A son reflects on the man who was America’s 40th president
Ron Reagan is no stranger to sharing his father with the world, but in his new memoir, My Father at 100, he delves deep into the past of a man that few truly knew but many claim as their own. The younger son of our 40th president was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule for a spirited chat with BookPage about his father’s roots, the current state of American politics and much more.
So much of My Father At 100 reads as a personal meditation on your relationship with your father. What prompted you to take your investigation into your family and enigmatic father's past and make it public?
I suppose I could have written a journal and kept it all to myself but there was the sense that people would actually find this interesting. Also, everybody else lays claim to him in one way or another as I’ve said in the book, so I suppose in some way I’m staking my own claim here since I actually knew him. I feel like if anyone has a right to say anything about him, it’s someone like me.
Was it hard sharing your father with an entire country?
In a way. I think anyone who has a parent, or perhaps any other family member who is a very well-known public figure—a big celebrity if you will—I think there is going to be an element of some resentment on some level that you have to share them all the time. And so many people seem so attached to my father and claim him. So there was some of that, although I never doubted that I knew him better than 99.99% of those people.
I think what you had when my father was president that you don’t see now is people of good will on both sides recognizing that whatever our differences are, we’ve got to get some things done here.
At one point in My Father at 100, you mention that your father was a very charismatic man with many facets, and yet you had the feeling that when you were out of his sight, it was almost as though you ceased to exist to him.
The thing about “out of sight out of mind” [is that] it didn’t really have so much to do with his relationship to the public versus his relationship to his family. I think he was just often in his own head somewhere. He did have a tendency at times to put people into an abstract category, and he could even do that on occasion with his own family. For example, I mention in the book about when he wrote a letter to me when I got a D in Algebra in high school. This letter had hardly anything to do with me! It could have been a form letter that somebody had asked him to write to any young man. So you kind of got the impression that he was playing a role himself in that instance and had assigned you a role and you were enacting this kind of drama that really had nothing to do with either one of you. But this wasn’t a constant thing, and I suspect that if I had been face-to-face with him for that conversation it would have been an entirely different thing.
I didn’t share this story in the book—though I probably should have—but many people thought that he was callous toward the poor, for instance, and yet that wasn’t true when it was somebody who had a face, when it was an individual. While he was at the White House, he saw on television one night a young woman who was a single mother who was down and out and this moved him. So he sat down and took out his personal checkbook and wrote her a check for $2000 and mailed it to her. And two nights later he’s watching the news again and there she is on the news again with a framed copy of his check, which she is now hanging on the wall of her meager apartment. And he’s thinking, “Well this isn’t what I intended!” so he writes her another check for $2000 and sends it to her along with a little note saying “For God’s sake, cash this!” But she was an individual to him, she had a particular story. She wasn’t just “the poor.” If you wanted to move him on an issue, if you wanted to capture his interest, [you had to] personalize it, put a face on it, make it a human being.
So, given that he was so introverted—or perhaps introspective is a better word for it—was it ever surprising to you how strongly the public responded to him given how wrapped up in his own mind he could be?
No, not really. I’m not sure I would put it as either introverted or introspective; there is probably some other “intro” word that neither one of us are thinking of at the moment! He dwelled inside his own head a lot of the time, but when you say introspective that implies some kind of critical self-examination, and that really wasn’t what was going on, I don’t think. He was building and rehearsing and solidifying his personal narrative in his own head.
On the other hand, he was very charismatic, and in person I defy anybody to have met him and not liked him having spent any time in his company. He was very affable, very warm, he made you feel like you were his good friend even if you had just met him. And it was not because he was cynical and manipulative, but just because that’s the way he acted around people. So no, it wasn’t surprising at all that people responded to him. People got the 90% that everybody got, but it was that 10%, metaphorically speaking, that he kept close and private. Even his own wife, my mother, admitted that she rarely felt that she got to that last, tiny innermost room.
In your mind, did you ever reconcile "Ronald Reagan: president" with "Ronald Reagan: father," or were the two figures very distinct to you?
They were part of unified whole. I know that some people who saw him as president didn’t appreciate his personal qualities because they didn’t know him personally, but I didn’t really see them as being two different people so there wasn’t any urge to reconcile that. He was very consistent as a person. There was the public versus private element to his character, but it was all very consistent. He wasn’t a very changeable or mercurial person.
