting to become a ballet dancer, his parents suspected homosexuality.
There had been bad moments, too, though with lesser fallout, with Maureen and Michael.
One of the book’s most fascinating passages recalls a supper time argument that many American families with teenagers will find familiar. Ron can’t recall what precipitated the uproar, accept that when he got up to leave, his father said, “You’re not going anywhere, Mister,” cocking his fist. They wouldn’t talk for several days.
At home, the Reagans represented old values in a new era, the incompatibility of old wine in new bottles. Well meaning, they got into controlling, reacting rather than listening. While they enjoyed an exceptional relationship as husband and wife, they unfortunately erected a firewall against intruders, including their own children, hungry for love, yearning to be heard, needing validation in their adolescent quest for emancipation from the shadow of extraordinary parents and the forging of their individual identities. In their denial, came resentment and rebellion.
Ron’s book isn’t unfriendly. He calls his father “Dad” throughout. and yet resentment lingers like smoke from a fire, reduced to blue embers, seeking exit:
“I could share an hour of warm camaraderie with Dad, then once I’d walked out the door, get the uncanny feeling I’d disappeared into the wings of his mind’s stage, like a character no longer necessary to the ongoing story line.”
Tolstoy wrote famously at the outset of Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Ron recalls his father telling him, “You’re my son, so I have to love you. But sometimes you make it hard to like you.” This becomes painful reading. As parents, many of us have been there. Reagan’s domestic failures despite his public success as the Great Communicator, hint at our own private follies as parents, made wiser by time, yet remorseful that we might have done better.
But it’s never too late to learn how to listen; to love our children unconditionally; to undo past wrongs in the warm embrace of reconciliation.