With controversial memoir, Ron Reagan still deviating from family mold

SEATTLE -- Up on the ridge in the little Craftsman-style bungalow, tucked among the Buddha statues on the mantel, there's an old Meerschaum pipe. The stem snapped in half years ago, and its case is worn, but it still exudes a kind of fusty dignity.

"That was my dad's," Ron Reagan says.

Gallery

GoingOut Guide
Looking for things to do?
Select one or more criteria to search
Get ideas

He turns it in his hand, lost in thought for a moment. Then he smiles, looking at peace with a memory.

As totems of world leaders go, the pipe is about as low-key as it gets. No photos of Dad hang on the walls here. There isn't a single image visible of Dutch, the Gipper, the Great Communicator. Ronald Reagan's youngest son - he's not a "junior" because his middle name, Prescott, is different than his dad's, Wilson - isn't a gatherer of relics.

The son, now 52, can't muster enthusiasm for present-day Reagan worship, either. He disdains the communal gushing and deifying, "the fetishistic veneration," while nurturing a private, though complicated, affection. Ron's mother, Nancy Reagan, is always after him to attend this or that commemoration or unveiling. He always has the same reaction: "Oh, no. Not another aircraft carrier. Not another bridge. Not another highway!"

In the national dysfunctional family that is the Reagan clan, Ron might be the most ephemeral. The others chose highly public proximity - either through emulation (Michael channels the father's politics on radio and in books, and Maureen, now deceased, tried briefly and unsuccessfully to follow him into elected office) or confrontation (Patti bared family secrets in a memoir and thinly veiled novels and bared herself in Playboy).

Each child has reminisced controversially in print. (Ron and Patti, who uses her mother's maiden name, Davis, are the children of Ronald Reagan and his second wife, Nancy; Maureen was the daughter of Ronald Reagan and his first wife, the film star Jane Wyman. Michael, 65, was adopted by Reagan and Wyman.) But Ron refrained from memoir-writing for decades, and he removed himself physically, straying far from the touchstone locales of Reagan legend - Washington, Sacramento, Southern California - in favor of the Pacific Northwest. Like his sister Patti, he strayed politically, too, espousing a liberal mindset that was the antithesis of the standard set by his parents.

But eventually all Reagans, it seems, are destined to make news writing about their father - and Ron, who had been reluctant to add to what he dismissingly calls "the pile" of memoirs, has finally succumbed. In six months of hurried work, the youngest child has produced a pensive and mostly tenderhearted reflection - "My Father at 100: A Memoir" - that commemorates the centennial of Reagan's birth. If he was ever going to write about life with his father, he thought, the centennial would be the proper moment.

He makes little attempt to place his father in context as a world leader, but he does reveal a son trying to understand an unknowable patriarch and to process a relationship that existed in a universe parallel to and distinct from his father's public life. The bulk of Ron's book concentrates on his father's formative years, but much of that is known and will probably be ignored. Instead, most of the attention the book is generating centers on a small segment that makes a controversial assertion: that Ronald Reagan suffered from the early effects of undiagnosed Alzheimer's during his second term as president. If the disease had been detected, the only responsible thing to do would have been to resign, the son reasons.

"He deserves better and the country deserves better - to have a fully functioning president. If you're not quite right maybe you shouldn't be in that position," Ron says. "I wasn't worried that he was going to walk into the White House and launch a nuclear attack because he thought he was turning the TV on. But the Alzheimer's disease might have exacerbated tendencies he had, anyway, to trust his aides too much, to not ask enough questions. I'm thinking of Iran-contra."

Reaganites and Reagan watchers are reacting with varying levels of disbelief and rage. Edmund Morris, the biographer, says in an interview that he doubts the claim in part because Reagan's daily diaries are as "clearly expressed and well-written" at the end of his presidency as at the beginning.

"I never saw any signs of dementia. What I did see was a very old man and a very tired man," Morris says.

Ron's brother, Michael Reagan, doubts their father was suffering from Alzheimer's while in office. "Maybe he was just trying to forget Ron," he cracks in an interview.

Edwin Meese, a longtime confidant who served as Reagan's attorney general from 1985 to 1988, accuses Ron of "a cheap trick to sell books." The former president underwent extensive annual medical exams in which doctors "were particularly careful to do all kinds of tests about his memory and his mental condition, particularly looking for any signs of deterioration of his mental condition," Meese says in an interview.

And so it goes in the realm of Reagan, where there is always a tug of war for possession, the right to define. It is the eternal struggle of presidential families, who by definition cede control of their identities to the more aspirational concept of a national family. In Reagan's case, others claim his mantle, whether they be politicians who invoke his name and legacy or commentators who claim to understand him: His stature has never been greater. But now Ron, the detached son, wants his say, too.

