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Ronald Reagan Centennial

Ronald Reagan's Children Disagree on His Alzheimer's, His Legacy and the GOP

3 years ago
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Ronald Reagan may have been hailed by admirers for such achievements as helping to end Communism and pulling the country out of its economic and psychic malaise.

But "Father Knows Best" he wasn't. Having graduated from Hollywood movies and lucrative TV work to the governorship of California and the U.S. presidency, the one big thing that eluded him was a happy, cohesive family with four children from two marriages.

Indeed, the last time Ronald Reagan's two surviving sons and a daughter were in the same room was for the reading of their father's will, after his death in 2004 at age 93. They are not what you'd call close.

In pre-taped interviews to mark the 37th president's 100th birthday on Feb. 6, the three disagreed about the onset of Reagan's Alzheimer's disease and whether he'd feel at home in today's Republican Party.

The younger son, Ron, 52, recently caused a firestorm with "My Father at 100," in which he wrote that Reagan may have shown early signs of Alzheimer's in the '80s while still president. A public announcement did not come until 1994, five years after he left the White House.

"I don't diagnose him with Alzheimer's in office," Reagan said on "This Week With Christiane Amanpour," set to air Sunday. "I simply say that at moments, I saw little flickers of things which -- and I don't even say this in the book, but I'll say it to you -- that, in retrospect, you might wonder whether or not that was, you know, the first glimmers of this condition that would eventually kill him and he would be diagnosed, you know, shortly after leaving office," he said, according to ABC excerpts released Friday.

Not surprisingly, Ron Reagan's two siblings parted company on the broaching of this sensitive subject.

"I think it's unfortunate that the topic of when my father exhibited signs of Alzheimer's was introduced at this time," said older sister Patti Davis, 58, who uses the maiden name of their mother, Nancy Reagan. Although Davis had been the most rebellious of the three kids -- she was vocally pro-choice, anti-nuke and even posed nude for Playboy -- she also wrote a loving book about her father's struggle with Alzheimer's in 2004 called "The Long Goodbye."

Michael Reagan, 65, the adopted son of Ronald Reagan and his first wife, Oscar-winning actress Jane Wyman, has been trashing his half-brother over the Alzheimer's assertion for the past two weeks. As the most politically conservative of the three offspring, he blamed Ron's liberal politics and his desire to sell books.

"I was outraged by it. Absolutely outraged, you know, that he would put that in there because -- because again -- and maybe it's because Ron comes from the left. Maybe this is Ron's way of -- of putting together the fact he didn't agree with his father's politics," Michael told Amanpour.
"And so if he can just put in his own mind my dad must have been ill with Alzheimer's, somehow Ron can forgive my father for all the things he did as president of the United States of America because Ron agreed with none of it."

Michael, a former conservative radio talk show host who told me he hopes to become a political consultant, also assailed many of today's conservatives who wrap themselves in the Reagan mantle.

"There's a lot of people that try to redefine my father in their own image and likeness. And I think that, in fact, they do a disservice. You have these people running for president or want to be president of the United States, trying to literally play their own role of a lifetime and make people believe they are the next Ronald Reagan," he told Amanpour. "And you know something? There was only one Ronald Reagan, thank God. And he was my father."

Davis said she thinks her father "would be amused and puzzled at people trying to imitate him, because he never imitated anybody. I mean, he was consummately his own person."

When Amanpour asked Ron Reagan how his father would fit in with today's GOP, the answer was, "Rather uneasily. After all, he did raise taxes. He cut taxes, but then he raised taxes when he was president. The deficit certainly grew under his administration. He would blame the Democrats for that, of course, but nevertheless, it did grow. When he was governor of California, he signed into law one of the most liberal abortion policies in the country and also an amnesty program for illegal immigrants. So I'm not sure that today's Republican Party or Tea Party would be all that thrilled with him."

Once again, Michael Reagan begged to differ with Ron. "He would have endorsed the Tea Party, what they're doing, and the fact is Ronald Reagan was the original Tea Party," he told Amanpour. President Reagan "understood that the electorate lived in the grassroots of this country. And it was grassroots America that supported Ronald Reagan back in 1980. That's why he became the president of the United States of America."

The sibling divisions on "This Week" were almost predictable.

"For a blended family, there was nothing blended about us," Michael told me in a recent interview. "My dad was the glue who held his family together and that glue is gone."

These days, Michael, the most conventionally religious of the three, runs a Reagan legacy empire extending from California to Berlin. He, too, has a book to peddle, to coincide with his father's centennial: "The New Reagan Revolution: How Ronald Reagan's Principles Can Restore America's Greatness."

But it was Michael's earlier book, "Twice Adopted," that tells the story of a lonely little boy who found out from schoolyard bullies he was adopted, and who at age 6 was sent off to boarding school during the week so his mother could rehearse for movies. When his parents divorced, he was grateful for twice-monthly weekend visits with his father, but things changed when the elder Reagan married actress Nancy Davis. Although he lived for a time with his father and stepmother, he said he never felt like he fit with this new family. He also writes of being molested while in school.

In later years, however, Michael told me he was able to share his deep faith with the elder Reagan, who was troubled that Ron referred to himself as an atheist. The second adoption in the book title refers to Michael's religious awakening.

The most politically active of the children was Maureen, Ronald Reagan's firstborn with Wyman.
She died in 2001 of cancer at the age 60, three years before her dad.

Maureen twice ran for office in California -- losing her bid for the U.S. Senate in 1982 and a House run 10 years later. With her father in the White House, however, she was able to channel her energy elsewhere, serving four years as the co-chair of the Republican National Committee, and leading a U.N. delegation on the status of women to Kenya.

But at the end of the day, the most cohesive unit within the extended Reagan clan had just two members: Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

In her 2009 book, "The Lives Our Mothers Leave Us," Patti Davis says ruefully of the woman with whom she has finally made peace: "She was one half of a starlit relationship that seemed to exist in its own galaxy. My parents were fused together -- hearts, souls, minds. They loved us -- my younger brother and me -- but when they looked at each other, the rest of the world fell away."

Full Reagan Centennial Coverage

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