Reagan’s son sees a deficit of civility

For a moment, I forgot a chapter of U.S. history. Given a chance to hear an insider’s take on the presidency, I asked Ron Reagan to tell the best and worst things about having a father in the White House.

He’d been talking for half an hour. He freely shared memories, along with views of what he expects to be “a very exciting campaign” in 2008.

Then came my best-worst question. His silence lasted long enough that I knew I’d touched a nerve, but not so long that I remembered why.

“The worst thing is watching your father get shot on national television,” he finally said.

“Of course,” I stammered. I hadn’t thought of March 30, 1981, the day President Reagan and three others were shot and wounded by John Hinckley Jr.

Ron Reagan was in Nebraska that day, touring as a dancer with the Joffrey Ballet. He learned the news from a Secret Service agent while having lunch with his wife, Doria. The Secret Service chartered a Learjet to fly them to Washington, D.C.

The president had famously wisecracked, “Honey, I forgot to duck.” His son said he nearly died. “A fragment of the bullet was within an inch of his heart,” he said.

Ron and Doria Reagan live in Seattle. They moved to the Northwest more than a dozen years ago, after the 1994 Northridge earthquake struck their hometown of Los Angeles.

Reagan, 48, is a political commentator and talk show host for KIRO radio. His show airs from noon to 1 p.m. weekdays on 710 AM.

For the eve of Presidents Day, he talked last week about his experiences in the White House and his unique perspective on the highest office in the land.

First, an answer to the other half of my question: “The best thing was to be privy to things most people don’t get to see. You are inside the room when something significant happens,” he said.

Nudged for specifics, Reagan said he was in a house in Geneva, Switzerland, when his father first met Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. “A White House aide and I were listening at the door. We were eavesdropping,” he said.

Politically, he and his father didn’t see eye to eye. Reagan is now an unabashed critic of the Bush administration.

“I never campaigned for my father,” said Reagan, who was 22 when his father was elected in 1980. Unlike his then-outspoken sister, Patti Davis, who wrote unflattering accounts of her upbringing and publicly disagreed with her father, Ron Reagan kept any differences to himself.

Back then, he said, “people would only be interested in my political opinions in a way that could hurt my father.”

He did host “Saturday Night Live.” The episode is more memorable for his send-up of Tom Cruise dancing in his skivvies than for any comic jabs at President Reagan.

Since the former president died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2004, Ron Reagan and his mother, Nancy, have spoken with one voice about federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. They see the possibility of an Alzheimer’s cure in research opposed by President Bush.

“This is the first time my mother and I have been allied on a particular issue and made a point of that,” he said.

While his father was solidly conservative, Ron Reagan remembers the 1980s as a time of greater civility than today.

“My father didn’t take political disagreements personally, and he didn’t question people’s patriotism,” he said. “In the intervening years, we have seen an erosion of that sensibility.”

He attributes the change to extremes of the Christian right. “If you assume God is on your side, people opposed to you will be on Satan’s side, working for Beelzebub. It’s demonizing people and attacking people,” Reagan said.

Looking toward 2008, he sees exciting races but also candidates who have Achilles’ heels. “In a nutshell, the leading contenders on both sides have somewhat similar problems,” he said.

Republican John McCain will have a tough time “getting out of the primaries,” Reagan predicts. “Conservatives don’t like him.” And while Hillary Clinton “is favored still in the primaries. The question for her, once she’s out of the primaries, is could she possibly win?”

He’d like to see presidential races shortened, vigorous debates and campaign finance reform to “level the playing field.”

Reagan offered tips if you’re ever invited to the White House. “It’s a public building,” he said. “You look out the window and notice people lined up against the fence with telephoto lenses. They probably have photos of you, with a towel wrapped around you. It’s not a comfortable place.”

Speaking of comfort, he suggested choosing the Queen’s Bedroom over the Lincoln Bedroom. The mattress is better.

Was it hard not having what most kids consider a normal life?

“That was just the way I grew up,” Reagan said. “It might have been different had he been less famous and was suddenly running for president.

“He was a movie star before he was governor. He was always famous, my entire life.”

Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or muhlsteinjulie@heraldnet.com.

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