In My Father at 100, Ron Reagan looks deeply into the past of his father, Ronald W. Reagan, the actor turned politician and two-term president. Reagan writes affectingly of the development of a very public person who was also intensely private, and of a father-son relationship marked by many difficult moments, but also by love and respect.
Kirkus Reviews caught up with Reagan just before he embarked on a nationwide book tour that is scheduled to take him to New York City, Washington, D.C., and other points on the map, including his father’s boyhood home of Dixon, Ill., “If,” he says, “I’m not snowed out.”
Given all the books already devoted to your father, what prompted you to write your own? Did you feel the need to correct the record in any way, to amplify or change it?
Not really. There have been any number of talented, smart people who are much better equipped than I am, trained at research and such, to write authoritatively about my father. Yet most of the people who have written about my father seem to have been rather baffled by him. I understand that, because he was a baffling sort of person.
I think it was not so much to correct the record as that you reach a certain age and become more curious about your own past, and that leads you naturally to your parents’ past. I hadn’t thought about doing thus book, ever, until my mother [Nancy Reagan] and I were talking about my father’s 100th birthday coming up, and I began to ruminate on that hundred years. He was born in a town that had mud streets and horse-drawn carts, not very far removed from the 19th century. That he’s still a topic of conversation, a subject of interest now, in the 21st century, when in many ways he was almost a 19th-century guy, is fascinating to me.
I really did become curious about his life back then. I write about the 10 percent of my father that I didn’t ever quite get, the 10 percent that was his own separate universe, and I think it had to have arisen back then, somewhere back in his childhood. I didn’t want to do a political biography—people on the right would have been angry, and people on my side of the fence would say I was going too easy on my dad. I wanted instead to write about his youth, childhood, and early development, and that’s what I pursued.
It seems your father was at some remove from his own family.
Again, it was that 10 percent that he kept to himself. He was not distant or inattentive—not at all. He was a friendly, warm, kind man. But I was always aware that there was a place in his head that he would go that was inaccessible to others, even my mother. He was an undersized young man, picked on by bullies, picked last for games, and he began fantasizing about the West at an early age, with himself as a hero in that landscape. I was looking for the origin of that, I suppose.
Your father’s contradictions emerge at many points in the book, and you even call him “paradoxical.” Do you worry at all that this will upset the hagiographers?
I sort of subscribe to Dennis Kucinich’s view that what other people think of me is none of my business. I wanted to emphasize my father’s humanity, not his politics. Obviously, I hope that people will enjoy this book, but I assume that there will be people who will take issue with it because they’re familiar with my politics and won’t give me an inch.
Yet I also think that the truth serves my father well. You certainly don’t get the sense here that he was in any way a bad man, or a shallow man or uncaring—but instead a somewhat strange sort of man, contradictory and paradoxical. I don’t think that’s really a revelation to anyone who knew him or studied him up close.
What do you think your father would say was his best moment—not necessarily in politics, but in life?
Well, if you believe his autobiographies, it was when he was on stage at Eureka College, calling for the president’s head and feeling the charge from the people in the audience. In film, it was the line, “Where’s the rest of me?” Marrying Nancy would be on the list. And in his presidency, it would have to involve the détente with Mikhail Gorbachev and the move to reduce the number of nuclear weapons, which had been on his mind for a long time—just think of that extraordinary moment at the 1976 Republican Convention when he stands there and, instead of saying snarky things about the Democrats, he makes a pitch for nuclear disarmament.
What would Ronald Reagan have made of the modern Tea Party, the likes of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, the shape of the Republican Party today?
I like to be very careful about putting words in his mouth. I don’t know what he would think. None one else knows either. What I am certain of is that he would have been appalled by the Bush administration’s policies on torture. He signed a convention against torture, called it abhorrent. Certainly he would be sympathetic to smaller government and lower taxes, but the ugliness and the venom directed at President Obama would also shock him. He would be deeply saddened by the obstructionism of the GOP today—and certainly the recent Republican effort to dismantle the arms-control treaty he worked so hard for.
Your father’s optimism seems to have fallen out of politics—that whole sense that it’s morning in America.
Yes, the whole idea that we’re here to advance the interests of the nation is gone. It’s all about money and power now, which add up to the same thing in Washington, D.C. There’s no overarching vision about what’s good for the country, and by extension, for the world. And the tone has changed. My mother caught hell for ordering new china for the White House, whereas Hillary Clinton was accused of murdering someone. It’s only a matter of time before Michelle Obama is accused of some heinous crime. That’s how they play the game. It gets personal, and it gets ugly.
Now that you’ve got this one done, are you working on another book?
I enjoyed the process of writing—the topic, too, but enjoyed being the master of my day. It was hard work, though. I mean, I was a ballet dancer, so I’m used to pain and injury—but I was just crippled after sitting at the keyboard all day. My shoulders still aren’t right.
But yes, I’ve thought about a few things. I don’t want to talk too much about it, since I haven’t settled on what the next book is, but I definitely want to write another one.
My Father at 100
Viking / Jan. 18, 2011 / 9780670022595 / $25.95