Rea­gan ri­valry

The Gip­per’s sons fight for his ap­proval in du­el­ing mem­oirs.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - RE­VIEW BY DOUG WEAD Doug Wead is an author and his­to­rian who served in the White House of Ge­orge H.W. Bush. He is writ­ing the last vol­ume in his tril­ogy about the Amer­i­can pres­i­dency. book­world@wash­

MY FA­THER AT 100 A Mem­oir By Ron Rea­gan Vik­ing. 228 pp. $25.95 THE NEW REA­GAN REVO­LU­TION How Ron­ald Rea­gan’s Prin­ci­ples Can Re­store Amer­ica’s Great­ness By Michael Rea­gan with Jim Den­ney Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s. 369 pp. $25.99

Two Rea­gan books, by two Rea­gan sons, ar­riv­ing in book­stores at the same time? You just had to know there would be fire­works. “My Fa­ther at 100,” writ­ten by Ron Rea­gan, may be the most in­ti­mate and re­veal­ing work yet about the for­mer pres­i­dent. Sec­ond only to the for­mer first lady in his near­ness to the sub­ject, Ron play­fully re­lives his imp­ish, child­ish provo­ca­tions of his fa­mous fa­ther: “No­body can muddy a hero’s cape as ca­su­ally as an in­so­lent teenager.” The re­sult­ing re­ac­tions are lively, driv­ing the guile­less, calm fa­ther to the verge of fisticuffs. Else­where Ron Rea­gan cap­tures his fa­ther’s hap­less in­tel­lec­tual at­tempt to jus­tify the early Amer­i­can war against the In­di­ans.

Ron Rea­gan’s nar­ra­tive, fo­cus­ing mainly on the pres­i­dent’s early years in life, starts slow and is some­times cum­ber­some. But the book grows on you, page by page — or I should say that Ron’s sar­casm and abil­ity to in­voke nostal­gia grow on you, and they even­tu­ally se­duce. You’ll want to stay with this story be­cause it fin­ishes with a flour­ish, of­fer­ing a first-per­son view of some of the most dra­matic mo­ments in the life of our 40th pres­i­dent. Here is in­for­ma­tion that his­to­ri­ans will find nowhere else.

The chaotic scene at Ge­orgeWash­ing­ton Uni­ver­sity Hos­pi­tal just af­ter the 1981 as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempt is an ex­am­ple. At the time, care­fully crafted White House sto­ries, re­plete with one-lin­ers, re­as­sured the pub­lic, but the view from a son is al­to­gether dif­fer­ent. At one point a pan­icky Pres­i­dent Rea­gan writes a short note: “I can’t breathe!” Ron leans over the bed. “It’s okay, Dad. You’re go­ing to be okay. You’ve got a tube in your throat. It’s like scuba div­ing. Just let the ma­chine breathe for you.”

Ide­o­logues who have been an­gered by pot­shots com­ing from his adopted half­brother, Michael, will be sur­prised by the deep love the lib­eral son had for his con­ser­va­tive fa­ther. And even now, he re­spects the late pres­i­dent’s po­lit­i­cal views and de­cides, in this book, at least, to let old ar­gu­ments lie. “I ar­gued plenty withmy fa­ther while he was alive. I have no in­ten­tion of pick­ing a fight with him now that he is gone and can’t de­fend him­self.”

Mean­while, “The New Rea­gan Revo­lu­tion,” by Michael Rea­gan, is the quin­tes­sen­tial ver­sion of “what would Rea­gan do?” It of­fers a be­hind-thescenes, first-per­son ac­count of Ron­ald Rea­gan’s dra­matic rise to power, loaded with per­sonal vi­gnettes.

Michael Rea­gan at­tempts, rather suc­cess­fully, to fit to­day’s is­sues into the po­lit­i­cal tem­plate of yes­ter­day’s con­ser­va­tive leader, but his greater fo­cus is on the ba­sics, the prin­ci­ples that guided the pres­i­dent like fixed stars in the fir­ma­ment. Michael writes that no new is­sues or events make those ba­sics any less true or rel­e­vant to­day.

Grief coun­selors warn that sur­vivors of the death of a par­ent will of­ten turn on each other dur­ing the griev­ing process. And the ar­rival of these two books, from a lib­eral Rea­gan and a con­ser­va­tive one, both on book tours at the same time, has led to a pub­lic spat. Michael is ap­palled at Ron’s sug­ges­tion that their fa­ther’s Alzheimer’s may have af­fected him while he served as pres­i­dent. He has been won­der­ing aloud what Nancy, Ron’s mother, is think­ing. This at­tempt to pit the mother against the son re­veals the fragility in this fam­ily; one doubts that it would have hap­pened if the fa­ther’s im­age as a ca­pa­ble leader were not at stake.

Ron, for his part, flaunts his in­ti­macy with his dad. “Un­like my sib­lings — tak­ing their mem­oirs at face value — I never felt par­tic­u­larly de­prived of my fa­ther’s com­pany,” he writes. Michael coun­ters with a story of a fam­ily din­ner when the pres­i­dent put his hand on Michael’s and said that he hoped some­day Ron would be­come a Chris­tian “ like you and me.” Michael tells of be­ing thrown by his fa­ther into a swim­ming pool to learn how to swim — or sink — on his own. Great tac­tic, Michael con­cludes, but one has to won­der. And Ron con­stantly tries to bridge the gulf be­tween his fa­ther and the left by de­scrib­ing gen­tly how his fa­ther had “dif­fi­culty ex­tend­ing his sym­pa­thies to ab­stract classes of peo­ple. An obliv­i­ous­ness that was, un­der­stand­ably, taken for cal­lous­ness.”

Most sons are on a life­long jour­ney in search of the ap­proval of their fa­ther. Long af­ter those fa­thers are gone, the jour­ney con­tin­ues. And some­times that process be­comes more cre­ative when the fa­ther is not there to con­tra­dict the con­clu­sions. The only thing dif­fer­ent about the process in this fam­ily is that the fa­ther is a na­tional icon. A process that is nor­mally dig­ni­fied by pri­vacy is now open to the world. The re­sult? Two books, two views, with much more in com­mon than ei­ther author might imag­ine.


Ron­ald Rea­gan and his fam­ily join in the ju­bi­la­tion at the 1980 Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion af­ter his ac­cep­tance of the party’s nom­i­na­tion for pres­i­dent. From left: his son Ron and daugh­ter Patti; Nancy Rea­gan; his old­est son, Michael, with grand­son Cameron and daugh­ter-in-law Colleen; and daugh­terMau­reen.

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