Ronald Reagan’s Family Values

What the diaries show.

In 1987, Ronald Reagan explained to Hugh Sidey of Time magazine why he kept a White House diary:

I’ve kept a diary from the first day here. And actually, Hugh, the reason for that was one thing I learned after the eight years as governor—that the schedules are such and the succession of things and the meetings—that getting out of that eight-year experience as governor, I suddenly realized that memory—well, there were things that I could remember, but I couldn’t tell you whether they were in the first or the second term. And then I realized there were a lot of things that I just could not, if I had to, recall, and it was a very busy eight years there. And so, when faced with this job, Nancy and I both said this time … let’s keep a record so that won’t happen.

Later this month HarperCollins will publish those diaries, as edited and abridged by Douglas Brinkley. Excerpts  published by Vanity Fair are disappointingly sketchy. No wonder they were such little use to the Iran-contra special prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, when he tried to determine President Reagan’s involvement in his own White House’s illegal activities. Reagan was a president whose level of engagement with the world was a mystery even to his own diary.

But sometimes we can glean useful information just by observing what isn’t there. In Reagan’s case, what’s missing is even the smallest expression of affection for his four children. (A fifth died in childbirth.) This is, of course, no great surprise. In his 2003 book, Governor Reagan, Lou Cannon writes,

All felt he cared for them, but they did not think of him as a person in whom they could confide. Maureen Reagan, in some respects the child closest to Ronald Reagan, endured a physically abusive and terrifying first marriage to a police officer without ever telling her father about it even though they were carrying on a lively correspondence about politics. Michael Reagan considered his father “the only adult male I ever trusted” but could not tell him (or his mother [Jane Wyman]) about the oppressive trauma of boyhood molestation by a camp counselor. In 1987, he confided his experience to a sympathetic Nancy Reagan while his father “gazed into the distance.” Patti Reagan was unable to tell her father much of anything or to listen to anything he told her. She thought him mysterious. “It was like he came in smoke, and disappeared in smoke,” she said.

Judging from what we see in Reagan’s diaries—and especially what we don’t see—Cannon understated Reagan’s detachment from his offspring.

It’s not as though Reagan was a reticent man unable to express love. His devotion to his wife Nancy, evident to all in those years, is expressed again and again in the diaries. “Our wedding anniversary,” he writes on March 4, 1981. “29 years of more happiness than any man could rightly deserve.” The following month, recalling the trauma of being shot and nearly killed by John W. Hinckley Jr., Reagan writes,

I opened my eyes to find Nancy there. I pray I’ll never face a day when she isn’t there. Of all the ways God has blessed me giving her to me is the greatest and beyond anything I can ever hope to deserve.

And his children? “All the kids arrived,” Reagan continues, “and the hours ran together in a blur….”

On May 15, 1982, Reagan records a “Long call to Ron” (his son):

He wants to Sign off Secret Svc. for a month. S.S. knows he’s a real target—lives in a N.Y.C. area where the Puerto Rican terrorist group is active. In fact he’s on a hit list. He thinks we’re interfering with his privacy. I can’t make him see that I can’t be put in a position of one day facing a ransom demand. I’d have to refuse for reasons of the Nation’s welfare.

And that would make him feel … how? The logic is hard to argue with (though subsequent events suggest Reagan might have considered selling TOW missiles to the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional), but Reagan’s failure to confide, even to his diary, what such a loss might mean is striking. Fast forward to October 23:

Late afternoon Doria [his daughter-in-law] & Ron arrived for a family pow-wow. He’d been rude to Nancy on a phone call and when I phoned him about it he said he thought we needed to clear the air. It wasn’t the greatest meeting but still I think it opened the door to a closer relationship. He seemed to be carrying water for Patti [Davis, his daughter] who has a kind of yo yo family relationship. She’s either warmly attentive or very distant & Nancy seems to bear the brunt of it.

Moving on now to April 7, 1983:

This evening Ron called all exercised because S.S. agents had gone into their apartment while they were in Calif. to fix an alarm on one of the windows. I tried to reason with him that this was a perfectly O.K. thing for them to do. [Redaction.] I told him quite firmly not to talk to me that way & he hung up on me. End of a not perfect day.

