The world came to know him as the Great Communicator, but Ronald Reagan's skills evaporated as people got closer. He could be warm and friendly but remote, as if he was only reachable by long distance instead of a local call.
This portrayal of a disengaged Mr. Reagan is a familiar one, and it crops up once again in his second son's new memoir My Father at 100. Unfortunately, Ron Reagan has little to add in his own affectionate but light and padded portrait of the 40th president.
The memoir made the news within the last few days because Ron Reagan claims that his father showed signs of Alzheimer's disease while in the White House and during brain surgery shortly after leaving office in 1989. Associates of the ex-president quickly and convincingly debunked the idea that the operation – and an unlikely 22-year conspiracy of silence – ever happened, casting a shadow of doubt over the veracity of the entire memoir.
Then again, there's little left in the book that's likely to raise any more more hackles if it's proven to be untrue. This is far from a tell-all book and barely qualifies as a tell-some.
Instead of serving up inside information, Ron Reagan focuses heavily on his father's early life and ancestry. He endlessly speculates about Reagan family forebears and throws in tedious history lessons about events like the Irish Potato Famine. ("If you had to choose just one food on which to subsist, you could do much worse than the humble potato.")
The historical interludes suggest that Ron Reagan doesn't actually have that much to say about his father himself. Still, the son manages to shine when he actually gets around to talking about his own sometimes-strained but always loving relationship with his dad, who was well past 50 when Ron was born.
Ron, one of Reagan's two children with his wife Nancy, kept a quieter profile than his wild-child and rebellious sister, Patti Davis. While his ballet dancing career raised eyebrows, Ron mostly kept his liberal views out of the public eye during his dad's presidency.
He didn't do the same in person. From a young age, Ron Reagan would occasionally challenge (and frustrate) his father, whom he describes as unable to reconcile his views of America with reality. "Tenderhearted and sentimental in his personal dealings, he could nevertheless have difficulty extending his sympathies to abstract classes of people, an obliviousness that was, understandably, taken for callousness."
For all its pleasantness and lack of self-analysis or self-criticism, "My Father at 100" sometimes provides a slap of the tension that underlies family relationships. "He told me you make him feel stupid," Nancy Reagan tells Ron about his tendency to argue with his father. When he looks back at a stern letter his father sent him about poor grades, Ron misses the decidedly non-intimate form of communication – a letter to a child living in the same house? – and goes deep: "I've become a useful (if aggravating) symbol, a stock character providing contrast to his own, more Appollonian, example." (No wonder Reagan sometimes felt dumb while talking to his son.)
Regardless of his detachment, Reagan doesn't come across as mean or vicious outside of the late 1960s, when California's long-haired war protesters brought out the worst in him during his time as governor.
Even as his mental powers drifted away in his last years, he remained as good-spirited as ever. In one of the book's most tender moments, Ron Reagan describes how his father, a onetime master swimmer now clad in water wings, loved to pluck magnolia leaves out of the family pool. Secret Service agents would collect the leaves and throw them in the pool so he'd always have some to clear out.
Ultimately, Reagan comes across as a nice guy with an overly sunny view of the world, a man who disappointed those closest to him but still retained their love. For a man whose critics accused him of being too simple-minded, his persona remains complex and curious.
Reagan's 1960s autobiography was titled "Where's the Rest of Me?," capturing a line from one of his movies. We may never know.
Randy Dotinga regularly reviews books for the Monitor.