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Ronald Reagan, the politician, has been enshrined as a heroic visionary by the right, celebrated for ending the Cold War and reducing the size of government, and invoked as a touchstone for all things conservative. At the same time, he's been caricatured by the left as the dunderheaded godfather of a red-state America, promoting lower taxes for the rich, higher deficits and a more fragile social safety net.
Ronald Reagan, the man, has meanwhile eluded capture, described over the years in an assortment of metaphors and images that make him out to be more symbol than human being: "the perfect Scout," a "Doctor Feelgood" and an "amiable dunce." His official biographer, Edmund Morris, was so perplexed by his subject's opacity and contradictions that he abandoned his efforts to write a serious work of history and instead produced "Dutch" (Random House, 1999), a cringe-making hodgepodge of fact and fiction, narrated by an imaginary alter ego.
Now, on the occasion of what would have been the former president's 100th birthday, his youngest son, Ron Reagan, has written a deeply felt memoir — a memoir that underscores the bafflement his own children often felt about their father, a man the younger Reagan describes as an inscrutable, "paradoxical character," ''warm yet remote," ''affable as they come" but with "virtually no close friends besides his wife," a man who "thrived on public display yet remained intensely private."
''His children, if they were being honest," Reagan writes in "My Father at 100," ''would agree that he was as strange a fellow as any of us had ever met. Not darkly strange, mind you. In fact, he was so naturally sunny, so utterly without guile, so devoid of cynicism or pettiness as to create for himself a whole new category of strangeness. He was, in some respects, too good — like a visitor from an enchanted realm where they'd never even consider inventing a Double Down sandwich or credit default swaps. I often felt I had to check my natural sarcasm and sense of absurdity at the door for fear of inducing in him a fit of psychological disequilibrium."
Though the younger Reagan — an avowed atheist with decidedly liberal leanings — would have philosophical arguments with his father over the years, their difficulties had nothing to do with politics but with emotional connection. The author says he never felt that his father didn't love or care for him but that he often seemed to be "wandering somewhere in his own head."
''Occasionally," Reagan writes, "he seemed to need reminding about basic aspects of my life — like birthdays, who my friends were or how I was doing in school. I could share an hour of warm camaraderie with Dad, then once I'd walked out the door, get the uncanny feeling I'd disappeared into the wings of his mind's stage, like a character no longer necessary to the ongoing story line."
This suspicion that he was not central to his father's daily existence, that his father's inner life was both elusive and impregnable lends a wistful tone to the memoir. Ron Reagan, who writes in charming, lucid prose, clearly wants to try to know his father, and his travels to the small Midwestern towns where his dad grew up become a Telemachus-like search for understanding as he deconstructs the former president's earliest dreams and ambitions and his relationships with his parents, his brother and his classmates. These chapters of the book have the emotional detail and heartfelt power of recent classics of filial devotion like Martin Amis' "Experience" and Philip Roth's "Patrimony."They are testaments both to the author's deep, protective love for his father and to his puzzlement over his father's deeply solitary nature and frequent obliviousness to people around him.
Unfortunately for the reader, the later chapters in the book are considerably more cursory, hopping and skipping oddly through Ronald Reagan's adult life, as if running out of time or space. Reagan discusses how his father's dreams of glory and valor were shaped by the movies — especially by westerns featuring "a lone hero saving the day" — but he spends very little time examining his father's time in Hollywood and how his experiences there informed his gifts as a politician. He is similarly casual about his father's tenure as governor of California and as president, giving us a handful of personal anecdotes but appreciably little insight into how Ronald Reagan's political thinking evolved or how his time in office shaped or reshaped his apprehension of the world.
The most revealing passages on the Reagan presidency — which have already made headlines— concern the author's suggestion that his father had possibly begun to experience the beginning stages of Alzheimer's disease while in office. Ron Reagan writes that his father "might himself have suspected that all was not as it should be. As far back as August 1986 he had been alarmed to discover, while flying over the familiar canyons north of Los Angeles, that he could no longer summon their names."
The younger Reagan also writes that he became so distressed about his father's state of mind during the Iran-contra scandal — he describes him as "lost in a fog of depression and denial" — that he urged him over dinner to take more forceful action, while his mother, Nancy, sat by "in silent assent."
Though his father had received the Tower report on the scandal a couple of days earlier, his son thought he "seemed woefully behind the curve, if not out of the loop altogether. He needed to own up to what he'd obviously approved (arms for hostages) and to make it clear that those who took part in the other part of the scheme (funds to the contras) would be prosecuted. I had come to the conclusion that a little tough love from his youngest might encourage him in the right direction."
Given his father's legendary "powers of denial" and his own guileless nature, Ron Reagan adds, the Iran-contra affair — with "its shady characters with murky motives, its architecture of internal betrayal" — would, in any case, have been "a perfect example of the sort of mess Dad was ill suited, at any age, in any condition, to anticipate, head off, or reckon with once it blew up in his face."
From where did Ronald Reagan's "preternatural talent for excising unpleasantness from his picture of reality" stem? What accounted for the firm boundaries of his "internal construct of the world"? Ron Reagan traces it all back to the former president's childhood, when he coped with his own father's episodes of drunkenness, his parents' tension-filled marriage and his mother's near death from the influenza epidemic of 1918 by developing a deep-seated rage for order and routine, and a penchant for retreating to a private realm of the imagination — "burrowing under the covers and into the fantasies of Edgar Rice Burroughs." Later his job as a lifeguard would heighten his sense of solitary watchfulness, as well as shape his notions of heroism and ambition.
In these pages Ron Reagan reminds us that his father grew up in a small-town America vastly different from our own — "the shootout at the OK Corral was barely as distant" from his birth as "Ronald Reagan's first inaugural is from us today." He also argues that America and his father's temperament would indelibly mold the narrative Ronald Reagan would write (and edit and polish) for himself in which he always played the same role: "the loner, compassionate yet detached, who rides to the rescue in Reel 3" — a version of the role of heroic lifeguard he really played as a teenager, when he rescued an astonishing 77 people over the course of seven summers.
''My father didn't create his personal narrative to put one over on anyone," Ron Reagan writes. "On the contrary, with its creation, he was forming a template for his life. He wanted to be seen — he wanted to truly be — an estimable individual who made his way through life as a positive force in the world, a man people would admire for all the right reasons." Keeping the "primary themes" of that story "intact and inviolate" was not a future president's political act of willpower or spin but "an endeavor of existential import" for a boy grappling with "the depredations of an intrusive, ambiguous and contradictory world."
'MY FATHER AT 100'
By Ron Reagan
Illustrated. 228 pages. Viking. $25.95.