Out of the Past, Fresh Choices for The Future

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Neil Reagan, now a retired advertising executive in California. After Tampico the Reagans move around for a while and then to Dixon, a back-porch and lemonade town on the Rock River. Father is a sometime shoe salesman and a sometime alcoholic. Mother, a Scottish Protestant; father, Irish Catholic. Ronald takes the faith of his mother.

At high school in Dixon, "Dutch" plays football. His eyes are weak; he is undersized for his age; still he plays the line. He also joins the basketball team, takes part in track meets, is elected president of the student body. Along the way, he works as a lifeguard at a local river and rescues 77 people, a record of sorts, preserved in notches on a log. He is Midwest perfect, down to the requisite transgression. Mellow on homemade wine one night, he mounts a traffic stand and bellows "Twinkle, twinkle, little star." On to Eureka, where he wins letters in football, track and swimming, and joins the dramatics club. (Here the repeated good lines: "Nature was trying to tell me something. Namely, my heart is a ham loaf.") He pays his way through school, his family so poor they move into a single-bedroom apartment with an electric plate. Neighbors carry supper over to them on trays. At Eureka, he is again elected student-body president. In a regional drama competition, his performance as a shepherd wins honors. The idea of working in radio occurs to him as a halfway measure between acting and respectability. He lights out for Chicago, and the rest is folklore.

The element missing in such accounts is what it feels like to-be Ronald Reagan. His autobiography, Where's the Rest of Me? takes its title from the most memorable line he ever delivered as an actor, when his legs were amputated in King's Row. As his presidency goes on, that title is bound to turn on him, as Why Not the Best? turned on Jimmy Carter, though with Reagan the question will be less accusative than mystifying. That self-diminution, the trustworthiness, the aura of the towhead, the voice—all comprise a figure one takes to the heart. But where is he in this process? What clobbers him? He offers no signs now. Back in Dixon he did offer something, however small.

He wrote a poem in high school and called it "Life," as all high school poems must be called. It went as follows:

I wonder what it's all about, and why

We suffer so, when little things go wrong?

We make our life a struggle,

When life should be a song.

Our troubles break and drench us.

Like spray on the cleaving prow

Of some trim Gloucester schooner.

As it dips in a graceful bow...

But why does sorrow drench us

When our fellow passes on?

He's just exchanged life's dreary dirge

For an eternal life of song...

Millions have gone before us,

And millions will come behind,

So why do we curse and fight

At a fate both wise and kind?

We hang onto a jaded life

A life full of sorrow and pain.

A life that warps and breaks us,

And we try to run through it again.

The poem is odd, baleful—not an unusual tone for a teenager generally, but neither is it what we would expect of the peppy, clean-cut teen-ager that was young Dutch Reagan. Examined under a sad light, "Life" is the poem of a boy who either wants

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