When Maureen Reagan, an opponent of her father’s pro-life policies, considered a run for the U.S. Senate in 1982, reporters asked Reagan: Is she serious? Reagan’s reply: “I hope not.” Reagan’s brother, Neil, supported Maureen Reagan’s opponent.
The press used to revel in noting that the liberal Reagan children didn’t understand, much less support, their father’s conservative philosophical views. Now the press treats the children as an authority on his views and custodians of his ideological legacy. “Reaganite by Association? His Family Won’t Allow it,” headlines a New York Times story about the Reagans’ rejection of George W. Bush as an ideological heir to Ronald Reagan. By “family” here, the New York Times means the Reagans who agree with its editorial board. The Times makes sure to ignore Michael Reagan’s support for Bush’s policies.
Patti Davis, however, receives a careful hearing from the Times, even though her name change indicates that she’s never wanted to be considered a “Reaganite by Association.” No matter — her support for the “miracle of stem-cell research, a miracle the Bush White House thinks it can block” is too useful for the Times to pass up. The Times used to embarrass Reagan in life with reports on his daughter’s various pharmaceutical pursuits and drug experimentation; in death, they honor him with her expertise on stem-cell experimentation.
When Ron Reagan Jr. was a ballet dancer and Playboy writer, the press enjoyed reporting that father and son didn’t understand each other. They quoted Reagan as wishing his son pursued “more dignified” work than scribbling for Playboy. But the gulf of misunderstanding between father and son has rapidly closed, with the press turning to Ron Jr. for pronouncements on the meaning of the Reagan canon. The Times relays his comment that the Bush “administration is not my father’s — these people are overly reaching, overly aggressive, overly secretive and just plain corrupt.” The Times forgot to mention that Ron Jr. voted for Ralph Nader in 2000. Perhaps Ron Jr. considers Nader his father’s political heir.
Ron Jr. is far enough out on the liberal spectrum that he regards the Democrats as excessively conservative. In an interview with Salon last year, he called himself a “progressive,” rejecting both parties: “I’m certainly not a Republican; I couldn’t belong to any party that had leaders like Tom DeLay. And the Democrats are too busy trying to out-Republican the Republicans.” His eulogy last Friday was so gratuitously and aggressively anti-Republican television viewers might have mistaken him for one of Paul Wellstone’s kids. Will Ron Jr. run for political office? “I hope not,” one can imagine his father saying. But given the tone of his eulogy, it would be surprising if he didn’t. (At the very least he will harness the power of his father’s name for “progressive” causes and organizations his father spent his career opposing.)
The press also have a sudden interest in Nancy Reagan’s understanding of Reaganism. They no longer gleefully point out her reliance on astrology now that they find her scientific views on stem cells from destroyed embryos authoritative. In the 1980s when Nancy Reagan was urging her husband to oust or marginalize conservatives like Bill Clark from his administration — she derided them as “jump-off-the-cliff-with-the-flag-flying” types in her memoirs — the press reported Reagan’s resistance to his wife. The Washington Post even reported that at one point Reagan told Nancy to “Get off my goddam back!”
But these days the press accords Nancy Reagan canonical powers over the meaning of Reagan’s ideas and vision for the country. Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter has a pretty good hunch that Reagan would agree with him on stem cell research. “I’d wager he would have favored it,” writes Alter, who now informs his readers that Reagan was just a liberal adroit at persuading “his base to think he was with them even when he wasn’t.” How does Alter know that Reagan would support experimenting on destroyed embryos? “At Reagan’s core was his faith in the power of personal experience. His own personal experience revolved around Nancy, of course. If she passionately favored stem-cell research, it might have taken him a while, but he probably would have come around,” he writes.
In life, making Reagan come around was job one for the media. Not much has changed in death. The press’s idea of honoring Reagan’s “legacy” is to undo it — a task it seeks to accomplish by touting the liberal views of his wife and children (sans Michael) as his own.