A couple, going steady

"I'm gay and I'm rich," Ron says in exaggerated, mock news anchor voice. "Ron Reagan - rich gay man unaccountably married to the same woman for 30 years."

Now he's smiling. The joke's on everyone who created myths about this presidential son, who put him in a box of rumors and stereotypes that grew and perpetuated themselves. Of course he was gay, people thought. He was svelte and - heavens! - a ballet dancer, performing with the Joffrey Ballet. There were snickers from the right, but the pressure came from the left; Larry Kramer, one of the earliest and most prominent AIDS activists, was one of the louder voices, saying publicly that Ron was gay. The narrative fit neatly into the political climate in the early days of the AIDS crisis: The Reagan administration was slow to react to the deadly disease, and the president's son was closeted.

Over the years, Ron has developed a standard response about his sexuality. It goes like this: "To me it's a little like someone claiming I'm Chinese," he says calmly, repeating - almost verbatim - what he has said many times before. "It's not pejorative. It's just incorrect."

The chatter, he says, didn't bother him personally - "I actually was amused by it." But he did chafe at the suggestion that his marriage to Doria Palmieri was a sham.

The couple, who met at a Los Angeles dance studio, married Nov. 24, 1980 - 20 days after Ron's father was elected the 40th president of the United States. They didn't tell his parents in advance, who at the time weren't fans of Doria, who is seven years older than Ron. They were suspicious of her motives. (Later, their relationship with his parents would improve, Ron says.) Ron and Doria slipped into a judge's office in New York, planning to pick up a marriage license, but the judge suggested he marry them on the spot to avoid a media frenzy. The Secret Service agent assigned to guard them served as witness.

They thought they'd pulled off a quiet wedding but emerged to discover photographers waiting outside. They suspect the photographers were tipped by a Reagan staffer who was paid for the information. His parents were "a little nose out of joint," he says.

The marriage survived the presidential years and the lean ballet years, too - he earned just $11,000 a year as a performer. Fed up with Los Angeles - a place they considered vapid- they settled into the bungalow in Seattle 16 years ago. They paid about $250,000, which was "a stretch" for them, Ron says. The couple have no children but share the home with three cats: Howdy, Binky and Arturo. They park their Subaru Outback in the driveway because the garage is stuffed to the ceiling with "detritus," as Ron puts it: portable closets, a canoe, a punching bag.

"People think because your father was president of the United States you must be rich," Ron says. "As it turns out, that's not true." Howdy interrupts the conversation periodically by leaping onto a side table to nibble at a plate of Doria's homemade sugar cookies. Ron, who does a spot-on impression of his father's voice, switches to a cootchie-cootchie-coo-tickle-the-baby voice when he addresses Howdy.

"You've already eaten," Ron coos. "You've already had two breakfasts today."

Later, Ron pulls the Subaru out of the driveway and eases down the ridge into the city. "Such a shame it's cloudy today, you can't see Mount Rainier," he says. "It's beautiful here."

He wends his way to a University of Washington hospital, where Doria, a psychologist, is undergoing treatments for a mysterious degenerative ailment that first hit several years ago. Ron emerges from the hospital holding Doria's left arm while she leans heavily against a crutch in her right hand. They inch forward slowly.

"I'm rushing!" Doria says, smiling gamely. "This is me rushing!"

Later, at Serious Pie - a favorite lunch spot - the couple hold hands while laughing about the perception that they're well-heeled.

He assumes there might have been "all sorts of clever ways to cash in" on his father's notoriety over the years. But none appealed. When I tell him that publishing sources think his book could be a big seller, he seems surprised.

They argue their worries are not unlike the average American's. Although Doria is working, Ron isn't employed these days. He worked as a television political commentator and radio host, but his show on Air America, on which he tended toward liberal flame-throwing, ended a year ago amid the talk radio network's bankruptcy. The couple were relying on his union health insurance. But now that he's got no gig, the insurance expires in a few months. He's not sure what they'll do then.

Reflections, and reality

Ron thought he could rediscover his father by investigating the former president's roots, glean something about this man who could be so engaging but often seemed remote. "Oblivious, but not uncaring," as Ron put it, a man who "sometimes seemed more comfortable in front of a crowd of total strangers than he did sitting at the dinner table with us."

It's a quest the son undertakes, in part, because there were so many blind spots in his understanding of his father. Ron learns of one of his dad's earliest memories - being trapped in an overturned car - not during a father-son chat, but by reading Morris's authorized biography. "Reflecting on that, I try not to feel like a kid who hasn't been invited to a birthday party," he writes. "After all, I never asked Dad to dredge up his primal recollections."

Ron looks for clues in photos, though seeing his father as an infant is "slightly unnerving."

