Reagan's Son Sees His 'Father At 100' Many books have been written about the 40th president of the United States, but very few have come from those who knew Ronald Wilson Reagan best. Ron Reagan, the former president's son, searches for the keys to his father's character in his book, My Father At 100.
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Reagan's Son Sees His 'Father At 100'

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Reagan's Son Sees His 'Father At 100'

Reagan's Son Sees His 'Father At 100'

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GUY RAZ, host:

February 6th will mark a hundred years since the birth of one of the most popular presidents in American history, Ronald Reagan. His story has been told by several biographers but none quite in the way that his son, Ron, tells it.

Ron Reagan's written a new memoir about his dad and their relationship. It's called "My Father at 100."

Mr. RON REAGAN (Author, "My Father at 100"): It wasn't that I had in mind some particular thing that I wanted to say about him that I felt other people hadn't said. What I was really looking for was keys to his character and personality, particularly the inner character, the metaphorical 10 percent that I talk about in the book that he rarely let anybody see, even his own family, even his own wife.

The keys to that character would be found in his early life. And so I went hunting around in those early days.

RAZ: What was your dad's relationship like with his past? I mean, you went back to Tampico. You went back to Dixon, Illinois. You drove through that part of the country where he grew up and then left, of course, to Hollywood in his youth. Did he kind of want to put that behind him or re-create it, or did he embrace it?

Mr. REAGAN: Well, all of those things, in a way. He certainly embraced it. He did like to, as I point out in the book, in some instances, he does a little script editing. You know, he will relate stories from his past, but he will eliminate uncomfortable aspects.

The story of him, when he was on his college football team, pulled into a hotel, there were two black players on the team, and they learn that the black players won't be welcome to stay in the hotel.

Coach says, you know, fine, we'll sleep on the bus. And my father intervenes and convinces him to send his two black friends home with him, and that way the team can sleep in a hotel and be comfortable and the black players won't feel like they're the cause of, you know, us all shivering on a bus all night.

He would not, when he would relate the story to me in later, much later, years, admit that it was Dixon that was the town where this hotel wouldn't take black people...

RAZ: Wow.

Mr. REAGAN: ...and that no other hotel in the town would accept black people.

Now, he refers to racism in his autobiography as these tumors, tumors of racism within the country. Well, that poses a problem for him. Is Dixon a tumor? Is Dixon an ugly aberration in the country, or, on the other hand, is the country - even north, even in the land of Lincoln - systemically racist, which makes it a little tough to see it as a kind of amber-tinged, you know, shining city on a hill? So he was kind of stuck in a Catch-22 there, and, you know, made some editing cuts there to try and paper that over, I think.

RAZ: Ron Reagan, I'm sure you've had a variation of this question over the course of your life, but given that you're so publicly associated with, let's say, progressive politics today...

Mr. REAGAN: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: ...how do you sort of deal or respond to questions about the fact that you are the son of this conservative icon, I mean, the most important, arguably, conservative icon?

Mr. REAGAN: Well, you see him as a conservative icon. Of course, I see him as my father. And most people see him as the former president of the United States, which, of course, I grant you, I recognize also. But to me, he's my father.

And fathers and sons, parents and children have been arguing over politics and disagreeing over politics for as long as there have been parents, children and politics.

RAZ: Did you ever upset him with sort of being frank about your views on an issue?

Mr. REAGAN: He was difficult to upset.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REAGAN: And he certainly wasn't - he didn't get upset just because you happened to disagree with him. Now, he did think that if he could get you alone for five or 10 minutes that he could convince you of his point of view.

I imagine he found it a bit frustrating that, over the years, that didn't seem to work with me all the time. But that wasn't something that I was going to particularly, you know, bother about in the book.

I did not want this book to be a political book. I wasn't out to settle scores with him in any way. I, you know, I argued with him plenty when he was alive, and we could do it face to face. I had no intention of picking a fight with him that he...

