DATE July 22, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Ron Reagan Jr. talks about being invited to speak at
the Democratic National Convention next week and his political
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The Republican convention will include a tribute to the late President Ronald
Reagan. His son Ron Reagan will not be part of the tribute, but he will be at
the Democratic convention next week. And to some Republicans, this makes him
a traitor to his father's legacy. At the Democratic convention, Ron Reagan
will speak about the importance of pursuing embryonic stem cell research.
Stem cells have the potential to develop into many different cell types.
Scientists believe that these cells, when transplanted in a human body, can
evolve into replacements for cells that have become defective or degenerated
and, therefore, can potentially help treat such diseases as Parkinson's and
Alzheimer's as well as spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease and
diabetes. President Bush has banned the use of federal funding for stem cells
from embryos destroyed after August of 2001.
We invited Ron Reagan to talk with us about his decision to speak Tuesday and
to reflect on his life as the son of a beloved and controversial president.
He's edited a new book in which well-known people are asked what they would
say if they had five minutes with the president.
Your father is the hero of the Republican Party. Why did you decide to speak
at the Democratic convention?
Mr. RON REAGAN (Son of President Reagan): Well, because they asked me. I'm
aware that some people see this as the Democratic Party using me for some sort
of political advantage. I suppose it's fair to say that they're using
everybody who speaks at their convention. I thought about that and I came to
the conclusion that that may be true, but then I'm using them, too. And I
thought it was worth it, worth the slings and arrows to get the word out about
embryonic stem cell research, which is what I'm talking about.
GROSS: Is this something that you would not have felt comfortable doing if
your father was still alive?
Mr. REAGAN: No, I don't think that would've made much difference. My
family's been involved with promoting embryonic stem cell research for some
time now, and it's an important issue. It could be potentially an enormous
medical breakthrough, and this is--it's worthwhile, I think, to get it out
there in front of the public, even if that's in a Democratic National
Convention. I'm not a Democrat; I'm not a Republican. I've never belonged to
a political party, don't plan to join one. This will not be a political
GROSS: Why won't it be a political speech? You would be limiting your
remarks to stem cell research and not a larger critic of the Bush
administration, although you've been very critical of President Bush in the
past. So why are you limiting it to stem cell?
Mr. REAGAN: Well, that was what I was asked to talk about, and also I'm
aware that some people will be waiting to see if I seize the opportunity to
lash out at the Bush administration or something, and I won't. That's not why
I'm there. I'm there to talk about embryonic stem cell research, which should
be a non-partisan issue. It shouldn't be politicized at all. Now I would
argue that there are some in this administration that have politicized it. I
think this administration's policy regarding embryonic stem cell research is
wrong-headed. You will recall not too long ago, the president said that he
would allow research on 60 or so existing stem cell lines. We then found out
that there weren't 60 or so existing stem cell lines. There may have been,
oh, around a dozen.
But in any case, that's not enough. It's not enough to carry the research
forward. This is important research. It needs to be done. It could save
millions of lives around the world, and that's just not a political issue to
GROSS: How did this become your issue?
Mr. REAGAN: Well, it should be everybody's issue. I was interested in it
when I first began reading articles in, oh, Scientific American and things
like that, just talking about the promise of this sort of therapy, the
potential for saving lives and helping people. And then, of course, my mother
became interested in it. I think that she was probably drawn to it initially
because of the hope that it might offer a cure for Alzheimer's which, of
course, my father had. That hope is still alive, although it will probably be
of benefit for people who have other diseases before those who suffer from
Alzheimer's. Nevertheless, you know, her interest spurred my interest some
more, and we've just been speaking out on it when we can, doing what we can.
GROSS: Now because you're speaking at the Democratic convention, there've
been headlines like this, and let me read you a headline from the latimes.com.
Mr. REAGAN: Oh, I can't wait.
GROSS: OK. `To GOP, he's dishonoring his father; affronted Republicans
scramble to discredit Ron Reagan's scheduled speech on embryonic stem cell
research at the Democratic convention.' Are you feeling the heat? Are people
trying to discredit you?
Mr. REAGAN: Oh, I'm sure that they are. I think somebody called me a grave
robber at some point, which I thought was pretty over the top. This is
expected. This is what some people who work in politics do when they have a
disagreement with somebody, even if it's over something like embryonic stem
cell research, which is, you know, a medical scientific issue. They tend to
try and personally discredit the messenger. If they can't really argue with
the message, they discredit the messenger. We saw that at earlier, you know,
in other realms with Richard Clarke when he came out with his criticism about,
you know pre-9/11 intelligence and all that sort of thing. This is just what
happens. It's expected.
