Two books by Ronald Reagan's sons

By Doug Wead
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 28, 2011; 3:05 PM


A Memoir

By Ron Reagan

Viking. 228 pp. $25.95


How Ronald Reagan's Principles Can Restore America's Greatness

By Michael Reagan with Jim Denney

Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's.

369 pp. $25.99

Two Reagan books, by two Reagan sons, arriving in bookstores at the same time? You just had to know there would be fireworks.

"My Father at 100," written by Ron Reagan, may be the most intimate and revealing work yet about the former president. Second only to the former first lady in his nearness to the subject, son Ron playfully relives his impish, childish provocations of his famous father: "Nobody can muddy a hero's cape as casually as an insolent teenager." The resulting reactions are lively, driving the guileless, calm father to the verge of fisticuffs. Elsewhere Ron Reagan captures his father's hapless intellectual attempt to justify the early American war against the Indians.

Ron Reagan's narrative, focusing mainly on the president's early years in life, starts slow and is sometimes cumbersome. But the book grows on you, page by page, or I should say that Ron's sarcasm and ability to invoke nostalgia grow on you, and they eventually seduce. You'll want to stay with this story because it finishes with a flourish, offering a first-person view of some of the most dramatic moments in the life of our 40th president. Here is information that historians will find nowhere else.

The chaotic scene at George Washington University Hospital, just after the 1981 assassination attempt, is an example. At the time, carefully crafted White House stories, replete with one-liners, reassured the public, but the view from a son is altogether different. At one point a panicky President Reagan writes a short note: "I CAN'T BREATHE!" Ron leans over the bed. "It's okay, Dad. You're going to be okay. You've got a tube in your throat. It's like scuba diving. Just let the machine breathe for you."

Ideologues who have been angered by potshots coming from his adopted half-brother, Michael, will be surprised by the deep love the liberal son had for his conservative father. And even now, he respects the late president's political views and decides, in this book, at least, to let old arguments lie. "I argued plenty with my father while he was alive. I have no intention of picking a fight with him now that he is gone and can't defend himself."

Meanwhile, "The New Reagan Revolution," by Michael Reagan, is the quintessential version of "what would Reagan do." It offers a behind-the-scenes, first-person account of Ronald Reagan's dramatic rise to power, loaded with personal vignettes.

Michael Reagan attempts, rather successfully, to fit today's issues into the political template of yesterday's conservative leader, but his greater focus is on the basics, the principles that guided the president, like fixed stars in the firmament. Michael writes that no new issues or events make those basics any less true or relevant today.

Grief counselors warn that survivors of the death of a parent will often turn on each other during the grieving process. And the arrival of these two books, from a liberal Reagan and a conservative one, both on book tours at the same time, has led to a public spat. Michael is appalled at Ron's suggestion that their father's Alzheimer's may have been affecting him even while he served as president. He has been wondering aloud what Nancy, Ron's mother, is thinking. This attempt to pit the mother against the son reveals the fragility in this family; one doubts that it would have happened if the father's image as a capable leader were not at stake.

Ron, for his part, flaunts his intimacy with his dad. "Unlike my siblings - taking their memoirs at face value - I never felt particularly deprived of my father's company," he writes. Michael counters with a story of a family dinner, when the president put his hand on Michael's and said that he hoped someday Ron would become a Christian "like you and me." Michael tells of being thrown by his father into a swimming pool to learn how to swim - or sink - on his own. Great tactic, Michael concludes, but one has to wonder. And Ron constantly tries to bridge the gulf between his father and the left by describing gently how his father had "difficulty extending his sympathies to abstract classes of people. An obliviousness that was, understandably, taken for callousness."

Most sons are on a lifelong journey in search of the approval of their father. Long after those fathers are gone, the journey continues. And sometimes that process becomes more creative when the father is not there to contradict the conclusions. The only thing different about the process in this family is that the father is a national icon. A process that is normally dignified by privacy is now open to the world. The result? Two books, two views, with much more in common than either author might imagine.

Doug Wead is an author and historian who served in the White House of George H. W. Bush. He is currently writing the last volume in his trilogy about the American presidency.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company