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

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Viking Adult

Ronald Prescott Reagan is the youngest child of President Ronald Reagan. Over the weekend, excerpts of his memoir about his dad, My Father at 100, generated a firestorm because in it he speculates that the fortieth president, who passed away in 2004, may have had Alzheimer's Disease while he was in office.

As Ron Reagan admits, he's not a physician. (He's actually a former ballet dancer and now a political commentator who is defiantly opposed to his dad's conservative political philosophy.) And according to news reports, President Reagan's physicians say evidence of Alzheimer's didn't emerge until more than four years after he left the White House, when mental tests revealed it. Also, President Reagan's oldest son, Michael, vehemently disputes Ron's claim, which has set off yet another Reagan family quarrel. "There's absolutely no evidence," Michael Reagan said last night on a cable news program. "There are people on the left who have said Ronald Reagan must have had Alzheimer's when he was president and tried to use that to disparage what he did. Here one of his sons writes a book that says, 'Here's the fodder you need.'"

My Father at 100, however, is about more than a president's health. It's an unusual chronicle that Ron says is the story of a son's journey to know and understand his father.

I talked to Ron Reagan, now 52, on Friday and again this morning.

Are you surprised that your speculation about your father having Alzheimer's while president has been the take away on your book by the news media?

Not entirely. I assumed this would be the news hook. The frenzy around it is a little surprising, but I think that has more to do with my brother weighing in than anything else.

Did you anticipate that Michael Reagan was going to have this kind of response to the book?

I hadn't really thought about how Michael would respond. That's not something that I give a lot of consideration to.

Why did you choose this particular time to put forth this theory about your dad's illness? For instance, why didn't you mention this when Ronald Reagan's official biographer, Edmund Morris, interviewed you during the 1980s and '90s? You even covered the 1985 Geneva summit for Playboy. Why didn't you put this speculation in your article at that time?

That was a long time ago when I talked to Edmund Morris. Part of the time, my father was still in office and hadn't been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. When I started to write this book, I knew I was going to finish with my dad's end—and that of course was his death due to Alzheimer's. I determined that while I wanted to protect his privacy to a reasonable extent, I had to be as honest as I could about my own personal experience with him.

So, for the record: are you saying that he was suffering from Alzheimer's while he was President?

I'm not saying that he was suffering from dementia while he was in office. I'm merely saying that the disease had to be present. There's been some misunderstanding between Alzheimer's the disease and dementia, which is a symptom and comes along in later stages. My deduction actually is that given what we now know about Alzheimer's—it's a process that unfolds over years and decades before any identifiable symptoms arise—simple math will tell you that the disease must have been present while he was president of the United States. I suppose I could have omitted mention of that, but it's kind of obvious. It's theoretical that the disease was present in the 1960s in him. It starts very early, before the symptoms do.

Doesn't this cast a cloud over the Reagan Centennial, which officially starts next month?

No. I don't think it should. I don't know why it would.

In your view, what was your dad's finest hour?

When he was lifeguard. He pulled 77 people out of the Rock River in Illinois over the course of seven years. That really solidified his character. He called it the best job he ever had. And in many ways, I think it was a perfect job for him. Someone who rides in with a white hat in the third reel to save the day—that's being a lifeguard.

While researching this book, you visited the river, but you write that you didn't go swimming.

After my father was lifeguarding, farmers across the river would bring their cattle down to drink and cattle would do what cattle do. They shut it down for swimming because of the effluent from the bovines. But I realized, this is a real river—it isn't some creek. If you got out in the middle of that river and weren't a strong swimmer, you'd be in trouble.

So what do you regard as his faults?

He could be very stubborn about facing up to unpleasant realities, particularly concerning America. It was very difficult for him to grapple with national shames—slavery, the treatment of Native Americans, Vietnam. He never came around to the viewpoint that we had no good reason for being there.

When it came to judging people, was he naïve?

He was a little like his mother, Nellie. She thought everyone loved her because she loved them. My dad assumed that because his agenda was noble and selfless, everyone who came to work with him would share that kind of nobility and selflessness. From a fairly early age, I remember thinking it was part of my job to confront him with unpleasant realities that he would otherwise brush aside.

