Ronald Reagan and his first wife, Jane Wyman, had two children, daughter Maureen and an adopted son, Michael. Patti and Ron followed with second wife Nancy Davis Reagan. Born in 1941, at the height of Reagan's popularity as an actor, Maureen was part of the picture-perfect family that, in the 1930s and '40s, Warner Brothers promoted as Hollywood's wholesome face. Michael was adopted later, in 1946. At a time when joint custody was virtually unknown, the children remained with their mother after Reagan and Wyman divorced in 1949.
Like her father, Maureen Reagan gravitated toward politics. In 1981, after campaigning for her father, she joined the crowded race for U.S. Senate in California. A series of comments from the Reagans and their circle made headlines. Ed Rollins, President Reagan's campaign manager, described Maureen, in her first bid for office, as unqualified; Reagan's brother, Neil, active in California politics though not an elected official, said in a radio ad, "We Reagans urge you to support Pete Wilson," Maureen's opponent. Though Neil insisted that he spoke only for himself and his wife, the statement was misleading, especially because President Reagan failed to endorse his daughter. In her 1989 memoir My Turn, Nancy Reagan pointed out that Reagan never endorsed any candidate. At least publicly, the damage was temporary. In 1984, Maureen campaigned for her father again, successfully courting women voters who had previously voted against Reagan.
Of the four children, three inked book deals to disclose firsthand accounts. Maureen's 1989 book First Father, First Daughter, a sensitive recounting of her relationship with her father, followed Michael's 1988 memoir, "On the Outside Looking In." While Michael admitted that he had intended to write about life with his famous father, he ended up with a book largely about his life as a victim of sexual abuse. In the book, Michael revealed that a camp counselor molested him when he was eight. His maladjustment in later years, he said, stemmed from unresolved feelings about the incident, not merely from a strained relationship with his father. Well received by critics, Michael's memoir caused a stir. When reports surfaced of Reagan's lack of public or private response to his son's revelations, his remoteness as a father was noted. According to all the children, this behavior was typical, and members of Reagan's administration noted that they recognized this remoteness as well.
The first child of his marriage to Nancy Reagan, Patti Davis, as she calls herself professionally, turned her long-running feud with her parents into a literary career. Throughout the '70s, Patti flouted her parents' conservatism, living with a member of the rock band the Eagles and participating in the nuclear freeze movement. After years as a struggling actress, Patti tried her hand at writing. In 1986, she published A House of Secrets, an undeniably autobiographical novel about a liberal young writer whose conservative father is the governor of California and then the president of the United States, and whose mother is an exacting woman obsessed with appearances and propriety. A long estrangement between Patti and her parents followed. In recent years, Patti has voiced regret at her rebellious behavior and accusatory writing. She and her parents reconciled briefly in 1993, shortly before Reagan's diagnosis with Alzheimer's, while she was writing Angels Don't Die: My Father's Gift of Faith.
Ron Reagan's relationship with his parents has been characterized as the smoothest. Born in 1958, Ron lived his entire life as a politician's son. (By this time, Reagan was edging toward politics, capitalizing on his position as a recognized conservative spokesman in his role as host of G.E. Theater.) Ron, following the lead of his three siblings, none of whom completed college, dropped out during his first semester at Yale in 1976 to pursue what he said was a lifelong dream (heretofore unknown to his parents) to become a ballet dancer. Ron Reagan drifted among careers, leaving the ballet to become a print journalist and then a TV newsmagazine correspondent. Perhaps his background in journalism has allowed him to speak with more objectivity than his siblings about his parents' remoteness from everyone but each other.
The distance between Ronald Reagan and his four children provided ample fodder for opponents who accused him of not practicing the family values he preached. The Reagans resembled a modern American family much more than the idealized one Reagan conveyed in his speeches and TV spots about a shining America. Like many families, divorce and geography divided the Reagans; unlike most, their conflicts played out before a national audience.
My American Experience
Who was your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Kennedy? Reagan? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?