Much of this book recounts your journey to discover a side to your father that you knew little about. So without giving away too much, what's one thing you uncovered that people would be surprised to learn about your father?
He was a fairly big, athletic guy, but as a little boy growing up, he was actually undersized and very insecure. He was picked on by bullies at school, he was often the new kid because [his family] moved around a lot, he spent a lot of time alone, and he was overshadowed to some extent by his older brother and even by his parents, who were both very charismatic and extroverted people with forceful personalities. I think that this was part of the reason why he retreated into himself as a little boy and spent a lot of time alone, a lot of time daydreaming. . . . He was dreaming often of the West; he was fascinated by the West, dreaming of himself as a kind of hero in a wide-open landscape.
I don’t think I quite appreciated that solitude when he was young boy, and his vulnerability.
At times this exploration into your father’s and your family’s past must have been painful, perhaps even because it just hammered home the fact that he is no longer with you. So what was the most rewarding element to this entire project?
I think just overall the sense that I know not just my father better—I think I knew him pretty well and there weren’t any huge surprises; it’s not like I suddenly discovered he was a cross-dressing serial killer (though perhaps I should have to boost sales!)—but finding out about my family and getting back into that country and getting back into Illinois. Nobody in my family, until I started looking into this, was really aware that my father had an uncle and two aunts on his side of the family. He never mentioned it to my mother or to any of us. He mentions in his autobiography in passing, without ever naming them. So to go back and discover that there was this larger family on both parents’ sides and find out what happened with them was really rewarding and interesting. As far as we know, those two aunts of my father died very young before he was born, and his father’s brother drank himself insane and died in the Dixon Insane Asylum in 1925 when my father was a teenager. Hard to believe he wouldn’t have known about that, but we never heard about it.
So that was tremendously rewarding, to do that and trace back and do what little independent or original research I was able to contribute to this.
What is one of the most important lessons your father taught you?
Kindness. He could be distant and he could be inattentive at times, perhaps from a sort of obliviousness, but he was a tremendously kind person to everybody he met. He treated everybody the same. Now that’s a double-edged sword when you’re his family wondering whether you should be treated extra special nice, but he treated everybody from the guy who shined his shoes to a foreign head of state the same. Also, I never saw him enter a room and give any indication that he thought he was less or lesser than anybody in that room. Not that he was arrogant. He wasn’t one of those people who needed to dominate a room; he’s not a Bill Clinton type where he’s got to be the center of attention all the time, since if you’re president, most of the time you are! He just had this serene confidence about him where you really believed that he wasn’t the type of guy who would kowtow or suck-up. He didn’t do that. He had tremendous dignity and self-respect, and I think that’s a good example to have growing up.
You are a very vocal liberal and atheist whereas your father was very much not, so how did this affect your relationship with your father?
Well, we could disagree about politics and we could even disagree about the existence of a deity and still remain close and friends. I think he was probably a little frustrated with my politics because my father believed that he was right, and was sure that if he could get you alone for five or 10 minutes that he could convince you of his position. So I think it was terribly frustrating to him that he couldn’t convince me and change my mind in many instances.
The atheism was, I think, a deeper worry for him because he was a deeply religious person, though not in a florid or evangelical way. He just thought I was ruining my life by not believing in God. But he was also wise enough to realize that you can’t force that on anyone, people have to come to that or not as they will, so beyond trying to strong-arm me back into church when I was 12 years old, he just let me go my own way. It wasn’t really an issue between us, even if it might have been a sore spot for him.
If your father were alive today, what do you think he would feel is the most pressing issue America faces in 2011?
On domestic issues, I think we have to be very careful going back 20 to 30 years since he was elected; times have changed and as stubborn as he could be, one assumes he would change with them. I can’t say that he would be a carbon copy of himself in 1980 in 2011.
On the foreign front though, I think he would continue to be highly motivated by the idea of ridding the world of nuclear weapons. That was something that animated him for a long, long time, and I see no reason why he would feel any different now. The problem still exists; it’s arguably even more serious now with the threat of loose nukes and terror and all of that. I think he would have been appalled at the Republican intransigence over the START treaty and holding that hostage to parochial political concern. I think that would have disgusted him. I think someone like Jon Kyl, he’d have wanted to pinch his little head off. It would have been unconscionable, unpatriotic and un-American as far as he was concerned.
