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Usually, Reagan's assessments of his childhood are entirely wistful, but there was a hint of something else when he was asked recently if he ever saw his father in himself as a parent. His answer: "Yes, and maybe sometimes too much so. I don't know how to describe it because neither of my parents ever had anything in the line of a formal education, and yet there was a freedom to make decisions, and sometimes I find that maybe I go too far in that." That freedom to make decisions fits well with Reagan's political philosophy, but his answer leaves out a negative element of his own performance as a parent. A parent's philosophy of freedom leaves the parent free as well.
The main characteristics that Reagan displays —good humor, modesty, patience—are the attributes of fatherhood at its best. And from all appearances Reagan would seem to have been the compassionate father, the father to turn to in times of grief and disarray; the father of rich stories and silly jokes. Instead, his relationship with all four children—Maureen and Mike, his children with Jane Wyman, and Patti and Ron, his children with Nancy—seems to be that of deliberately created distances. The physical distances, the fact that the children were shipped off to boarding schools at young ages, seem an adjunct of the emotional distances—though the first two children lived with Wyman after she divorced him, so in their case some of the distancing was circumstantial. As for Patti and Ron, Reagan admits that he did not spend much time with them but blames his life as a celebrity and not his own desires. He tells dolefully of taking Patti to the opening of Disneyland and being beset by autograph hounds, spoiling a normal, happy family excursion.
Given that other celebrities manage to spend time with their children, Reagan's explanation does not make much sense. Still, there is no doubt that it makes sense to him. The regret he expresses about not having been more attentive to the children is sincere, if low level. Now, the children grown, they all seem much closer than before, which is interesting, as it suggests that Reagan, who bears much of the aspect of an adorable child himself, simply gets along better with grownups. The unceremonious wedding of young Ron a few weeks after the election offers a public sign that some vestiges of the old distances remain.
Yet in the odd child-parent pattern of the Reagan family, Ron's decision to marry suddenly with barely a last-minute word to his folks is perfectly traditional. It is widely known that Ron's parents have not managed to see a single ballet performance of their son, who is clearly very good, having been selected to the Joffrey second company, and is their son nonetheless. Ron talks of his parents with much affection. But these absences are strange and go back a ways.