My Father at 100

A Memoir

By Ron Reagan

Viking. 228 pp. $25.95

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nolead ends nolead begins By Michael Schaller

Oxford University Press. 106 pp. $12.95

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Reviewed by Frank Wilson


These two short books about the 40th president have a good deal in common regarding Ronald Reagan's public life, but the one by Reagan's younger son is by far the more insightful, though not always in ways Ron Reagan may have anticipated.

My Father at 100 is frequently exasperating - Reagan fils often comes off as the quintessential bien-pensant, so taken with views fashionable in the circles he moves in as to be incapable of actually engaging with his father's ideas. Though he acknowledges that the elder Reagan had "a keen instinctive intelligence" and "an intensely active imagination," he also says that his father lacked "the patience for extended intellectual rigor."

One wonders if Ron has ever read Ronald Reagan: A Life in Letters, in the foreword to which former Secretary of State George P. Schultz notes that "a good writer is almost by necessity a good thinker." As those letters demonstrate, Reagan indeed wrote well - so does Ron, by the way - and continually revisited and refined his key notions over a 70-year period, giving a pretty good impression along the way of "extended intellectual rigor."

Politics necessarily figure in Ron's book, but are less central to it than one might expect. His memoir is really a chronicle of a journey to connect with a father who seems to have been anything but transparent: "Like all my siblings, I loved my father deeply, at times longingly. He was easy to love but hard to know."

A good deal of Ron's book focuses on Ronald Reagan's formative years in Illinois. Ron visits Tampico, the town where his father was born, as well as the other towns the Reagan family moved to (they moved frequently, and even lived in Chicago for awhile). Most of Ron's time is spent in Dixon, where the family lived longest, and where Ron thinks - and not at all fancifully - the elements of his father's character coalesced.

At 15, Ronald Reagan was hired as a lifeguard at Lowell Park, on the Rock River just north of Dixon. He would eventually rescue 77 people. "How many of his rescues were legitimate?" Ron wonders. "I'd put the number at . . . 77."

And these were not easy rescues. As Ron notes, "a river might look placid on its surface, but beneath the waterline powerful currents could be running, vortices and undertows that would sap the strength of even the strongest swimmer."

Ron understands that his father became who he was from such experiences as finding his own father passed out drunk on the porch and listening to his parents quarrel over his father's binges. Ron guesses, reasonably, that such things made for an introspective child who took refuge in reading, especially adventure stories - a child "already creating in his mind a patchwork account of life and his place in it," an account "he is at the center of . . . looming so large, in fact, that other people are sometimes reduced to props or bit players."

But the decisive factor, Ron concludes, was that job on the banks of the Rock River: "For the entirety of his long life, he will remain, at heart, dedicated to the one role that came entirely naturally to him: lifeguard."

For all his celebrity, Ronald Reagan seems to have been the quintessential loner: As Ron puts it, "you couldn't help wondering sometimes whether he remembered you once you were out of his sight." So it is understandable why Ron cherishes a note his father's nurse made on April 25, 2000. His father had apparently experienced "one of his increasingly brief flurries of focused mental activity while descending into the throes of late-stage Alzheimer's." The nurse's note reads: "3 mentions of Ron in about a 20 min. span of time."

Not surprisingly, there is nothing remotely as moving as that in Michael Schaller's brief summary of Ronald Reagan's career. Schaller's book is a clearly written model of narrative concision. But those who lived during Reagan's presidency - and especially the late president's admirers - may find themselves thinking they remember the era differently from the way Schaller presents it.

In Schaller's view, Reagan may not have had much to do with the key achievements often attributed to him. Take, for instance, the economy:

. . . critics question whether the president's policies had much to do with recovery and insisted that the nation paid a high price for modest results. Essentially all both sides agree on is that the country experienced a deep recession in 1981 and 1982, followed by a decade of economic expansion.

Well, a careful look at the Economic Report of the President 1996 indicates that real economic growth during Reagan's presidency amounted to 3.2 percent, which is hardly modest compared to his successor's 1.3 percent or his predecessor's 2.5 percent. It's also better than the 3 percent during the Nixon-Ford years, and better than Eisenhower's 2.3 percent. In fact, it is bettered only by the Kennedy-Johnson era's 4.9 percent. (At the time of the aforementioned report, growth during the Clinton administration had reached 2.6 percent.)

Rather than attribute any of this to Reagan's policies, Schaller states that the recovery came about because of the taming of inflation and the drop in world oil prices. He gives sole credit for the former to Paul Volcker, ignoring the fact that Reagan gave Volcker his full support, to the extent of appointing him to a second term as Federal Reserve chairman.

As for the Cold War, Schaller assures us that "the critical variable" was the selection of Mikhail S. Gorbachev to lead the Soviet Union. Actually, on relations between Reagan and Gorbachev, Ron Reagan comes off as more reliable than Schaller, if only because the younger Reagan was an eyewitness to the 1985 Geneva meeting when the president and the chairman went off for a long private talk. (Ron's account of his own private stare-down with the Soviet leader - who gave the young guy in jeans "a rather disapproving once-over" - is pretty amusing.)

Recounting the 1986 meeting of the two leaders in Reykjavik, Iceland, Schaller says that "Reagan left in a huff, giving the impression that the meeting had failed." Happily, Gorbachev "recognized that his effort to revitalize the Soviet economy and promote domestic reform could not be achieved without reducing military spending." And that is how, during the chairman's triumphant visit to Washington in December 1987, "as he walked the streets, crowds of well-wishers rushed to shake his hand," the "landmark treaty completely eliminating intermediate-range missiles" came about. At least Reagan had the decency to sign the treaty.

To be fair, Schaller is refreshingly alert to Reagan's pragmatism: " . . . liberals and conservatives often ignored [his] tactical flexibility. To achieve 75 percent of what he wanted in a pending bill, the president explained, he would happily give up 25 percent." But often, Schaller seems as perplexed by Reagan's presidency as Ron Reagan was by his father's personality. The difference is that Ron wasn't content to remain perplexed.

Frank Wilson is a retired Inquirer books editor. Visit his blog, "Books, Inq.-The Epilogue." E-mail him at presterfrank@gmail.com.