Well, OK, families have disagreements, and imposing a Secret Service detail on your children surely creates unusual tensions, and even in close families it’s not necessarily unhealthy for one family member to hurl an obscenity at another or slam down the phone. We now proceed to May 1:

Nancy phoned—very upset. Ron casually told the S.S. he was going to Paris in a few days. I don’t know what it is with him. He refuses to cooperate with them. [Redaction.] I’m not talking to him until he apologizes for hanging up on me.

Here it’s unclear whether what’s being held is something harsh or obscene that the president’s son said to the Secret Service or to his mother; something harsh or obscene that the president’s wife said to or about her son, or something harsh or obscene that the president himself is expressing about his son. Again, though: Healthy families have disputes, right? Members may even refuse to talk to one another for awhile. But by Feb. 1, 1984, Reagan seems to have reached his limit:

S.S. got a tip [redaction] that a terrorist act was pointed at the Presidents daughter. I’m inclined to believe they might mean Maureen because she is so visible in her pol. work. She has S.S. protection. On the other hand, Patti screamed & complained so much we took the S.S. detail away at her request. Now S.S. went to her & asked if she would accept it for no more than a week until they could get this informant out of Lebanon & check the story. She said yes. But today’s the 4th day & she’s screaming again about invasion of her privacy & last night she abused the agents terribly. I said take them away from her so she’s again without protection. Insanity is hereditary you catch it from your kids.

That parting shot might seem more lighthearted if it weren’t preceded by the president’s admission that he’d rather his daughter’s life be put in danger than that he have to deal further with her rudeness to Secret Service agents. He doesn’t seem willing even to talk to her about it. Are they on speaking terms? Now on to July 18, 1987:

Another beautiful day. Called Bill Bennet [Secretary of Education William Bennett]—just back from Europe. Told him I was sure some one had apprised him of our son Ron’s article on aids in People mag.

Actually, this was an article about Ron Jr.’s participation in an AIDS education film.

Ron gave both of us h—l.

That’s “hell” (Reagan couldn’t bring himself to write the full word), and it’s true. “I can call my dad up anytime and say whatever I want to him—and I do,” Ron Jr. had told People. “He’s gotten a lot of flak from me on this issue.” The president’s son had also been somewhat condescending, though probably accurate, in describing his father’s reaction to his friend Rock Hudson’s death from AIDS two years earlier. “My father has the sort of psychology where he grasps on to the single anecdote better than the broad wash of a problem,” he’d said. “So when it’s a particular name he knows, suddenly the problem crystallizes.” Toward Bennett, who at the time favored restricting AIDS education in schools, Ron Jr. had been less polite: “Those who exploit this issue for their own personal ideological agendas lack all conscience.” (He may have had in mind Bennett’s quote six months earlier in the New York Times: ”With AIDS, harsh nature becomes the unwitting ally of responsible morality.”)

He can be stubborn on a couple of issues & won’t listen to anyone’s argument. Bill volunteered to have a talk with him. I hope it can be worked out.

Why Bennett? Probably because, having been a Democrat when Reagan first appointed him (to run the National Endowment for the Humanities), and now harboring visible ambitions to rise higher within the GOP, Bennett is exceptionally eager to please. The more immediate question, though, is: Why not Reagan himself?

We have just reviewed every statement in the Vanity Fair excerpt touching on Ronald Reagan’s children. There is no mention of his grandson Cameron or granddaughter Ashley, both children of Michael Reagan, even though Ashley was born during his presidency and Cameron three years before it began. (In a 1983 letter to Cameron, then nearly 5, thanking him for sending a birthday card, the president wrote, “Would you please tell your mother and father I received their card. …[i]t will save me having to write another letter.”) Perhaps there is more in the book, or in the unabridged diaries, to be published sometime in the future. Obviously Ronald Reagan had troubled relationships with his adult children, as parents often do. To some extent they defined their lives in opposition to his. Patti Davis published a family roman a clef and posed for Playboy; Ron Reagan Jr. gave a speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. But when Ronald Reagan died, his children  had a lot more to say about him than the evidence we have now suggests he ever had to say about them.