Editor’s note: This comes from the new book, The Reagan I Knew by William F. Buckley, Jr. Excerpted by arrangement with Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2008.
Several published essays on the Reagan children are reproachful in the matter of their upbringing. They were neglected, it is commonly said, because of the absorption of their parents in each other. At a couple of points in the narrative I was involved, firsthand.
Nancy sent Patti to the Orme Boarding School, which one of my nephews attended. Patti was in her teens and rigorously pursued the art of poetry. Her letters to me teemed over with her love for poetry and her ambition to perfect her skills. I found sadnesses that were striking, and youthful melodrama, but a pronouncedly live ear (“. . . and begin again,/ walking/a frayed path/on our circular battleground,/finding nothing/that wasn’t there before. We are rooted/ in this impasse/ secure in battle,/ we cling/ to words/ dripping/ caution”). When, at work on this book, I spoke of her daughter’s poetry, Nancy exclaimed that she hadn’t thought of it for years.
Alongside there is the denial, by no means ambiguous, by Ron Jr. of any interest in religion. He had concluded — at age 12, he told an interviewer a couple of years ago — that the whole exercise was superstitious and useless. From that age on he declined to accompany his family to the Sunday religious services to which they often went.
The withdrawal, by Ron Jr., of any interest in spiritual life illuminates a study of him as well as of his parents. But of course inquiries into parents’ concern for their children’s education are quickly arrested by citing individual inclinations to come up with alembics for their own philosophical system. What efforts were made — if any — to acquaint the boy with the historical and philosophical role of God in history? We do not need to assume that a familiarity with history recalls the Ninety-Five Theses of Luther, or the causes of the Thirty Years’ War. It is popular in quarters of young America to believe that deference to individual religious inclinations eliminates any risk of submitting to indoctrination.
When Ron Jr. went on to reject his father’s political positions, ruing the Reagan presidency, it was not necessarily the result of alienation from the family per se. Weight by the son to his father’s principles is here given, here withheld, after thought is paid to them, cursory or profound, and how they figured in the allegiances of the parent.
Ron Jr.’s exposure to family biases could hardly have been more intense. He was eight when his father was elected governor of California, sixteen when his father left office, and eighteen when he was dispatched to Yale for higher education, a few weeks after his father had failed to wrest the nomination away from Gerald Ford.