"In a rush of tenderness," Ron writes, "I want to catch him up in my arms and place him somewhere safe, beyond anger and disappointment. Can't we banish everything but kindness and grace from this child's life? It is a feeling I recognize from his last years, watching him as he spiraled toward a state not unlike infancy."

In the small Illinois towns where his father was born and raised, Ron pieces together a broader picture of the former president while looking askance at some of "the established lore," especially the notion that Ronald Reagan rose from poverty. Ronald Reagan "furthered that impression," but the truth, Ron writes, is that the "Reagans never counted themselves among the poor."

Much also has been made of Ronald Reagan's father, Jack Reagan, drinking to excess, but Ron concludes there's no evidence he was an alcoholic. And Ron finds none that his grandfather was abusive. Ron claims that a story Ronald Reagan told about being "clobbered" by his father was hyperbolic - "Hitting kids, I'm happy to report, simply doesn't seem to be in the Reagans' DNA," Ron writes. "It certainly wasn't in my father's repertoire."

The frequent feuding between Ron's grandfather and his grandmother, Nelle, may have left a lasting impression on his father, Ron surmises. "It is tempting to suppose that Dad's avoidance of interpersonal conflict later in life stemmed from those anxious nights spent curled under his bedcovers, trying to drown out the angry altercations with a more soothing refrain only he could hear. It may have been during those moments as well that he began developing his preternatural talent for excising unpleasantness from his picture of reality - or replacing that reality altogether with a more uplifting version concocted in his head."

Dissimilar siblings

Ron was 7 when his father decided to run for governor. Their lives were invaded by consultants and strategists - "suspiciously pallid 'indoor people' " - and Ron realized "they became necessary to [his father] in ways I couldn't match."

But the son and father still found a way to bond over sports and other outdoor activities. For Ron, ballet would become his physical activity of choice; he thrilled at the grace and power of the Nureyevs of the world and found delight "in the shapes" he could make out of his own body.

As the White House's so-called "First Ballet Dancer," he was a natural choice for a "Saturday Night Live" skit that called for dancing and scanty costuming. In 1986, during his father's second term in office, Ron accepted an invitation to host the show and to spoof the famous scene from the film "Risky Business" in which Tom Cruise dances in his underwear. During rehearsals, Ron recalls in the interview at his Seattle home, the staff asked him to wear two pairs of Jockey shorts, just "to make sure things stay put." But once he got going, the NBC folks concluded there was still "a little too much of me there." Their solution: He wore three pairs of underwear.

The cultural reference in the skit was lost on his parents. They "had no clue what I was doing - 'Why am I in my underwear? What does it all mean?' " Ron recalls.

By then, it was well-established that Ron was not going to be the politically engaged son. Michael bounced across the country campaigning for his father, but Ron mostly stayed away. "What am I going to say?" Ron recalls thinking. "I can't support all the policies. [Reagan's Interior Secretary] James Watt? What am I going to say about him, other than you gotta get rid of this loser?"

Ron says if Ronald Reagan hadn't been his father, he would have voted for Walter Mondale in the 1984 presidential election. Michael Reagan says he and his sister, Maureen, had a ritual before every campaign: They would flip a coin to decide which of their votes for their father would cancel out Ron's vote for the opponent and which of their votes would cancel out Patti's. It was a tongue-in-cheek rite - they never knew how their siblings voted, but it spoke volumes about the expectations they had for their liberal siblings.

Maureen was furious once when she had to fly across the country on a moment's notice to attend a fundraiser in New York, Michael recalls in an interview. She was mad because the fundraiser was directly across the street from Ron's apartment, but there was no way he was going to attend.

Ron says he disagreed with his father on numerous political issues, though he felt his father "meant well." The biggest point of contention was over Ron's belief that the administration did not protect the environment. Once, he was horseback riding with his father at Camp David. They came upon some fallen tree limbs and brambles. His father, the former actor, turned and said, "That may be nature to some people, but I think we can do better."

Their greatest philosophical difference centered on religion. His father was a Christian; Ron was (and remains) an atheist. His father worried that "I was somehow ruining my life, I'd find life to be this horrible abyss of despair," Ron says. Michael Reagan recalls sitting with his father once in the late 1980s when Ronald Reagan "reached over and grabbed my hand and said, 'I wish Ron would accept Christ and be a Christian like you and I.' "

Michael is also coming out with a new book timed to the centennial: "The New Reagan Revolution: How Ronald Reagan's Principles Can Restore America's Greatness." Among Michael's many Reagan-related enterprises is a company that sells e-mail addresses with the host name @Reagan.com for as much as $39 a year; the proceeds support conservative causes. He says he's sold between 4,000 and 5,000.

Ron has no such projects planned. He'll promote his book, then - well - who knows? "I'm still asking myself the question," he says, "about what I want to be when I grow up."

More books content

Show more
 
Read what others are saying

    National Book Festival moves inside