Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this article misquoted Ron Reagan, son of President Ronald Reagan. He referred to Mount Rainier, not Mount Whitney, as a peak that can be seen from Seattle on clear days. This version has been corrected.

With controversial memoir, Ron Reagan still deviating from family mold

Ronald Reagan's youngest son causes a stir with a tenderhearted yet controversial memoir that claims his father suffered from Alzheimer's during his presidency.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 23, 2011; 10:34 PM

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.

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.

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