GROSS: You said that you think embryonic stem cell research is being
politicized. How do you think it's being politicized?
Mr. REAGAN: Well, I don't know what President Bush personally feels about
embryonic stem cell research. I take him at his word that he thinks that
destroying these very early-stage embryos--We're really talking about the
cellular level here; we're not talking about a fetus, we're not talking about
something with fingers and toes. I take him at his word that he feels that
that is tantamount to murder, that you're taking the life of a human being,
essentially, when you do that. I would disagree. I think you can make a
But if he's going to make that argument, and it is a moral argument, then you
have to be, it seems to me, morally and intellectually consistent. Now I
haven't heard this administration call for the shutting down of in vitro
fertilization clinics, for instance, where thousands of embryos are discarded
every year. Those embryos are the same sort of embryo that one would be using
in embryonic stem cell research.
So if the embryonic stem cell research embryos are human beings deserving of
legal protection, let's say, well, so are the embryos in the in vitro
fertilization clinics. Now nobody's going after the IVF clinics because that
would be political suicide. A lot of people of all political stripes, you
know, trying to get pregnant avail themselves of those technologies in the IVF
clinics. So instead, we're going to pick on embryonic stem cell research in
an effort, I suspect, to appeal to what people refer to as the base, the
Republican base, which are made up in large part of evangelical Christians who
have very strong feelings about life beginning at the moment of conception.
GROSS: Were you invited to speak at the tribute to your father that the
Republican convention will hold?
Mr. REAGAN: No, I was not.
GROSS: Were you invited to attend at all?
Mr. REAGAN: No.
GROSS: Your mother was invited to attend, and I think she declined, right?
Mr. REAGAN: I believe that's correct, but you'd have to check with her to be
sure. I believe that's correct, though.
GROSS: Do you feel that you should have been invited even though politically
you were not supporting the Republicans but it's your father?
Mr. REAGAN: Oh, no. No, I didn't assume that I would be invited to the
Republican convention. I'll be there working for MSNBC doing commentary and,
you know, coverage of the convention.
GROSS: So you'll be at the convention but representing MSNBC.
Mr. REAGAN: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: Will that be a little uncomfortable, being both journalist and persona
non grata at the same time?
Mr. REAGAN: Well, this won't be my first Republican convention that I've
been, you know, at least on the fringes of, and I've been, you know, not a
Republican for quite some time, so I guess I'm used to that.
GROSS: During the 2000 campaign, you said something that was very widely
quoted. You said that you thought that George W. Bush was not qualified to
be president, and you said, `What's his accomplishment, that he's no longer an
Mr. REAGAN: Yeah, I didn't put it exactly that way. That's how it was
quoted. The words `obnoxious drunk' did come out of my mouth, but I'd like to
think that I said it a little more gracefully than that. I was sort of posing
a rhetorical question when I said that. He had just come out with his
campaign autobiography in which he played up his drinking problems to quite
some extent and sort of put that up as his--well, as a great accomplishment of
his, which I don't argue with. He stopped drinking, and that can be very
difficult to do when you've been drinking a lot. And I simply used that as
sort of the tag line to several paragraphs where I talked about how and why I
thought he was unqualified for the job of president. And of course, that was
the thing that was picked up and spread around. And, you know, I stand by it.
I have to. I said it, so...
GROSS: Well, thanks for the context.
Mr. REAGAN: Yeah.
GROSS: How does his performance in office compare to your expectations?
Mr. REAGAN: Well, of course, when I said that, 9/11 hadn't happened yet, so,
you know, the stakes weren't as high, or they didn't seem to be as high. But
I would say that Mr. Bush, on the whole, has proved me right. I think he is
unqualified still to be president of the United States.
GROSS: And are there specific things that you think he's done particularly
Mr. REAGAN: Well, the war in Iraq would certainly be top of the list. We
now know from the Senate Intelligence report that virtually all of the
intelligence that we had that was used to justify our invasion and occupation
of Iraq which has led to the deaths of hundreds of Americans, young Americans,
virtually all of that intelligence was wrong. It was exaggerated. We were,
in effect, lied to. We were at the very least misled. Further, the aftermath
of the war, the occupation, has been terribly mismanaged to the point where
you really have to say it's evidence of incompetence.
