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“My Father at 100”

Moving account of Ronald Reagan

February 3, 2011
By REGINA M. ANGELI, Books Writer

Ron Reagan has written a personal account of his famous father, "My Father at 100: A Memoir." (Viking Press, 228 pages)

In prose which reflects the senior Reagan's characteristic charm and talent in telling a good story, young Ron writes a very tender and moving account of life in the Reagan home. The author insists this is a personal diary and not a political examination of his father's extraordinary life which spanned nearly a century.

The senior Reagan began in a time that more nearly reflected the 19th Century than the tumultuous 20th Century. The author notes that the Titanic was still in dry dock when his father was born.

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Yet, he points to the signs of changes that would hallmark the past century.

The NAACP was formed in 1909 and the suffragette movement was in full swing by the time the future 40th President was born. When Ronald Wilson Reagan made his entrance on February 6th, 1911, his father Jack thought the ten-pound baby looked like a "Dutchman" hence his nickname "Dutch."

With a son's eye, he examines the forces which formed the man who would champion the cause of freedom in the dark days of the Cold War and, against the advice of his senior advisers, implore Soviet Leader Gorbachev to "tear down this (Berlin) wall," the very symbol of Soviet oppression.

The author recalls a man who was a study in contradictions: he was warm, yet often, remote; a jovial fellow, but essentially a loner who spent much of his life with his wife Nancy as his sole companion.

Although he matured into a handsome Hollywood star, his son reveals that Reagan was a near-sighted, scrawny child and was bullied by older children. It is important to remember that this man who possessed such a commanding presence as an actor and president, had gone through a somewhat awkward stage as a child.

While he would be claimed by many of the so-called religious right, he had liberal views regarding religion which he thought of as a very private matter. His personal convictions stressed praxis over orthodox doctrine and ritual.

As a college freshman, he took part in a student protest on the campus of tiny Eureka College - hardly the image of the man who would symbolize stability and order as the future Governor of California during the heady days of campus unrest!

In the staunchly Republican state of Illinois, the Reagans were Democrats. Reagan's father, Jack, would not allow his family to see D.W. Griffith's epic movie "Birth of a Nation" because of the racist tone in its sympathetic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan.

Some might be surprised to know that Ronald Wilson Reagan briefly flirted with the Communist Party, though while head of the Screen Actors Guild, he would adopt a staunchly anti-Red stance.

With the guidance of his gentle, but strong-willed mother, Nelle, Reagan was determined to better himself. Had the sight of his hard-drinking father, passed out on the front porch one night, seared into his young heart the conviction that he would be a better man, a man of distinction, a man who truly mattered?

Though profoundly self-disciplined and more than a bit "square," the son relates how his father regarded Jack Reagan's alcoholic lapses as symptoms of an illness as opposed to a moral weakness.

All in all, a rather progressive viewpoint.

The key to comprehending the inner man is to recall his experiences as a lifeguard, something which indelibly marked his character. With great sensitivity, young Ron takes the reader through Reagan's first rescue (of many more) at Lowell Park. Throughout his life, Reagan would adopt this role as lifeguard and protector.

But if being a lifeguard helped financially support and mold the young Reagan, football was his first passion, (the others being drama and politics.)

Ironically, football almost ended his amazing ascent, as he toyed with dropping out of Eureka College when he learned he might not make the football team.

To Reagan, football epitomized fair play and teamwork - traits he would carry for life. Sadly, the son relates how football would be the one source of delusions which would afflict his elderly father in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's as he would sometimes insist that he must "suit up" and get ready for the game for the "boys needed him."

(Not to be outdone by his father, Hollywood's Gipper, young Ron relates his own experiences on the gridiron when his posh private school unwisely decided to scrimmage a public school, a team which looked "like some Visigoth horde. Many, if not most, appeared to weigh over 200 pounds.")

There are poignant memories as the son describes the harrowing events surrounding Hinckley's attempted assassination and his father's emotional breakdown during his wife's hospitalization for breast cancer surgery.

He cites that "three years into his first term as president, though, I was feeling the first shivers of concern that something beyond mellowing was affecting my father."

These ominous concerns would intensify in the first dreadful debate with Walter Mondale when President Reagan appeared confused and past his prime. He would bounce back in great fashion in the second debate with that witty ad lib that he would not, "exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."

The dire confirmation of Alzheimer's came barely six months after the President left office. Had he been diagnosed earlier while still in office, the son believes his father would have stepped down.

Does disclosing this diagnosis diminish the Reagan presidency? The son insists that it does not detract from his father's legacy anymore than John F. Kennedy's Addison's disease or Lincoln's depression diminished their accomplishments.

His tenure as president can be summoned up by his role as lifeguard, safeguarding the world from nuclear annihilation and preserving the precious rights of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

In real life, Reagan was a far greater romantic than any of the characters he had played in Hollywood. The son reveals how, early in their marriage, the father had told his mother that she was the "first thing he wanted to see upon waking in each morning and the last thing he ever wanted to see."

Sure enough, on that final afternoon in June, after days in a coma, Ronald Wilson Reagan, opened his eyes one final time, as if searching out his beloved Nancy as she spoke words of love and consolation to her dying husband.

During the state funeral, his father's casket rested on the same catafalque that had borne the body of Abraham Lincoln; how fitting that the same bier that received the liberator of Eastern Europe once held America's Emancipator.

Reagan's son writes of a man who not merely played the part of the quintessential American; he lived the American dream as athlete, actor and politician.

But to his son, Ronald Wilson Reagan, was first and foremost a very gentle and protective, if reserved, husband and father.



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