RAZ: I mean, you...

Mr. REAGAN: ...where he wouldn't be able to defend himself.

RAZ: You intersperse bits of your dad's biography with recollections of your relationship with him. And at one point, he said to you, and I love this quote, he said: You're my son, so I have to love you. But sometimes, you make it very hard to like you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REAGAN: Yeah. Yes.

RAZ: Did you remember what he was responding to?

Mr. REAGAN: I don't remember exactly what it was, no. I mean, we would get -you know, of course we'd have difficulties. I was a teenager at that time. I was probably 16, 17 years old.

RAZ: You grew your hair long, and you were the son of Ronald Reagan.

Mr. REAGAN: Oh, yeah. Oh, sure. I - you know, I wore thrift store clothes and military surplus, was against the Vietnam War, and I was an atheist and, you know, all sorts - listened to music that he couldn't understand, and you know, strange smells would emerge from my bedroom occasionally and all that sort of thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REAGAN: So, you know, yeah, he wasn't happy about that. But again, that's, I think, a sentiment that a lot of parents may feel about their teenage children. You know, the teenage years can be a bit rocky.

RAZ: I'm curious to know what you make of the sort of veneration of Ronald Reagan. You call it a fetish in the book. And I want to play a clip of some of what that might sound like.

Mr. REAGAN: Okay. All right.

Unidentified Man #1: Who was your favorite Republican president?

Unidentified Man #2: Ronald Reagan.

Unidentified Man #3: Reagan.

Unidentified Man #4: Reagan.

Unidentified Man #5: Reagan.

Unidentified Man #6: Reagan.

Unidentified Man #7: Reagan. He brought me into the Republican Party.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): I'm proud to have been a member of the Reagan Revolution.

Unidentified Man #7: The Reagan principles.

Unidentified Man #8: Aside from President Reagan, who is your political hero?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #9: That's a trick question, hang on.

RAZ: Everybody loves Ronald Reagan.

Mr. REAGAN: Everybody loves Ronald Reagan.

RAZ: I mean - does it make you uncomfortable, or do you sort of distance yourself from that?

Mr. REAGAN: Oh, it doesn't make me uncomfortable. I understand it. I mean, if you're a Republican candidate for president, or any other office for that matter, who are you going to venerate in the Republican Party, George W. Bush? No, I don't think so. H.W. Bush? Eh, not so inspiring. Nixon? No, that's not going to work for you. You know, Ronald Reagan's pretty much it. So yes...

RAZ: But nonetheless, you call it a fetish.

Mr. REAGAN: Well, I think as you just demonstrated, it becomes so reflexive and so almost fetishistic that really, he's like the rubber bustier of the Republican Party. I mean, they're so all over him.

RAZ: Ron Reagan, in many ways, this book that you've written seems to be about a son getting to know a part of his father that he really didn't know...

Mr. REAGAN: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: ...you know, the Ronald Reagan behind the Edmund Morris biography "Dutch."

Mr. REAGAN: And, by the way, it's much easier to write a history of your father if Pulitzer Prize-winning biographers have paved the way for you and left just reams of footnotes for you to go through.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: At the end of your journey, what did you discover about your dad that maybe changed the way you think about him or surprised you?

Mr. REAGAN: I don't think there were any huge surprises or things that fundamentally changed the way I thought about him. But it is true that I have a new and, I hope, deeper appreciation for the solitary, undersized little boy that he was, who spent a lot of time by himself, you know, poring over books and strange artifacts, some of them from the West, which, you know, filled his head with visions of this wide open frontier and this broad landscape in which he could be a hero, the guy who saves the day. I think I have a better appreciation of that.

RAZ: That's Ron Reagan. He's the son of the late president Ronald Reagan. His new book is called "My Father at 100." It's in bookstores now.

Ron Reagan, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. REAGAN: Well, Guy, thanks for having me.

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