GROSS: Let me quote something else that you've said. You said, "The Bush
people have no right to speak for my father, particularly because of the
position he's in now." This was a couple years ago. You said, "Yes, some of
the current policies are an extension of the '80s, but the overall thrust of
this administration is not my father's. These people are overly reaching,
overly aggressive, overly secretive and just plain corrupt. I don't trust
these people." Do you feel like your father's legacy is in the wrong hands?
Do you think that his legacy is being misrepresented or misused?
Mr. REAGAN: Well, they do try and hold the current president up as a sort
of, I don't know, clone or natural descendant of my father. And listen, there
are political parallels, of course. Both men wanted to cut taxes. You know,
both men believe in a strong military, let's say. But I reject the notion
that this president is personally anything like my father. It's just not what
I see. I knew my father, of course, very well. I don't know this man
personally, but from what I gather, watching him on television, going about
his job as president, he just doesn't strike me as a man who's very much like
For one thing, my father never had to pretend to be anybody else. He was very
comfortable being himself. You never saw my father running around or his
people running around trying to pretend he was really another
fill-in-the-blank, you know, really another FDR, really another Nixon, I don't
know, whoever you choose. He stood on his own two feet. This administration
seems reluctant to do that. They like to invoke him to, oh, I don't know,
bolster their credibility, I guess.
GROSS: My guest is Ron Reagan. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Ron Reagan. He's speaking Tuesday at the Democratic
Did you feel any conflicts at the funeral between what you wanted as a son and
what happened, you know, in the funeral of a president. You know, I mean, I
think there's a desire for a certain intimacy in a family funeral, but I mean,
he wasn't just family. I mean, he was a former president, so there's--yeah.
Mr. REAGAN: Yes. Yes, you're right, and of course, we knew going in that
there was going to be a certain amount of pomp and circumstance. Yeah, sure,
personally I guess I would have just preferred to keep him close to home and,
you know, put him in the ground quietly. But these are plans that had been
made years in advance. He had approved them. They were his plans, my
mother's plans as well. This is what he wanted. This is what he approved,
and so by God, this is what was going to happen and what we were going to do.
And you know, we just wanted to, as a family I think, honor his wishes that
week and do right by him.
GROSS: You spoke at the funeral, and let me quote the part of what you said
that was most widely quoted. You said, "Dad was also a deeply unabashedly
religious man, but he never made the fatal mistake of so many politicians,
wearing his faith on his sleeve to gain political advantage. True, after he
was shot and nearly killed early in his presidency, he came to believe that
God had spared him in order that he might do good. But he accepted that as a
responsibility, not a mandate. And there was a profound difference. Humble
as he was, he never would have assumed a free pass to heaven. But in his
heart of hearts, I suspect he felt he would have been welcome there. And so
he is home. He is free." I think a lot of people assumed you were referring
to President Bush when you referred to how some politicians do wear their
faith on their sleeve to gain political advantage. Were you?
Mr. REAGAN: There is only one person that I was thinking of when I wrote and
delivered the eulogy, and that was my father. Now I think we can agree that
there are some politicians that wear their religion on their sleeve, but I
didn't have anybody in particular in mind. I was talking about his faith,
what it was and what it wasn't. I wasn't even aware until a few days later
that this had upset some people, what I'd said.
Some people called me on the phone and they said, `Well, boy, you know, you
sure kicked up a lot of dust with your eulogy.' I said, `Well, what do you
mean?' And they said, `Well, you know, the thing you said about President
Bush.' And I said, `I never mentioned President Bush. What are you talking
about?' They said, `Well, you know, that thing about religion.' `Oh,' I
thought, `I see.' It was curious to me and, I think, quite telling that
people who, some of them close to President Bush in the Republican Party,
assumed when I said that, that I must be talking about him. Again, I find
that quite telling.
GROSS: Now you've described yourself as an atheist, and let me just quote
something that your mother Nancy Reagan wrote in her memoir. She said, `One
thing that bothers Ronnie'--your father--`One thing that bothers Ronnie is
that Ron doesn't go to church. It means a lot to Ronnie to attend church
every Sunday, but Ron has a broad view of religion, and his own faith is
individualist and private. It bothers me that his father doesn't understand
that he is religious in his own way.' What was your father's reaction to your
own stance as an atheist?
