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The Real Reagan

How Ron could have known all this about his grandfather, dead seventeen years before Ron was born, is not clear. When a man tries to atone for indignities unjustly inflicted upon his grandfather, it seems heavy-handed to be unduly captious about it. Or, as Ron puts it, “The more I look into my father’s history…the more I’m inclined to cut Jack a bit more slack than his son did.”

President Reagan’s devoted admirers are bound to disapprove of his son’s less than reverent portrait of their hero. He will surely be denounced as a “liberal,” one of the foulest words in the conservative lexicon, and condemned for having declared himself an atheist. He seems to disagree with his father on most matters political and confesses that if anyone but “Dad” had been the Republican candidate in 1984, he would have cast his presidential vote for the Democrat, Walter Mondale.

He has already provoked a flutter in the press by suggesting that Reagan may have had symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease during his first term in office. Noting that his father was seventy-three when he ran for reelection in 1984, he recalls being alarmed by Reagan’s floundering performance in the first TV debate with Mondale—“fumbling with his notes, uncharacteristically lost for words,” and looking “tired and bewildered.” The second debate became a Reagan triumph when he disposed of the age issue with a witticism, delivered with a masterful Hollywood wink, promising not to “exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

Whatever had been bothering my father,” Ron writes, “he seemed to have vanquished it, at least temporarily.” Reagan died of Alzheimer’s in 2004, twenty years after the Mondale campaign, but it is impossible to say when the first effects of the disease appeared.

Professional politicians, who tend to be quick to admire a star performer but slow to fall in love with one, still speak with admiration of Reagan’s ability to concentrate on matters he cared deeply about while staying almost utterly disengaged from everything else. In 1986 there was a flurry of speculation in Washington about Reagan’s being curiously out of touch with events comprising the so-called Iran-contra affair—a screwball arms-for-hostages scheme devised in the White House to illegally sell arms to Iran in return for Iranian help in freeing American hostages in Lebanon, and use the proceeds to fund Nicaraguan rebels.

This was an exceedingly complex and utterly illegal arrangement and as it became increasingly apparent that Reagan’s memory of it was dim at best, two possibilities were considered: one, that he had been criminally involved and was pretending memory loss to avoid impeachment; two, that in typical Reagan style he had never been interested in the problem involved in the first place and, so, was being completely honest about his memory failures.

It was in this year, 1986, that Nancy Reagan is said to have engineered the firing of Donald Regan as White House chief of staff. He was replaced by former Senator Howard Baker, whose first problem required him to weigh stories among White House staff people that the President was mentally confused. What Baker found was the same Reagan he had known for years: genial as ever, completely in command mentally, and interested only in matters about which he had always had the deepest concern. It was a judgment that put the question of mental disability to rest for the remainder of the Reagan years.

Reagan, be it noted, ended his presidency with notable successes in two of the matters that concerned him most profoundly. One was the growth of government social programs initiated by Franklin Roosevelt; when he left office Reagan had persuaded millions of Americans to distrust and fear their own government—“the problem, not the solution,” was his slogan. (The military, though operated by the government, was always excluded from this attack.) In the end, Reagan scored a lasting victory for the conservative movement by making it extremely difficult for government to undertake new social programs and hard to maintain the old ones.

His other overriding interest was the threat of nuclear warfare, which Reagan viewed as the gravest of all human problems. For thirty years, Washington’s national security establishment had assumed the inevitability of an unending cold war perpetuated by a nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union. Reagan shocked the professionals by pursuing nuclear disarmament. By heeding Mikhail Gorbachev’s pleas for someone in Washington to listen seriously to his hints that the Soviet Union was collapsing and powerless to continue the military standoff, Reagan confounded the experts and moved the nation toward the end of the cold war. It was a great achievement for a man whose political foes had dismissed him as an amiable simpleton.

Why his son chooses now to revive speculation about Alzheimer’s is puzzling. Ron is nevertheless a valuable expert witness for helping us understand the family life of a most notable American. Born in 1958 when Reagan was forty-seven, he has had fifty-two years in which to observe and reflect on his famous father.

As a child he has romped on the beach with “Dad,” and in the ancient tradition of insufferable adolescent malehood he has tormented a long- suffering father to the brink of violence. He has watched his father struggle against the urge to explode as his son’s hair grew “disturbingly long” and his wardrobe style shifted from “good boy” fashions to the thrift-shop shabbiness that was the uniform of the counterculture. As wholesale adolescence set in, Ron writes, he not only declared his atheism, but also told his hawkish father that he opposed the Vietnam War.

For Reagan the father it was the same trial endured by millions of parents in the 1960s and 1970s as they saw their children turning into campus Savonarolas and whiskery troubadours. That it could happen to Ronald Reagan, however, somehow seems bizarre. Reagan ought not to have know-it-all adolescent irritants around the house as everybody else did. Reagan was different, wasn’t he? It was beyond bizarre, it was grotesque that adolescent insolence could have brought Reagan to the verge of duking it out, fist to fist, with a teenage son. But so it did, Ron writes.

It was one of those dinner-table showdowns, so common in the 1970s, when Americans still had dinner tables and brought their most inflammatory opinions to them along with the food. Such was the setting for the one occasion in his life, Ron writes, when he thought his father “might actually take a swing at me.” Though he doesn’t recall what generated the heat, he describes a scene in which he rose to announce that he was going out for a drive, producing a commonplace fatherly reply: “You’re not going anywhere, Mister.”

There was some clumsy scuffling. Ron remembers his father cocking his fist and says he struck out defensively with his open palm as his father slipped and stumbled on the slick flooring. Young Ron slipped out the door, and combat ended. Peace talks began after a two-day cooling-off period.

Such was life even in our most distinguished families in those bleak years of American decline. Ron remembers his father telling him something that many a parent must have said to many a child in that time: “You’re my son, so I have to love you. But sometimes you make it very hard to like you.”

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