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Book Notes

April 14, 2011

Book Notes: Book reveals much about Reagan

This year would have marked the 100th birthday of one of the most iconic presidents of the 20th century. Whether you agreed with him or not, Ronald Reagan was certainly a transformational figure in the Republican Party and one of the most celebrated as well.

In a fascinating personal look at the former president’s life and times, his son Ron Reagan reflects on his father’s place in history in “My Father at 100.”

Ron Reagan’s book is not a political tome. He does not discuss the political battles that shaped his father’s presidency. He leaves that for others to write. This memoir is taken from a totally personal perspective. The younger Reagan takes us back to his father’s historical roots and how his ancestors ended upemigrating from Ireland and settling in central Illinois. It is a refreshing and candid look at the development of a man who would go on to become the 40th president of the United States.

One of the most interesting things about Ronald Reagan is a conundrum. An appealing aspect of his personality was the comfort level the average American felt towards him, and vice-versa.

Publicly he was certainly one of the more upbeat presidents we’ve ever had. But he was very different in private. A part of him he didn’t reveal to anyone, even his wife. It meant that a lot of what his son imparts is pure conjecture since his father wouldn’t discuss many personal aspects of his life.

It doesn’t make the book any less fascinating. Ronald Reagan’s life growing up probably wasn’t much different from many others who came from immigrant families.

Others however didn’t go on to become the leader of the free world. One misconception that Reagan’s detractors seemed to believe was that he was not a deep thinker and thought he only saw things in black and white. That simply was not true.

Reagan did have a habit of mixing up fact and fiction but that did not make him a  simpleton. The younger Ronpoints out that he was an avid reader as a boy and loved using the library (always a point in his favor!). Although he passionately fixated on football growing up that was not the only reason he attended college. And just because he ended up in a relatively undistinguished acting career does not make him dumb.

The best parts of the book are not when the author writes about family history or conjectures about his father’s thoughts growing up. It is when he digresses into episodes in his personal life that he has with his father. That’s when you get a feel for the real Ronald Reagan.

One of the best stories involved swimming. Ronald Reagan was a lifeguard for several years as a youngster and liked to swim laps as he got older to stay in shape. As Ron the younger was growing up he and his father would race each other the length of their home pool and back. The elder Reagan would not ease up and let his son win feeling he should earn it. So the father never lost.

That is, until one day when young Ron was 12. He had taught himself the flip turn  and that turned out to be thedifference. His father still did the old-style touching the end of the pool before turning and lost the race. He was very gracious in defeat but the two of them never raced again. I presume the passing of the torch meant there was no longer a need.

There was also a great anecdote about Reagan the elder’s love of the outdoors.

One time when young Ron visited his parents’ ranch his father asked him to help retrieve stones to build a patio. The two of them found the stones and his father tried to drive their heavily weighed-down car through a shortcut over a hill to get back to the house. Their adventure showed that the former president didn’t give up easily.

Ron Reagan was a typically rebellious son as a teenager and often displayed a stubborn streak. It often led to clashes with his parents on issues ranging from school to politics. He even admits he’s much more liberal than his dad. But he was also very close to both his parents so things usually worked out. It probably says a lot for Ronald and Nancy that their kids were raised to think independently. It may not have made for a peaceful household but it was never dull.

The last part of the book covers the assassination attempt and how close the President actually came to dying. At the time the public really didn’t know how dire the situation was.

The first reports were that he wasn’t even hit. Ronald Reagan knew how to put on a brave front and didn’t collapse until he was inside the hospital. He later joked with the hospital staff hoping they were all Republicans (they weren’t).

A poignant moment is highlighted when Nancy goes in for surgery for a mastectomy. The Reagans were well known for their close, cuddly relationship.

During Nancy’s surgery the President was in the waiting room alone and his doctor was concerned enough about him to send in a nurse to comfort him. He ended up breaking down because he felt so powerless to help his wife.

Depending on your point of view Ronald Reagan may have either a great or not-sogreat president. But he comes across as a decent human being. His son Ron brings that point home in a very entertaining and enlightening book.

Both Reagan’s supporters and detractors should enjoy it.

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