A separate peace
For years, Michael Reagan, the older son of Ronald Reagan, felt unloved and unwanted. His parents divorced when he was 3. Two years later he was packed off to a boarding school where, he says, he was so lonely he cried himself to sleep. Sexually abused at age 7, he felt shame and self-loathing, compounded by Bible passages that convinced him he would never go to heaven.
He grew up so angry he smashed a childhood bicycle and later took a sledgehammer to his new car. Well into his 40s, his “rage came to a full boil,” and he often yelled at his wife and young son.
Then, he says, he found salvation through the love of his family and his “adoption” by God. He embraced conservative values and became a syndicated talk-radio host who today tells listeners: “I am homophobic.”
Reagan has become a strong opponent of gay marriage, saying its validation of homosexuality will push young people into sex that will inflict the “guilt and pain that I have lived with all my life.”
This is the painful journey described by the older son of the late president. On Wednesday night, this Reagan will go prime time in New York, when he introduces a tribute to his father at the Republican National Convention.
His appearance would seem to be an answer to a speech last month by his brother, Ron, at the Democratic convention in Boston. The younger Reagan touted the benefits of embryonic stem cell research, speaking out against those who would “allow that the theology of a few should be allowed to forestall the health and well-being of the many.” That speech appearance raised Republican hackles, because the Bush White House believes in limited support for embryonic stem cell research.
Christian conservatives who believe life starts at conception are hoping Reagan will speak against stem cell research. They may be disappointed.
Michael Reagan, 59, says he will not allow his four- or five-minute speech to become a tit-for-tat of Reagan sons or a tussle over who can claim a piece of the Reagan legacy. “To politicize stem cell research any more than it’s already been politicized would be a disservice,” he says. “This is not a convention about Reagan vs. Reagan, and I don’t want to turn it into one.”
“I want to use that time not to politicize my father but to honor him and thank America for the love and support they gave me in June,” when his father died, he says.
Longtime activist Phyllis Schlafly says conservatives are excited about Michael Reagan’s appearance. Because of his conservative stands? “No,” she says. “It’s because his name is Reagan. You saw how the Democrats tried to wrap themselves in Reagan by having Ron speak to them. Michael’s the answer to that.”
To Reagan, however, the appearance is a milestone in “a long personal journey of redemption.”
On a recent day, redemption found him in a small office in the San Fernando Valley, a few miles from the sunbaked stream of cars on the Ventura Freeway, broadcasting “The Michael Reagan Show.” Although the show isn’t broadcast in Los Angeles, it is carried by more than 180 stations nationwide, including Santa Barbara’s KTMS 990.
“Pravda has arrived!” he announces as a journalist walked into the office.
Reagan had just finished a live on-air segment on a news report that Bush’s twin daughters were invited to the same-sex wedding of their beautician. “You wouldn’t go to a gay wedding, would you?” he asks his daughter Ashley, a pert, ponytailed 21-year-old who was helping out in her father’s office this summer before her senior year in college.
“Dad, Victor’s gay. Who cares?” his daughter replies, referring to her mother’s hairdresser.
“Victor’s a nice gay,” Reagan retorts, turning to a journalist and warning: “If that appears, I’ll have to throw you off the roof.”
“Dad, you shouldn’t make threats,” his daughter says.
“I think threats are good,” Reagan says cheerfully. “I think people who send viruses should be taken out and killed. You should be able to send a bomb back through your e-mail.”
This tough-guy demeanor is his standard radio shtick. But Reagan says he didn’t start out as a bomb-thrower. He recalls being a simple, happy little boy, the adopted son of busy Hollywood stars Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman, watched over by a nanny and two playful dogs, Scotch and Soda, while his sister Maureen lived at boarding school.
Then came his parents’ divorce.
After that, Reagan says, he saw his father every other Saturday. When his father’s new girlfriend, Nancy Davis, arrived on the scene, Reagan hoped to be part of an “Ozzie and Harriet"-style family. Instead, his father and stepmother had two more children, and he felt even more marginalized.
Reagan was a vulnerable 7-year-old, hungry for fatherly attention, when an after-school camp counselor lured him away from the other children and sexually molested him, he says. The man took nude photographs of him and showed them to him in a darkroom bathed in a dim green light, he says.
Reagan says he worried for years that the photos would someday embarrass his family. Thus began a life of secrets and shame as well as a phobia of the color green, Reagan said in his book “Twice Adopted” (published by Broadman & Holeman Publishers of Nashville), which will go on sale this fall.
