Ron Reagan on His Father's Legacy

One of the most admired presidents of the 20th century, Reagan has achieved an almost God-like status in today's Republican Party. A few days ago, I talked with his son, Ron Reagan, about his father's legacy.
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Ronald Reagan would have been a hundred years old this week. One of the most admired presidents of the 20th century, Reagan has achieved an almost God-like status in today's Republican Party. A few days ago, I talked with his son, Ron Reagan, about his father's legacy.

What do you want Americans to know about Ronald Reagan? Who was Ronald Reagan?

Well, that's a very good question. Not the 90% of them that everybody saw. We know who that Ronald Reagan is. But, there was a ten percent metaphorically speaking that I address in the book and that I go searching for in My Father at 100. And that was the ten percent that he held very close. It was a very private core of his being. It wasn't anything dark or nefarious, mind you. It was just that he had a very private central core to him that he kept very close. And that was where he harbored for instance his ambition, which he didn't like to admit to very much. He thought that personal ambition was a little unworthy. You did things for other people. Not for yourself. But, nevertheless, you don't get to be president or a well known movie actor by lacking ambition. And he did have that. So, I went looking for that in the book as a way to really humanize him. If there's one thing I suppose that people might take away from this book is that this president and indeed all presidents are really human beings and we need to remember that when we elect them to lead as president.

You are liberal. Your father was not. What was that like growing up? Did you and your father ever get into fights about politics? And how did that work within the family?

We'd have arguments certainly. I remember arguing about the Vietnam War when I was a young teenager. We'd argue about environmental issues. We would argue and strenuously because we both liked a good argument I think and neither one of us were terribly inclined to back down. But, we did so in a spirit of friendship. We didn't walk away from these arguments hating one another. My father used to think that if he had you alone for five minutes he could convince you of his point of view. That the only reason you disagreed with him was because you didn't have the facts. And if he shared them with you well then you would come around to his way of seeing things. And I think it was probably endlessly frustrating for him that it didn't always work with me.

Are there any times where you were able to persuade him on an issue or he was able to persuade you on an issue?

I don't think I was really able to persuade him much on issues. And for the most part, no, I don't think the things we disagreed about we just continued to disagree about. No, I can't come up with one. I can say that my mother and I both began talking to him about the AIDS crisis at a certain point when we realized that the administration just really was kind of dragging its feet on this and ignoring what was going on. So, we talked to him about that and tried to explain how serious this was. Whether that was responsible for the administration kind of getting it together about AIDS, I don't know. But, certainly made the effort.

I know this is one of those theoretical questions. So, you may or may not be able to answer it. But, what would your dad have thought of today's Republican party?

Well, I can't speak for him when it comes to policy or anything like that. I don't know how his thinking would have evolved over the years and decades. The one thing I feel confident about though is he would be very distressed by the level of vitriol now in the political discourse -- the sort of attacks leveled, let's be honest here -- a lot of them at The White House. You know, the birther business and all of that. And calling the President a Marxist and a traitor and all that kind of business. I think he would find that unworthy of our country and unworthy of our political dialogue.

A lot of Republicans like to quote Reagan when they make their case for a certain policy position. They'll claim that their position is one your father would have taken. Does that bother you that they use your father's legacy for political gain?

A lot of these people who are claiming to speak for him never even met him. Take that with a grain of salt. I'm not surprised that they do it. I'm not sure who else Republicans would cite as their touchstone. Not Richard Nixon. Not Herbert Hoover, I don't suppose. So, it's not surprising. At the same time, it's a little foolish. You can't predict how somebody's thinking would have evolved over the years and decades. And so, how can they speak for him? In fact, they can't. They're just using him as a kind of touchstone.

Do you think Republicans ever over-worship your dad? In the sense that there were times and there still are times where I see they almost put him up there as a God-like figure, almost above God.

That's always a mistake no matter who you're talking about. No matter what national leader you're talking about. People aren't Gods. They are human beings. And some things they get right. And some things they get wrong. That's just the way we are as people. Again, I understand it. I understand that they're trying to make use of him. But, it's really kind of a worthless exercise frankly. Because our times are not his times. And his mind would not be the same now as it was then. I'm sure. People change with circumstances.

Ron Reagan is the son of President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan. He is also the author of a new memoir about his dad: My Father At 100.

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