The Real Reagan

Sooner or later all who write about Ronald Reagan find themselves at grips with a puzzle. His son Ron (the name he uses as author of this memoir) is no exception. Though he has had a longer and more intimate relationship with Reagan than most people, at the age of fifty-two Ron is still trying to figure out what made his father, ostensibly such an ordinary fellow, one of the past century’s most successful political leaders.

His sensitive and arresting memoir about “Dad,” as he calls his father throughout, is especially good when exploring the human puzzle. During his father’s presidency, Republican reactionaries, unhappy when he moved toward political moderation, used to shout, “Let Reagan be Reagan!” but it was never clear who the Reagan was that they wanted Reagan to be.

His son suggests that Reagan was the self-invention of a boyish daydreamer stuck in the hard-knock life of a drab prairie town in Illinois. By using the arts of show business he managed to rise from the world of let’s pretend to the presidency, all the time remaining so unknowably private that he often seemed a stranger to his own children. Such, at any rate, is Ron’s analysis.

“He was easy to love but hard to know” is the one conclusion about which he seems certain. Reagan’s friends, relatives, associates, and biographers have been arriving at the same judgment for years. Even his wife Nancy, said to be the only person who really understood him, seemed defeated by his impenetrable privacy when she told his biographer Lou Cannon, “You can get just so far to Ronnie and then something happens.”

Unlike his mother, Ron is willing to explore the puzzle in a skeptical frame of mind, which produces a variety of material, all of it interesting for its inside view of a celebrated family that was anything but a middle-class dream of domestic bliss, and some of it decidedly unflattering. There is the problem of personal family relationships. Twice married, Reagan was father to four children (a fifth died at birth), who over the years have complained in one form or another that he was remote and inattentive, or, as Ron puts it, “you couldn’t help wondering sometimes whether he remembered you once you were out of his sight.”

His book is, nevertheless, warmly affectionate, which is not always the tone in which Southern California children dilate on deceased celebrity parents. (“It’s not even safe to die anymore,” Bob Hope observed after Bing Crosby’s son issued a postmortem book saying Bing had been a terrible father.) Ron seems genuinely fond of “Dad,” but fondness, as many a graying parent well knows, cannot stifle the child eager to favor the old man and even dear old Mom with youth’s cheeky critique. Which is sometimes even painfully sound.

In his genially affectionate way, Ron manages to convey the impression that his father was not only lacking in parental skills, but also cruel and unfair to his own father when portraying…

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