The coverage of Ron Reagan’s memoir about his father has been overshadowed by his admission that he worried his father may have suffered from early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease while he was in office. The brief reference brought an onslaught of denials from Reagan loyalists (and brother Michael), prompting Reagan to assure a book-party crowd gathered in Washington on a cold Monday night that he’s not a doctor, doesn’t diagnose, and never saw any signs of dementia—just a man in his seventies who had survived a gunshot wound and cancer surgery, and was losing his hearing. And to put things in perspective, Reagan said he also worried about his father getting shot and killed.
As guests nibbled on escargot and lamb chops at the newly renovated Jefferson Hotel, Reagan sought to explain his iconic father. “He was a very warm and affable man. You couldn’t be in a room with him and not like him whatever your politics. But he didn’t make friends.” And this was especially true at the end of his life, after he left office. His best friend then was his ex-driver Barney Barrett, who would work with him on the ranch, clearing brush and building fences. He and Barney would be out there in “amiable silence” for hours on end working and sweating and getting dirty. “Dad had jeans that could stand up and deliver the State of the Union,” Reagan joked.
The heart of this book is a son’s search for a father who could touch a nation but who seemed distant and out of reach to his family. “I felt when I was younger we weren’t connected enough,” Reagan said. “It’s something all his children felt.” Prodded by former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham in the role of interlocutor, Reagan tried to explain this “strangeness” about his father, “strangeness but not darkness,” he says. He was physically available, always eager to toss a football even when he was busy, but emotionally there was a part of him that he withheld. Reagan describes his book as an attempt to reach his father’s inner character, the 10 percent he kept hidden away, to understand and explain it.
My Father at 100 is a poignant memoir with universal appeal for sons eager to find their place in the world. The former president was a champion swimmer at Eureka College, and when he and his son raced in the family pool, there was no letting the son win. “He wasn’t going to pretend,” Reagan recalled. He knew his son would beat him someday, but assumed by then “I’d be a strapping college buck coming home from swim team.”
It happened a lot earlier. “I was 12,” Reagan recalled. “I beat him up and down the pool. I did a flip turn, which in his day didn’t exist—and he turned that into a win for us both.” The way it unfolded, says Reagan, he could tell his father was a little dejected at first, but by dinner time—and now the son does a pitch-perfect imitation of his father’s voice saying, “Now, did you do one of those flip turns?” In Reagan’s always sunny view of life, “It made it kind of a tie,” laughs Ron. Where was his mother during this? “She would say, ‘on your marks, get set, go…’ and (when he emerged from the pool) she would put a towel around his shoulder like he was a heavyweight champion—a gesture I appreciate now,” Reagan said wistfully.
In his search for this elusive father, Reagan came to understand how he edited out the parts of his life that didn’t fit into the narrative he had adopted. There is the oft-told story of how Reagan came upon his father, Jack Reagan, passed out drunk “and burping up corn whiskey” by the front door of their house. His first impulse was to step over him the way he was able to ignore so much that was unpleasant growing up, but then in his telling, this undersize 11-year-old grabs his father’s coat and muscles him up the narrow stairs to the bedroom.
Ron Reagan went back to the house and imagined how this could be with the slight boy shouldering the rather robust father and concludes it probably didn’t happen that way. He also concludes that Jack Reagan wasn’t the ne’er do well that his son made him out to be, that he always worked and supported his family, and while he drank, wasn’t an alcoholic. Reagan didn’t exactly embellish, but it was his coming of age story, “and if he gave Jack too many lines, it distracted from the story… It all got lost in the editing room.”
Reagan was physically available, always eager to toss a football even when he was busy, but emotionally there was a part of him that he withheld.
Asked to read his description of his father’s death, Reagan declined, saying, “I can’t read this without crying.” And so Meacham read the passage which describes how the former president’s eyes fluttered open to see Nancy for one last time, and the life that had begun 93 years and then some in Tampico, Illinois, ended, but the storyteller who built that life continues on.
Eleanor Clift is a contributing editor for Newsweek.