Before Ron Reagan's memoir, My Father at 100, was even published, right-wing commentators local and national (including his own half brother, Michael Reagan) were attacking the author for sullying his father's memory — some of them using language that President Ronald Reagan himself would never have used in public. (Whatever your opinion of Reagan's politics, he was a firm believer in civil discourse. Even when he was calling out the Soviets, it was, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.")
Most of Ron Reagan's early attackers hadn't read his book, and, as usually happens when people judge a book they haven't read, they only made themselves look foolish. Despite Ron Reagan's longtime liberal politics, My Father at 100 is not an attack, personal or political, on his father.
Instead, it is a son's insightful look back, at his own midlife (Reagan is 52), at his relationship with his father and, most important, at his father's past.
It's not uncommon for adult children to develop an interest in their parents' childhoods and their family tree; a whole genealogy industry is built upon such curiosity. Reagan based his book on the same urge, with a few differences. For one thing, he acknowledges, he is "a very fortunate and pampered archaeologist. Many folks these days are exploring their family histories; not many have an entire research facility (the Reagan Presidential Library) eagerly helping with the effort."
Another difference is that, while all of us, as young people, go through a sometimes painful process of forming our own identities separate from our parents, Ron Reagan did so under highly unusual circumstances — few fathers throw a bigger shadow than the man in the White House.
Reagan remembers his father, and his childhood, with great warmth without painting either one as perfect. He casts the book as his journey to try to understand a father he loved and felt loved by in return, yet whom he never felt he really knew.
He is also struck by how enormously the nation changed in his father's lifetime. Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the former president, who was born in a world where he was awakened by the stamping of horses' hooves in the streets below the family's apartment in Tampico, Ill. — an apartment with no electric lighting or indoor plumbing.
Reagan believes that vanished world shaped his father, and so he goes in search of it in the records and on the ground. He reaches as far back as his great-great-great-grandfather, Thomas O'Reagan, a potato farmer born, probably in 1783, in County Tipperary, Ireland. Reagan visits the area where the family lived when Thomas' son Michael, fleeing the devastation of the Irish Potato Famine, emigrated to London and then to Illinois.
He traces the generations of Reagans (they dropped the "O," as many Irish immigrants did) to his grandfather, Jack Reagan, who was orphaned at 6 and grew up to be a striving, restless, hard-drinking salesman. Jack married an Illinois farm girl named Nelle Wilson, strong-willed, devout, fond of acting in amateur theatricals and, like Jack, politically progressive. She bore him two sons, Neil, nicknamed "Moon," and Ronald Wilson Reagan, whom she pronounced, despite the 24 hours of labor it took to deliver the 10-pound boy, "perfectly wonderful."
The author finds much to illuminate his father's character in the doting mother he adored in turn — and in the fractious relationship he had with Jack. Ronald Reagan's twin youthful passions for football (at which he was passable but not great) and acting (at which he was good enough to make his first career) explain more.
But his son finds the best gloss for his father's character in his job, during high school and college, as a lifeguard at a park on the Rock River, where he was legendary for saving 77 swimmers. It was a job that played not only to his athletic strengths and his taste for solitary reflection but to his lifelong desire to do something meaningful: "Real heroes didn't waste time showing off; they rose to challenges confronting them. . . . By hurling himself into the river to save the lives of drowning strangers, he was not only proving his worth, he was setting the world aright."
Ron Reagan is an engaging writer (he has written for Esquire, the New Yorker, Playboy and other publications) and shares his father's ingratiating ability to make fun of himself. He focuses most on his father's youth and on vignettes from their family life together when Ron was a youngster, avoiding most criticism of his father's politics.
That's not to say he doesn't bear some personal wounds. Looking at his father's grades from tiny Eureka College (the future president made a C in American history and a D in a course called "Life of Christ"), Ron recalls a letter his father wrote scolding him for a similar report card while he was in high school: "Tell you what: I'll trade you my D in algebra for your D in American lit. Or did your D represent your 'absolute best effort'? I'm just saying a little perspective might have been in order." Almost four decades later, a father's words can still sting.
Much of the right-wing criticism of this book has concerned Reagan's raising the question of whether his father, who died of Alzheimer's disease in 2004, might have had the disease before he left office in 1989. He relates that the former president suffered a head injury in a horseback riding accident in Mexico later that year, and that doctors who opened his skull to relieve pressure on his brain found physical signs of Alzheimer's. Testing a year later at the Mayo Clinic confirmed it, but Nancy Reagan made the decision — with which her son agrees — not to tell her husband until four years later, when the symptoms became too obvious to ignore.
Ron does not claim his father suffered dementia while in office; he only wonders whether some events, like the president's poor performance in the first 1984 debate, that others attributed simply to Reagan's age — he was the oldest president — might have been early warning signs.
"Does this delegitimize his presidency?" Reagan asks. "Only to the extent that President Kennedy's Addison's disease or Lincoln's clinical depression undermine theirs. Better, it seems to me, to judge our presidents by what they actually accomplish than what hidden factors may be weighing on them."
He describes his father's last years with compassion and grace, mourning his losses of pleasures, like riding, and connections — eventually, he didn't recognize his son — without any ugly details. And he recounts Reagan's death with love and dignity.
My Father at 100 is about making peace, not attacking. It's just as unwise to judge a book by its cover as it is to judge anyone — right, left or otherwise — by his politics alone.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.