Back in the 1980s, the media never ceased exploiting the open dissent of Reagan’s two younger children, Patti and Ron. Patti especially went out of her way to embarrass her parents and undermine her father’s political position. Ron Reagan was more discreet; in fact, he was the only one of Reagan’s children who did not write a book or memoir, despite what must have been many tempting opportunities for a young, struggling ballet dancer.
Now, with the publication of My Father at 100: A Memoir, the wait is over. Two general things should be said. First, it is not easy to be the child of a very famous person. Franklin Roosevelt’s kids hated him; Nixon’s two daughters haven’t been on speaking terms for years; Randolph Churchill alternately worshiped and feuded with his father, along the way acquiring many of Winston Churchill’s shortcomings and little of his greatness. Family dysfunction seems to be the rule, not the exception. An anguished Nancy Reagan once told William F. Buckley, “I love my children, but sometimes I don’t like them.” So these books should not surprise us. Even Michael Reagan, now the chief family defender of Ronald Reagan’s legacy, called his 1980s-era memoir On the Outside Looking In.
The second thing that should be noted is that Ron inherited much of his father’s grace with language (so did Patti). I don’t begrudge him his personal grievances, but it is a shame that he has used his literary talent to besmirch his father’s memory with the risible charge that his Alzheimer’s disease was already evident in his second term. This simply doesn’t square with the evidence, and ignores a huge problem for Ron: the fact that Reagan’s greatest achievement — ending the Cold War — occurred in his second term when he supposedly was losing his mind.
Equally risible is the comment he made during his book tour that Ronald Reagan couldn’t win the Republican nomination today because the Republican party has become too extreme. The snort-worthy irony here is that everybody in the late 1970s, especially the Republican establishment, said that Reagan couldn’t win the presidency because he was too extreme. This reveals not just a lack of perspective, but a cynical lashing-out at his political opponents.
Overall, My Father at 100 looks like a lost opportunity for a talented person to give a serious account of why he disagreed with his father.
— Steven F. Hayward is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution, 1980–1989.