My Father at 100
Viking: 228 pp., $25.95
“Hinckley had loaded his pistol with a type of exploding bullet charmingly marketed as a Devastator,” writes Ron Reagan, describing John Hinckley Jr.'s 1981 attempt to assassinate his father, President Ronald Reagan. “It was the sixth and final shot that first hit not Dad but the armor-plated side of the presidential limousine. The armor did its job admirably well, but with disastrous consequences. As it was deflected, the bullet flattened into a dime-sized disk before striking my father, slicing into his chest beneath his left arm and lodging in his left lung, barely an inch from his heart, still unexploded.”
The jokes that President Reagan cracked while hovering between life and death have become part of American folklore. “Please tell me you’re all Republicans,” he muttered through blood-caked lips to an assembled host of somber, green-suited surgeons about to saw open his chest, a majestic line that, Ron Reagan reveals here, his father had already tried out on emergency room personnel. They’d been so busy cutting the clothing from his body that they failed to laugh, but Reagan, the consummate performer who could never resist an audience, went again with the zinger.
“Bleeding to death with a bullet in his chest, and he’s doing shtick. That was so Dad,” Ron Reagan writes, knowing that jokes, even great jokes, are a way of rejecting embarrassment and intimacy. He recalls finding his father “warm yet remote,” “fundamentally inscrutable,” “reflexively guarded,” and it’s in pursuit of this central mystery that he’s written a heartfelt book that, though choppy in structure and somewhat uneven in the writing, has many moments of great grace.
“My Father at 100" offers a running account of the journeys its author made, beginning in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library in Simi Valley, and then following the footsteps of his father’s early life. We see lineaments of a tale that is now history: the bog Irish ancestry; the birth in a “small second-floor apartment above a bakery in Tampico, Illinois"; the acquisition of the nickname Dutch (his drunkard father said he looked like a Dutchman); the heartland upbringing in Dixon, Ill.; the dashing lifeguard years in Lowell Park; the college career as football player and tyro actor; the seemingly reckless decision to take a shot at Hollywood. These familiar landmarks are glimpsed, however, from a perspective made surprising by intimacy and a sense of often-puzzled filial love. “He was seldom far from our minds, but you couldn’t help wondering sometimes whether he remembered you once you were out of his sight,” Ron Reagan writes.
One of the lessons here is that no father can be an uncomplicated hero to his own son. Ron Reagan dropped out of Yale to study ballet; he became, first, a dancer, then a left-leaning political commentator, and though he makes it clear that he and his father often failed to see eye to eye, his book is less concerned with ideological differences than the pains and wonders of family entanglement. “You’re my son, so I have to love you. But sometimes you make it very hard to like you,” his father tells him. Oedipus throws that long shadow, even, or maybe especially, if dad is a figure as large as Ronald Reagan. There were father/son contests of athletic prowess, wrestling bouts and not always jovial swimming races. During Ron’s years of counterculture rebellion, the two almost come to blows at the Reagan ranch in Santa Barbara, an ugly moment “soon edited from our family lore.”
Ron Reagan gives us funny and measured views of his father’s qualities as an antagonist. “Dad never really raised his voice; instead his tone would steadily acquire more gravity, until whatever complaining you might be doing began to sound, in your own ears, like the squeaking of gerbils,” he writes.
But memory, and therefore memoir, tends to be a radioactive Pandora’s box, and “My Father at 100" lives best in its indelible dramas of hurt, love and loss. Ronald Reagan bravely told the world that he had Alzheimer’s, and Ron Reagan shows his father sinking into the sad abyss of memory loss, occasionally snapping out to revisit some pungent memory of youth. The grand old man’s final moments are unflinchingly and poignantly evoked: “He lifted his head from his pillow, turning and straining towards the sound of his wife’s voice. In his gaze was a fierceness that seemed to reflect the desperate exertion necessary for this final expenditure of life force.” Reagan was determined that the last thing he should see on this earth would be Nancy — another mythic beat to add to the saga.
The 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth falls on Feb. 6. His presence still looms large, in part because he seems emblematic of a less compromised and more heroic and honorable America. That perception may or may not be corny and wrongheaded, but it’s there. “GOP candidates strenuously compete to see who can invoke his name in the most reverential way,” Ron Reagan writes. Yet the character of the 40th president remains opaque to us in ways that make Barack Obama or Bill Clinton or either of the George Bushes seem like open books. Reagan seemed to step off the soundstage and into politics as though it were just another role, A-list this time, and there are those, Gore Vidal for instance, who argue absence was his essence, that he was a nothing, a void of actorly hollowness, an aw-shucks mouthpiece for lines and attitudes that others fed him. Ron Reagan finds something else, something carefully guarded, ice-cold yet unstoppable, fused together with a relentless self-mythologizing tendency: “He was the solitary storyteller whose great opus, religiously tended always, was his own self.”
Reagan’s Rosebud, as Edmund Morris also suggested in his mad and magnificent official biography/faux memoir “Dutch,” was secret yet unstoppable ambition. Ron Reagan nails that, although his purpose is not so much to judge his dad as reclaim him. “If my father was knocked down, it was my business, my privilege, to pick him up,” he writes.
Rayner is the author of several books, including “A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming of Age.”