His book suggests that same-sex marriage could place young people at an increased risk of the kind of trauma he suffered.
“If same-sex marriage becomes accepted as having equal validity with traditional heterosexual marriage, what kinds of social pressure will our children and grandchildren have to face?” he writes.
“What happens to your kids and grandkids after they try a homosexual experience on a dare?” he continues later. “They will experience guilt and pain in the aftermath, just as I did. The second they have had a sexual relationship with the same sex, in their own minds and in the view of society, they will be labeled homosexual. They’ll never rid themselves of it.”
“That’s why today I can honestly say on my show, I admit it; I am homophobic,’ ” he writes.
Reagan expresses approval for the Bush administration’s limited support of stem cell research, and he seems to echo First Lady Laura Bush’s recent statement that “the implication that cures for Alzheimer’s are just around the corner is just not right.”
“Stem cell research could not have saved my father,” Reagan says.
He is more reluctant to spell out his views on the moral issue that preoccupies conservatives. “It’s not a short answer,” he says. “It would take up a book.
“What bothers me about this thing is that everybody’s trying to make this a ... match between the Reagans,” he says. “Everyone wants me to answer my brother. To do that would turn it into Reagan vs. Reagan. And I love my brother. Even though he’s wrong.”
Ron Reagan is covering the convention as a commentator for MSNBC, according to his agent, Laurie Jacoby, but she said she didn’t think he would have any comment.
Family is a sensitive topic for Michael Reagan.
As Reagan grew up, he was shifted between boarding schools, and he had to repeat two grades. At 14, he enlisted a psychiatrist to persuade his mother to let him live with his father on his weekends away from school. But Ron and Patti had their own bedrooms, and the cook lived in a spare room, so he had to sleep on the sofa, he says.
His adulthood wasn’t much easier.
After an “academic meltdown,” his parents pulled him out of college. He says Nancy Reagan called the military to say that he was eligible for the draft, and he soon received an induction notice but was declared unfit for service because of a duodenal ulcer.
He used to tell a story of how his father and Nancy Reagan didn’t attend his first wedding because they were at Tricia Nixon’s wedding. Today, he will say only that his marriage lasted six months.
He worked for a while as a boat racer. He played a bit part as a concierge at a spa on six episodes of “Falcon Crest” when his mother was a star on the show.
Meeting the woman who became his second wife, Colleen, a Christian, was a turning point.
But his professional life was still an uphill battle. He was fired from one radio show when Rush Limbaugh became available. For two years in the early 1990s, he commuted to San Diego from Los Angeles every day for a show that had so few callers his producer called in from a pay phone.
“Everybody thought I’d fail,” Reagan says. “Once I called my mother in tears from the freeway. She said, ‘Shut up and keep driving.’ ”
When his son turned 7, the age at which he was molested, Michael Reagan began to verbally abuse his son and yell at his wife Colleen, he says.
“I began to treat Cameron with all the anger and rage that I felt for myself,” he writes. “I yelled at him, screamed at him, and berated him. I told him he was bad. I didn’t understand why I did it.” (Cameron, now 26, has had a handful of brushes with the law; in 2001, he completed a 90-day rehab program after he was found with a small amount of marijuana.)
One day, as Reagan’s son backed away from one of his tirades “with fear in his eyes,” Colleen placed herself between them and ordered her husband to find God and allow Jesus to take control of his life. Reagan was baptized with his wife the next Father’s Day. But he was still too terrified to confess his abuse to Colleen, because, he writes, he still believed a biblical passage suggesting that sleeping with another man meant “I was doomed to hell.”
Two years later, armed with his growing faith, he finally confessed his molestation to his wife, he says. When he told his father and Nancy Reagan, he was so upset he wept and vomited.
He says he now realizes that his molestation made him a difficult child who did not allow his parents to love him.
“There were times I was so full of rage I could barely control myself,” he says, looking back on his teen years. “If the idea of a school shooting had been planted in my head at just the right time, who knows?”
To help undo the damage, Reagan sought therapy.
He discovered that somewhere in the core of his psyche “is the story of a child who was molested, who was made part of child pornography and came through it and was pretty successful. That’s why I help people who were sexually molested today.”
This is what he considers his deepest mission.
To underscore how far he has come, Reagan waves his hand in the air at his office. The walls are green. The carpet is green. His desk cover is green. And he’s wearing a bright green shirt.
“See?” he says. “I used to be terrified of green. And now I’m no longer afraid.”