Ronald Reagan, the politician, has been enshrined as a heroic visionary by the right, celebrated for ending the Cold War and reducing the size of government, and invoked as a touchstone for all things conservative.
At the same time, he's been caricatured by the left as the dunderheaded godfather of a red-state America, promoting lower taxes for the rich, higher deficits and a more fragile social safety net.
Ronald Reagan, the man, has meanwhile eluded capture, described over the years in an assortment of metaphors and images that make him out to be more symbol than human being.
Now, on the occasion of what would have been the former president's 100th birthday, his younger son, Ron Reagan, has written a deeply felt memoir - a memoir that underscores the bafflement his own children often felt about their father, a man the younger Reagan describes as an inscrutable, "paradoxical character," "warm yet remote," "affable as they come" but with "virtually no close friends besides his wife," a man who "thrived on public display yet remained intensely private."
Though the younger Reagan - an avowed atheist with decidedly liberal leanings - would have philosophical arguments with his father over the years, their difficulties had nothing to do with politics but with emotional connection. The author says he never felt that his father didn't love or care for him but that he often seemed to be "wandering somewhere in his own head."
"Occasionally," Reagan writes, "he seemed to need reminding about basic aspects of my life - like birthdays, who my friends were or how I was doing in school. I could share an hour of warm camaraderie with Dad, then once I'd walked out the door, get the uncanny feeling I'd disappeared into the wings of his mind's stage, like a character no longer necessary to the ongoing story line."
Ron Reagan, who writes in charming, lucid prose, clearly wants to try to know his father, and his travels to the small Midwestern towns where his dad grew up become a Telemachus-like search for understanding as he deconstructs the former president's earliest dreams and ambitions and his relationships with his parents, his brother and his classmates. These chapters of the book have emotional detail and heartfelt power.
Unfortunately for the reader, the later chapters in the book are considerably more cursory, hopping and skipping oddly through Ronald Reagan's adult life, as if running out of time or space.
The most revealing passages on the Reagan presidency - which have already made headlines - concern the author's suggestion that his father had possibly begun to experience the beginning stages of Alzheimer's disease while in office. Ron Reagan writes that his father "might himself have suspected that all was not as it should be. As far back as August 1986 he had been alarmed to discover, while flying over the familiar canyons north of Los Angeles, that he could no longer summon their names."
The younger Reagan also writes that he became so distressed about his father's state of mind during the Iran-contra scandal - he describes him as "lost in a fog of depression and denial" - that he urged him over dinner to take more forceful action, while his mother, Nancy, sat by "in silent assent."
In these pages Ron Reagan reminds us that his father grew up in a small-town America vastly different from our own - "the shootout at the OK Corral was barely as distant" from his birth as "Ronald Reagan's first inaugural is from us today." He also argues that America and his father's temperament would indelibly mold the narrative Ronald Reagan would write (and edit and polish) for himself in which he always played the same role: "the loner, compassionate yet detached, who rides to the rescue in Reel 3" - a version of the role of heroic lifeguard he really played as a teenager, when he rescued an astonishing 77 people over the course of seven summers.