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To GOP, He’s Dishonoring His Father

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Times Staff Writer

Ronald Reagan’s spiritual heirs will fill the halls of the Republican National Convention in late August, but the Democrats have secured his flesh and blood for a prime-time spot at this month’s bash in Boston.

Ron Reagan, the late president’s 46-year-old son, plans to use the global platform of the Democratic National Convention to endorse embryonic stem-cell experiments, an area of research that some think his father would have opposed but which his mother supports.

Politically, the booking is a triumph for the Democratic ticket of Sens. John F. Kerry and John Edwards, which promptly trumpeted its ability to attract “individuals from all political backgrounds.” Affronted Republicans moved to discredit the famously renegade son, who often disagreed with his family’s politics and is an outspoken critic of President Bush.

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“I think his speech is a cute little story for convention coverage, but I don’t think it’s the sort of thing that will influence any voters,” said Gary Bauer, a conservative activist and domestic policy advisor to President Reagan.

Summing up a sentiment widely held among conservative groups, Wendy Wright of Concerned Women for America called the planned public appearance “sad.”

Ron Reagan’s decision to deliver an address at the Democrats’ showcase event has left Republican loyalists wondering: Is he an astute activist seizing the moment to promote a cause, or a traitor to his father’s legacy?

Conservatives remember the younger Reagan’s affinity for flustering his family -- dropping out of Yale in 1976 to join the Joffrey Ballet, writing articles for Playboy magazine and professing atheism.

While his father was president, he recorded a public service announcement criticizing the government’s AIDS policy and encouraging viewers to write to Congress or, as he suggested with a wry grin, “someone higher up.”

“He is seen as someone who didn’t hesitate to embarrass his family,” one conservative leader remarked, reluctant to publicly criticize any member of the Reagan clan.

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This time, though, the maverick son has his mother’s blessing.

“She’s OK with it,” Reagan said last week on MSNBC, where he is a political commentator. “She supports the issue. She’s aware, as I am, that there is a political aspect to this, and we need to be careful about that.”

The former president’s long bout with Alzheimer’s, an incapacitating brain disease, helped reconcile the splintered family, which found an unexpected point of concurrence in supporting stem-cell research, said former Reagan advisor and family friend Michael Deaver.

Even before the former president’s death last month, Nancy Reagan and her son and daughter, Patti Davis, pressed the urgency of the new science, which involves the destruction of human embryos and faces limits on federal funding imposed by Bush.

Scientists think the work could lead to treatments for a range of diseases, including Parkinson’s, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. (Reagan’s older son from a previous marriage, Michael, opposes the research.)

Mrs. Reagan’s position has been quietly forgiven by her most ardent conservative admirers in deference to her devotion to her husband, whom she lovingly saw through “the long goodbye.” But they are far less tolerant of her son’s view, questioning whether it is part of an attempt to use his father’s passing to attack Bush.

In a gravesite eulogy June 11, some thought Ron Reagan took a discrete swipe at Bush, which aggravated many Republicans. “Dad ... never made the fatal mistake of so many politicians: wearing his faith on his sleeve to gain political advantage,” he said.

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It was not the only time he appeared to be trying to distance Bush from his father’s legacy. “My father really didn’t know George W. Bush from Adam,” he recently said on CNN.

The tributes to Ronald Reagan will continue at the GOP convention with a film honoring the late president, who died June 5 at age 93. Republican planners sought to invite Mrs. Reagan to their convention, but the message came back through family friends that she would decline.

“She needed some time for herself for a period,” Deaver said.

Although Michael Reagan has consented to appear at the GOP convention, Ron Reagan’s scheduled speech at the Democratic gathering is galling to many Republicans.

“Ron Jr. has either allowed himself to be used or he’s knowingly partaking in something whose purpose is to damage the party his father spent all of his adult political life in,” Bauer said.

A registered independent critical of both parties, Ron Reagan lives in Seattle with Doria, his wife of more than 20 years, who is also a former dancer. They have no children.

Reagan, who did not respond to requests for an interview, told MSNBC his speech would stick to the topic of science and avoid any Bush-bashing.

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“I’m aware that some people will say ... I’m being used by the Democrats. Maybe to some extent that’s true. But then I’m using them too,” he said.

For all the speculation, the question of whether the former president would have approved of his son’s views or the venue where he has chosen to express them will remain forever unsettled. Reagan opposed legalized abortion, leading his followers to deduce that he would oppose embryonic stem-cell research.

Lou Cannon, author of five Reagan biographies, thinks Reagan would probably have struggled with the stem-cell question.

“While he had great certainty on issues like taxes, these were not the kinds of issues he felt great certainty about,” Cannon said. “He tended to rely on Nancy on things like this. She was a doctor’s daughter.... He would have respected her position.”

What would have troubled him less is his son’s decision to take a public stand, Cannon said. “He always thought his children were free to speak for whatever they wanted. I think he’d be happy to have his son politically involved. He probably would have joked that he too used to be a Democrat,” Cannon said.

It is not unusual for the children of presidents to separate themselves from their powerful fathers in order to define their own identities, said Doug Wead, author of the book “All The Presidents’ Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America’s First Families.” President Reagan sought to reverse the New Deal policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a man his own father admired. In turn, Roosevelt’s youngest son publicly endorsed President Reagan.

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“That is not to say Ron Reagan Jr. is not sincere in his beliefs,” Wead said. “But he may be expressing his need for individuality by saying, ‘Look at me. This is the Democratic National Convention. How’s them apples?’ ”

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Times staff writer Doyle McManus contributed to this report.

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