MY FATHER AT 100: A MEMOIR
By Ron Reagan
Viking, $25.95, 228 pages
"What are you going to tell me about him that I don't already know?"
This question from a friend, writes Ron Reagan, author of this book marking his father's 100th birthday on Feb. 6, "is entirely legitimate if a bit disquieting." It should be disquieting, for the answer is, nothing much.
Also "a bit disquieting" is the technique the author adopts to spin out family history and chronicle his father's early years in Illinois, an approach pioneered by Edmund Morris in the infamous "Dutch; A Memoir of Ronald Reagan," a "much misunderstood" work Mr. Reagan says "comes as near as any book I've read to capturing my father's elusive nature."
Mr. Morris spent years shadowing Ronald Reagan, sustained by extended deadlines until, one suspects, his publisher finally demanded a product. Mr. Morris had to admit he just didn't understand Reagan and so fictionalized his study.
Much of that fictionalizing involved Reagan's years in Illinois, where he was known as "Dutch" and worked as a lifeguard. Ron Reagan adopts the lifeguard image and the fictionalizing for re-exploring those early years and explaining the later ones. "For the entirety of his long life, he will remain, at heart, dedicated to the one role that came entirely to him: lifeguard."
Given the guiding influence of Mr. Morris here, an appropriate subtitle for the book might have been, "Dutch Swims Again."
But no matter. The problem may be goodness. Early on, Ron Reagan says of his father's "elusive nature" that his children, "if they were honest, would agree that he was as strange a fellow as any of us had ever met ... so naturally sunny, so utterly without guile ... as to create for himself a whole new category of strangeness. He was, in some respects, too good."
Whether his siblings would agree with him on anything is debatable. But the reaction to this goodness, the quality that may have flummoxed Mr. Morris and apparently is alien to the son may account for what seems to be an effort - perhaps unconscious - to diminish some of his father's finest moments.
"Much has been made of my father's joking with doctors and nurses," he says of the famous aftermath of the assassination attempt. "Please tell me you're all Republicans," the president quipped to his surgeons. But according to his son, it wasn't spontaneous. An obscure journalist claims he had tried the line out earlier on emergency-room personnel. "Bleeding to death with a bullet in his chest, and he's doing shtick. That was so Dad."
In the debates in which his father demolished Walter Mondale, the son finds traces of early Alzheimer's disease. Then he watches his father make a series of political phone calls using notecards, and his diagnosis is reinforced - even though smart politicians use notecards for political calls and no reputable physician would associate the instances cited with early Alzheimer's. But such material makes headlines, and headlines sell books.
As well as playing doctor, the son inserts himself into affairs of state. He visits the White House to warn his father about Iran-Contra. "I came to the conclusion that a little tough love from his youngest might encourage him in the right direction."
He also seems to believe he played a key role in the first Reagan-Gorbachev summit, which he attended as a magazine correspondent. As his father and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sat for a photo-op, "the general secretary gave me a rather disapproving once over. Before I fully realized what was happening, we had locked eyes ... Gorbachev possesses a formidable mind, and I could feel the power of it behind his eyes ... I couldn't help feeling ... that I was waging this impromptu contest on behalf of my fellow Americans."
Finally, Mr. Gorbachev "wavered ever so slightly, then crumbled." The talks resumed, and the father probably never appreciated how much the son had contributed to their success.
In all, for those who enjoy Oedipal drama, there's plenty here. If you want to know what Ronald Reagan the man was like, there's William F. Buckley Jr.'s last published book, "The Reagan I Knew." If you want to know what Ron Reagan is like, there's this one.
And it does have one great virtue - at 228 pages, it's 668 pages shorter than "Dutch."
John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of "Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement" (Wiley, 2007).
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