Most of the attention Ron Reagan's memoir is generating centers an assertion that his father, President Reagan, suffered from early effects of undiagnosed Alzheimer's during his second term. If it had been detected, the only responsible thing to do would have been to resign, reasons the son, a Seattle resident with markedly different politics.
Up on the ridge in the little Craftsman-style Seattle 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.
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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 from 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). Ron Reagan has appeared on MSNBC and done radio-talk shows.
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 dismissively 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 on Feb. 6. 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, 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.
Rumors on sexuality
“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.
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 the Magnolia neighborhood 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.”
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 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.”