Beyond that I hesitate to speculate too much. The only other issue I would raise where I absolutely know how he would feel is the torture issue. He would be utterly disgusted and appalled that the United States of America practiced torture under George Bush. That kind of moral turpitude was just not in him. The cowardice that is required to do something like that was just not part of his character.
Your father began his career in the entertainment industry, much like yourself. Yet you have said that you have no intention of running for office because your atheist views would likely prevent you from ever being elected. Is that truly all that is holding you back?
It’s not the only reason why I wouldn’t run for office, I’m just not by nature a politician. But the fact that I am an atheist, that would make it tough if I did choose to run.
Do you think that Americans too often blur the line between church and state?
Well there are certainly people who try very often to do that! There is [a significant percentage] of the country that really does somehow believe that we were founded specifically as a Christian nation and the only way we can be right as a nation is to embrace a particular strain of Christianity. But yes, there is always an attempt to blur that line and we have people on the Supreme Court now who would be happy to blur that line.
I mean, if you want to legislate biblical law, then none of us would be allowed to wear stripes and I would have had to have been stoned to death by my parents as a young man when I announced I was an atheist, and slavery is ok, and child murder is fine and wives should be bought and sold like livestock. People who say that our laws are based on the Ten Commandments, well what’s the first commandment? Our first commandment is that you shall have no other gods before me. And what’s the first amendment? Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion. So you cannot marry the Ten Commandments to the Constitution; they are diametrically opposed.
It’s a little disturbing that anybody gives these [fundamentalists] the time of day. I think in other countries they would be fodder for comedy, briefly, before they disappeared. But not here! Here you’ve got a FOX news network that hires these people and makes money off of them.
We’ve talked about how the world has changed since your father was in office, but do you feel like the world of politics has changed in the 20 years since your father was president?
Yes, I do. When he was president, it’s not that there wasn’t a pretty stark right-left divide. But even with all of that, I think what you had when my father was president that you don’t see now is people of good will on both sides recognizing that whatever our differences are, we’ve got to get some things done here. There are things that need to be done for the country. Certainly in foreign policy you more often saw politics stopping at the water’s edge. I don’t think you would have seen the same kind of kerfuffle over the START Treaty back in the ‘80s that you saw just recently where it really was just being tossed around like a political football; that would have been regarded as really unseemly back then.
So there was more mutual respect, the personal venom wasn’t as noxious and toxic. My mother, for instance, as First Lady caught some grief for using personal, private donations to buy a new set of china for the White House. By the time Bill Clinton was in office, you had the First Lady not only accused of having an affair, but of murdering the person she had an affair with. So we’ve gone from the First Lady puts on airs and buys fancy china to the First Lady has someone whacked . . . that’s a big jump! Can you imagine someone back in the ‘80s accusing my mother of having someone murdered? Can you imagine my father’s reaction? The notion of my father sitting still while somebody accused his wife of murder . . . he would have called Rush Limbaugh and beaten him to a pulp. That just wouldn’t have happened.
The animosity and the invectiveness that has been aimed at this president, much of it racially tinged, particularly coming from the Limbaughs and Glenn Becks, is way beyond anything that existed back in the ‘80s.
This isn’t the first time your writing has been published, although it is your first book. Now that you’ve written this memoir, do you have any immediate plans or inclinations to write any other books?
That’s something I’d definitely like to think about. I’ve done all sorts of things in my life, starting out as a ballet dancer, doing a bit of acting and television and radio, and some writing for magazines along the way. I enjoyed this process, but it’s a little bit difficult to judge because it was such a personal effort. Would it be as enticing if it was something that was farther from me? It’s hard to say. But my guess is that this is something that I’d like to pursue if I could. I’ll grant you of course that I won’t be able to write anything that interests people as much as a book about my father . . .
What about Ronald Reagan: Vampire?
[laughing] That might do it! Or my father at 102. In all seriousness, though, I’m not sure exactly what it would be at this point, but I’d certainly like to explore the opportunity of future books.
You mention near the end of My Father at 100 that you still listen for your father's voice letting you know that he's ok. If in turn you could tell your father one more thing, what would it be?
I suppose I’d just remind him that he’s loved and not just by people who don’t know him! But by the people who do know him and that he left behind. We still think of him and care for him and hold a warm spot for him in our hearts.