My Father At 100
By Ron Reagan
Hardcover, 240 pages
List price: $12.99
We all cobble together an internal account of our lives; in that, Dad was entirely typical. Virtually everyone creates a mental album of memories and anecdotes that, ultimately, passes for our version of a life story. We are all the protagonists of our own narratives, of course — the indispensable main character; on a good day, the hero. In that sense, Dad was just like everyone else. Only peculiarly more so. For most of us, the boundaries of our personal tale are relatively fluid and amenable to outside influence. Our story selection, even the sense of our own character, shifts as new circumstances arise: One day we're a rebel folk hero in the making, the next day, a contented corporate cog. But Dad's story, I believe, was far more comprehensive in its sweep and consistent in its narrative details than is the case for most people. Keeping its primary themes intact and inviolate, safe from the depredations of an intrusive, ambiguous, and contradictory world, was for him an endeavor of existential import. My father didn't create his personal narrative to put one over on anyone. On the contrary, with its creation, he was forming a template for his life. He wanted to be seen — he wanted to truly be — an estimable individual who made his way through life as a positive force in the world, a man people would admire for all the right reasons.
Critics have long accused him of falseness, of merely acting out assigned roles. Such a superficial analysis ignores the central curiosity of my father's character: He played only one role, ever, and he did so unconsciously, totally absorbed in its performance.
Reading his early high school and college essays, and considering his film career, among other things — and with plenty of opportunity for personal observation along the way — I see two primary threads jumping out of my father's story line: that fierce desire to be recognized as someone noteworthy, even heroic; and his essentially solitary nature.
On the one hand, he reveled in public exposure — the bigger the stage, the more comfortable he was. He warmed to applause and the approval of crowds. He counted on the support of those around him. But in the film unwinding in his mind, Dad was always the loner, compassionate yet detached, who rides to the rescue in reel three. This role could become tedious — it's fun to be bad on occasion — and would prove unhelpful to his professional goals, for just as Hollywood was marketing ambivalent antiheroes, Dad was looking to wear an unblemished white hat in conventional westerns. Yet when he became a politician, circumstance and story line meshed beautifully: Don't we want our presidents to be heroes?
Ronald Reagan was the inverse of an iceberg: most of him — the public man — was plainly visible above the surface. Public Reagan sought glory on his college football team and when he broadcast sports events over the radio, acted in films, and entered the political arena with great success. He wanted and needed acclaim and recognition. At the same time, he would disavow ambition: It was crucial to his sense of self that he be seen working on behalf of others, and not for personal gain. But all the while, another, quieter Reagan, just as vital, rested invisibly beneath the waves. This hermetic self, who found outward expression mostly in the solitary acts of writing, ranch work, and swimming, was, in effect, the producer and director for the man onstage. In this Private Reagan, the personal drive he publicly forswore burned with a cold but steady flame. This private self, glimpsed only in fleeting, unguarded moments, formed his core. Without public acclaim, he may have been unfulfilled. Deprived of the opportunity to take refuge in his castle of solitude, he would have withered altogether. The Ronald Reagan with whom everyone is familiar could not have existed without the Ronald Reagan he rarely let anyone see.
The roots of that bicameral character and the foundation of his story's arc must be traced back to his early life — a life beginning in a distant, early twentieth-century America, an America quite different from the country we inhabit today. Without some understanding of that story and the role he fashioned for himself within it, there is no real reckoning with Ronald Reagan.
This is not a political biography — that's a job best left for others. I argued plenty with my father while he was alive; I have no intention of picking a fight with him now that he's gone and can't defend himself. Neither does this book pretend to be an encyclopedic recounting of his entire life. It is simply my attempt to come to grips with the father with whom I grew up, with a public figure both revered and reviled and, most important, with a human being in all his stubborn enigma. Everyone thinks he knows Ronald Reagan, but those who truly knew him best still grapple with the enduring mystery of his inner character. I'm hoping that some light might penetrate that mystery if I can focus on the man I knew through the lens of his early, formative years.
What follows, then, is a layer cake of stories: A running account of my search through my father's early life (with some admittedly amateurish general history thrown in for context); a memoir of our lives together as father and son; and, finally, an exploration of his personal, internal narrative — the story of his story, a tale already germinating a century ago.
Excerpted from My Father At 100 by Ron Reagan. Copyright 2011 by Ron Reagan. Excerpted with permission of Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA).