Ron Reagan: Growing Up as the Son of a President—and a Movie Star

If you could have been an eyewitness to one incident from your dad's life, what would it have been?

There are two. I wish I could have watched him rescue people on the Rock River. I also wish I could have been there on the day when he found my grandfather in the snow in front of their house in Dixon, Illinois.

Your dad wrote about that incident in his memoir, published in 1965. He was 11 years old, and comes home from a basketball game to find his father passed out from drinking. Your dad describes dragging his father into the house and putting him to bed.

Yes, it's one of the iconic moments of dad's childhood. To my way of thinking, what really must have happened was that my dad grabbed his father, Jack, by the lapels of the coat and shook him and woke him up. Jack stumbled to his feet and probably had some pretty colorful things to say. I wish I could have seen that.

There's a refrain in your dad's biographies—that Ronald Reagan was an alcoholic's son. But you write that your grandfather wasn't really an alcoholic.

Jack Reagan, my grandfather, gets a bit of a raw deal. You can blame my father in part for that. He didn't badmouth Jack, but he allowed a perception to exist that Jack was an alcoholic. Jack Reagan would go years without drinking. He could drink and not get drunk. Back then, men drank. Jack would go off on a bender every once in a while, when times were good, to celebrate. My grandfather would disappear for a couple of days with some of the boys and do the rounds of the speakeasies. But he always worked, and always supported his family.

General Electric Theater, the weekly CBS anthology series that your dad hosted and help produce, was canceled in 1962 by the sponsor, General Electric, rather than the network. Did your dad express his feelings about what must have been a great disappointment to him?

No, I don't think he did.

You write that everyone in the Reagan family thought your dad would defeat President Carter in 1980. That's right. The conventional wisdom was that this former actor was going to be outmatched against the brainiac Jimmy Carter. But no one in the family would have said that. We always thought that dad would win.

Which one of your dad's films do you like the most?

I haven't spent a great deal of time watching his movies. When I was kid, I used to love Knute Rockne—All American because he was a football player in it. After watching any movie where he was hurt or shot, such as Tennessee's Partner and The Killers, I was disconsolate. When you're four years old and see your dad shot on TV, you think it's real.

Did you ever want to work in Hollywood as your parents did?

Had I gotten the feeling that acting could have afforded me a living, I might have gone in that direction. But it helps to be good-looking and photograph well. In that sense, I don't take after my father. I'm also one of those people who still doesn't know what he wants to do when he grows up.

Your hair was pretty long in the 1970s. Did your dad ever tell you to get a haircut?

Oh, he hated my hair. My hair wasn't just long in the '70s, it was long in the '90s. He couldn't understand why any man would have long hair. I used to tease him and say, "Well, the founding fathers had long hair." He would reply, "When I came to Hollywood, I was parting my hair in the middle. There are these fellas at the studios who are really good at telling you how you should part your hair and if you went to someone like them, they could tell you how you should wear it." I said, "Dad, I don't care. I'm not interested."

Did you ever go out the movies as a family?

We went to the theater to see maybe three movies, and two of them—John Wayne's The Green Berets and True Grit—might have been private screenings. Going to the movies was uncomfortable because autograph seekers would mob my dad. But we saw The Godfather at a matinee in Phoenix, with my grandparents. It was more violence than I'd ever seen in my life.

What was your dad's review?

Oh, they all thought it was brilliant. But he preferred movies from the golden age of Hollywood. When he was President and at Camp David, he would watch recent releases in the evening. My parents would often invite some of the Marines who were on duty to join them. Regardless of the film, after it was finished, dad would inevitably explain how movies were better in the old days. Of course, the Marines, who were listening to their Commander-in-Chief, would agree with him that, yes, movies really were better in my dad's era. Later, he would relate that to me: "You know, those young fellas and gals, they agreed with me about the old movies being better."

So I doubt that he would like Black Swan.

(Laughs) No. That would probably just entirely baffle him.

Was there music from your generation, such as the Rolling Stones, the Eagles, and Zeppelin, which your dad liked or even knew?