Ronald Reagan always came off as pretty modest. But you write about his ambition as a young man. Isn't this a new side to him?

He was modest, but he had this burning ambition, too. I came to understand, certainly more than I had before, that in my father's early childhood, my dad cultivated a solitary side of himself, a metaphorical ten percent. When he was in that ten percent mode, he started creating his own narrative. It had him as a hero, basically this hero in an imagined Western landscape.

Why did he hide the ambition?

He knew that it was a little unsavory, something you certainly didn't want to wear on your sleeve. When he was approached by people to run for governor, he said to them, and even to us, his family, "I'm not going to do this until I first see what kind of reaction I get from audiences when I speak. If they're telling me that they want me to run, then I'll run. But if I'm getting a kind of, 'Go-home-and-ride-your-horse kind of feeling,' then I won't." He wanted to make it about people calling him. It was very important that he not be seen as nakedly ambitious. And he wasn't. But in that little ten percent, the flame burned.

I remember hearing him say, "I was dragged kicking and screaming into politics."

Yes, that's right. I'd forgotten about that one. Well, that's true for the 90 percent of him—the public Ronald Reagan. But the ten percent Ronald Reagan, that inner man, the solitary core, where he harbored his ambition—he was waiting for the opportunity to prove his worth on the public stage.

When your dad was in the Army during World War II, he was one of the first Americans to see film footage of the Nazi concentration camps. It was color film, shot by U.S. forces, and processed in California, where your dad was stationed. The film had a profound impact on him and the other soldiers who viewed it. He even said it was so awful that he would keep the film as evidence if there were ever Holocaust deniers. Are you aware of this film?

Yes, he showed it to me when I was about 12.

What did he say about it?

He took me aside and said that he thought I was old enough to see the worst of which people were capable.

Where did you view it?

At home. We had a little projection room thing—you'd slide back a painting and a projector was behind it. The projector would then shine through these little windows. My mother was watching nervously because I don't think she was completely sold on the idea that I was old enough to see this. It was raw, unedited footage from the liberation of the concentration camps.

How do you remember that experience?

I was shocked. I'd seen still photographs, but never anything quite like that film. Dad wanted to impress upon me that people were capable of doing horrible things to one another. He said that this was what we needed to guard against, that we should fight any impulse toward that at every turn.

In research for this memoir, you traveled to Eureka College, your dad's alma mater. You even stood on the stage in the chapel where, in 1928, your dad, a freshman, delivered a speech pushing for the resignation of the college president, Bert Wilson, because of budget cuts.

When my dad gave that speech in the chapel, it was such an important moment for him. To hear him tell the story decades later, you might get the impression that he was the leader. But it happened in the wee hours of the morning, and many had spoken. They all were for getting rid of the president. My dad got up and said a few words. The issue itself, while not unimportant to him, was really secondary. What happened was that he made a connection with the audience. For the first time in his life, an audience was giving him feedback, and it wasn't for some character he was playing in a play. It was just for him.

Did your dad try to persuade you to apply to Eureka College?

No. But he would talk wistfully about his college experience. He said that smaller colleges afforded a better opportunity for personal attention from professors. Just before I graduated from high school, my dad and I went on a college tour, mostly East Coast colleges. That was fun, driving around with my dad.

Your father's only sibling, Neil Reagan (who was nicknamed "Moon," after a comic strip character called Moon Mullins), figures in your memoir. Tell us about him.

He was very much my grandfather, Jack Reagan's, boy. Moon was quite a dancer when he was young, and had a good Irish tenor voice. He sang until he got throat cancer and had his vocal cords removed. I only knew him when he had a husky voice. But he had a very strong personality, like everyone else in the family. My father had the mildest personality in his family.

What was your father's relationship with his brother?

There seemed to be a bit of a chill between them. And I realized why. Uncle Neil was a funny guy, but his jokes had barbs. He used his sense of humor to wound. And he did that to my father, apparently. One of their fraternity brothers said that Moon could actually make my dad cry when they were in college by belittling and needling him.

You write, "No man is a hero to his valet or his elder sibling. Moon had been present since the beginning."

My father wanted to be the hero—and one can argue that, in his maturity, he became one. But one's elder sibling has seen you when you were anything but a hero, when you were a little boy, crying and scared.

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.