Ron Reagan, the youngest of Ronald Reagan’s children, returns to his father’s old stomping grounds in this road trip of a memoir. Setting out to reconcile the Gipper’s public warmth and charisma with “the enduring mystery of his inner character,” Ron Reagan heads for the tiny apartment in Tampico, Illinois, where his father was born a century ago; the swimming hole on the Rock River where he was a lifeguard; and Eureka College, where his grades and football career foundered even as he showed a knack for acting and politics.
Although the Midwest of Ronald Reagan’s youth proves as elusive as the man himself, each pit stop uncovers a cache of images and associations for the son to mull over. Ron Reagan, a liberal and an atheist by his teens, had a playfully contentious relationship with his conservative father—what the elder Reagan dubbed “this whole Oedipal complex thing”—and the friction seeps into these pages. He chides his father for being too hard on his own dad, a shoe salesman with a weakness for whiskey and a talent for collecting pink slips, and remains baffled at what he perceives as Ronald Reagan’s political aloofness, perhaps the birth pangs of the Alzheimer’s disease that took his life.
The son’s appraisals, kneaded into a narrative rich in compassion, give this short, quasi-political memoir a veracity uncommon to the genre. “In the end,” Ron Reagan writes, “the joy of my journey—visiting Dad’s former haunts, discovering unknown family members, teasing forth the threads of his personality—was in the seeking.”
This review first appeared in the February 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.