Politics & Policy

Thanksgiving at the Buckleys’

A holiday with the Reagans.

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. 

One weekend, back then, is vivid in the memory. It had been arranged that the Reagans — father, mother, son — would spend Thanksgiving 1976 as guests of the Buckleys. There would be Thanksgiving lunch at Great Elm, in Sharon, and the balance of the weekend as houseguests of me and my wife, Pat, at our home in Stamford, Connecticut, on the Long Island Sound. But when the Reagans arrived in Sharon, there was tension.

“Tell Bill about it,” said Nancy, drawing her husband and me to one side.

The story was that Ron Jr., in his first semester at Yale, had decided to quit college — more or less immediately. I expressed doubt that he was having academic problems, which indeed he was not, and his parents brought me to the heart of the matter. What moved him was a voracious desire to dance professionally. He wanted to train, beginning immediately, as a ballet student.

Reagan told me that he had frankly given up, on the two-hour drive from New York, trying to deflect his son from his resolution. In whispers, he and Nancy had conferred on a tactical retreat. Ron Jr. must proceed with his college work until the end of the semester, and only then go off to ballet school, from which he could return to his studies at Yale at any time in the future. Ron Jr. had said no. I was given the assignment of persuading him otherwise.

The rest of the day was dotted with family meetings, the Reagans together, of course, but then various Buckleys with various Reagans, according as it was hoped that my wife might be especially influential, or my aged mother, or some or all of the half dozen of my brothers and sisters who were there for Thanksgiving. These meetings were interrupted first by the repast, and then by the annual football game, at which, this time around, Ronald Reagan, sometime governor of California, aspirant President of the United States, was elected captain of the A Team and distinguished himself for a half hour, outdone in virtuoso passing and catching only by B Team ingénue, Ronald Reagan Jr., about to be ex-Yale 1980.

Individually and in groups — my brother Jim, a Yale graduate, had a round or two — we attempted to make the point that Ron Jr. should give the academic life a better try. He in turn stressed the point that already, at eighteen, he was far behind in studying dance.

“They begin,” he explained to me patiently but doggedly, “at age twelve. There’s no way I can go back and dance full time from age twelve. But I am really sunk at this point if I set my training back another week.”

That was his position and he lived (and died?) by it, returning to New Haven only to pick up his baggage, and reporting immediately to a dance school. He was soon picked up by the Joffrey Ballet, and got performances in its second division.

The balance of the weekend, in Stamford, was warm, but distracted by the wrench of Ron Jr.’s decision to go it alone. 

And Ronald Reagan was as determined to subject his son to poverty as Ron Jr. was to live in it. Ron Jr. was entirely submissive in his sequestration — austerity was a part of his theatrical occupation. 

After a few years he left the ballet and made his way — with his wife, Doria, a psychologist — as a commentator and journalist.

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