Um, noooo. (laughs) To him, that just seemed like a lot of noise. When I got the Woodstock album, I had to play it on my folks' stereo because I didn't have one in my room. They had speakers throughout the house, including their bedroom. I was listening to the album, and my parents were home, trying to ignore what was going on, I'm sure. But then, Country Joe got up and started saying, "Gimme an 'F,'" and I realized, Oh my God! I remember tearing down the length of the living room and swatting the needle off the album before Country Joe could get to the "C." Once, I played Jimi Hendrix's version of the "Star Spangled Banner" for my dad. He didn't really appreciate that.

What did he think of Jimi Hendrix?

He actually became kind of fascinated with him. Later, my dad came up to me and said, "I was reading about this Jimi Hendrix fellow. You know, he was part American Indian. He died young." He'd become fascinated with Hendrix, but he sure didn't like his version of the National Anthem.

Last spring, we released footage of your dad and James Dean from a live broadcast of the General Electric Theater, scenes that hadn't been seen for decades. Did your dad ever talk about working with him?

No, he didn't. And I had no idea that he had worked with James Dean until I saw that story. I wondered what my father must have thought of Dean's performance.

What did you think of your dad's performance?

I noticed that in his introduction, he drops just slightly. When you're reading to camera, you have to hold your expression and keep your energy through the entire thing. Even after the director says, "Cut!," you've still got to have that smile on your face because you don't want to let the audience see you drop out of character at the last second. It's like when you dance, you dance all the way into the wings. You carry it through into off-stage. At the end of his introduction, my dad's smile becomes kind of frozen. Watching it, I wondered, "Here's a guy who knows that his movie career is virtually over, and here's the future of Hollywood acting." I though dad's smile had become a little strained with disappointment.

In a way, your dad was playing the conservative he would become in national politics, holding back this rebel.

It's fascinating. When my dad finally gets the gun away from James Dean, and Dean is begging my dad to punch him—"Hit me, why don't you just hit me?!"—my father says to him, "Because if I started, I don't think I could stop." My dad's character doesn't even hit the guy! That was so my dad. He's thinking, "You're just a punk kid. And so what if you had a gun and were going to kill my wife? I'm still not going to go as far as hitting you. I'm not going to actually be violent towards you." That would never happen on TV today. The doctor would have to knock the kid's teeth down his throat or something. There would have to be some kind of violence to end the thing. But not my dad. Not with my father.

Were there guns in your house when you were growing up?

Oh, yes. Dad was a member of the National Rifle Association, back when it was still just a gun enthusiast thing. People gave him guns. When I was six years old, I had a .22 rifle with the stock sawed off that I kept in my room. And I knew where the bullets were.

What did Ronald Reagan say to you about guns?

He impressed upon us that they aren't toys. "You have toy guns and you and your friends can play with them all you want. But you do not play with this like it's a toy. You never point a real gun at another person regardless of whether you think it's loaded." We'd go out to the ranch and shoot tin cans and sometimes hunt ground squirrels. There wasn't a fetishistic thing about guns in our house. He'd clean them, and show me how to clean them. He certainly taught me how to use one. But he always put an emphasis on safety.

Did your dad really need speechwriters?

As a practical matter, as president, he had to have help. As a literary matter, he handled speechwriting pretty well himself. He would write most of his speeches when he was governor. I watched him write at home. He used a felt-tip or ballpoint pen on these little 3x5 cards in a shorthand that he developed. He'd wrap a rubber band around them when finished, and that would be his speech.

Can you ever imagine voting for a Republican?

Well, I don't belong to any political party, so to me it's not about Republican or Democrat. I don't belong to the Democratic Party because it's not far enough left for me. So what are the chances of me voting for a Republican? Remote.

What's the one thing that you want for the public to know about your dad that they don't already know?

On the right, people venerate my father. On the left, they say that everything was ruined when he came into office. Neither of those visions is accurate. My dad was a human being, and he had flaws—physiological and psychological, like all of us. But he meant well. He wasn't a cynical man. There wasn't an ounce of guile in him. He did what he did thinking that it was the best thing for the country. If people keep that in mind, at least they'll have a clearer picture of him.

Has your mother read this book?

Yes, as a matter of fact, she just finished it last week. She found a place in her bedroom where the sun was very bright so she could get through it with a new pair of glasses. She called and said she thought it was wonderful.

Presented by

John Meroney is completing a book, Rehearsals for a Lead Role: Ronald Reagan in The Hollywood Wars.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Confessions of Moms Around the World

A global look at the hardest and best job ever


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.

More in Entertainment

Just In