Mr. REAGAN: Well, he was disappointed because he was a religious man; he was
a Christian. I remember I think I was about 12 years old when he came into my
room one Sunday morning to see why I wasn't all dressed up in my suit and
ready to get in the car and drive to church, and I told him that I wouldn't be
going anymore, that I didn't believe in God and that I would feel like a
hypocrite going and sitting in a church and pretending. This disappointed
him, but he didn't say anything, you know, like, `Get your suit on, young man,
and, you know, get your but in the car. We're going.' I think he realized
that this is a decision that everyone has to make in their own lives, and
while it bothered him, it wasn't his place to make any demands upon me that
We had discussions about it. He tried to convince me otherwise. He even had
the pastor of our church come and have a conversation with me, but I was
unmovable. And, you know, we would have recurring conversations throughout
his life, throughout our lives together about this, and I'm sure it did bother
him, but again, he wasn't going to twist any arms to get his way.
GROSS: You say your father didn't wear his faith on his sleeve, but he did
have the support from the moral majority and other evangelicals and people on
the religious right, and in some ways, he helped them establish themselves as
a major force in the Republican Party. And I'm wondering if, having a son who
described himself as an atheist was something that he felt he had to hide
from some of his own supporters, or if he felt, you know, comfortable with
that. And were you put in a position where you were supposed to not let that
slip, you know, that you saw yourself as an atheist.
Mr. REAGAN: No. No one ever said that to me, and you know, I'm sure he
wouldn't go to a moral majority, you know, meeting or where he was going to be
giving a speech and say, `Oh, by the way, my son's an atheist.' I don't think
that would make much sense. I don't think he would invade my privacy that
way. And you know, it's not something I feel compelled to shout from the
rooftops or anything. It's come out lately, I think, because people have
asked me recently, you know, `Won't you run for office? Aren't you going to
get involved in politics and, you know, run for some higher office?' And the
answer is no. I'm not interested in that at all, and the best way to
forestall it, nip that in the bud is to just say you're an atheist, 'cause
everybody knows, having read the polls, that if you're an atheist, you can't
get elected to anything, at least not above dog catcher, so...
GROSS: How did you realize that you were an atheist?
Mr. REAGAN: Well, I've always been interested in paleoanthropology, for
instance. I remember when I was four years old playing in my room and my
mother walked in and I'd been sort of mulling over a question for a while.
And I looked up at her and I said, `Mom, were Adam and Eve the first cavemen
or the first people as we know them today?' I actually used the phrase `as we
know them today.' And she sort of looked at me with wide eyes and said, `I
think the first people as we know them today.'
But, you know, I began asking those sorts of questions early on, and it
occurred to me that, you know, some of the stuff in the Bible, for instance,
seemed an awful lot like some of the Greek mythology and Roman mythology and
Norsemen mythology and stuff that I was reading in school. And I just--you
know, I didn't believe that God only lived in a church. I didn't believe in a
god that cared, you know, what church you went to or what religion you
belonged to, for that matter, as long as you were leading a good life. I
didn't feel the need to--oh, I didn't feel threatened by hell or drawn to
heaven. I sort of figured those were metaphors for what you make of life here
on Earth. And I didn't need the threat of hell to compel me to lead a good
life. I figured that that ought to be a choice that every human being makes,
that we should try to be good as we understand that, because it's the right
thing to do, not because we might, you know, fry in hell later on if we don't.
Listen, people are entitled to their faith. You know, if it works for them,
great. My wife is a Buddhist. I have, you know, sympathies in that
direction. You can be an atheist and be a Buddhist. There's no god in
Buddhism. So, you know, I'm no enemy of spirituality, if you want to call it
that. But you know, a lot of the venom is just unfortunate.
GROSS: Ron Reagan will be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry
Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, more with Ron Reagan about life in the Reagan family. Also
critic at large John Powers considers what makes HBO different from the TV
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Ron Reagan. He's going
to speak next Tuesday at the Democratic convention to explain why he thinks
it's important to pursue stem cell research. He will not participate in the
Republican convention's tribute to his late father. Reagan has edited a new
book called "If You Had Five Minutes With the President."
Now this new book features people, you know, writing what they'd say to the
president if they had five minutes with him. Have you tried that exercise
yourself? If you had five minutes with President Bush, do you know what you'd
want to say to him?
Mr. REAGAN: Yeah. Well, I wrote in the forward that if I had five minutes
with just a president, any president, that I would probably ask them something
about Darwinian evolution. That seems, you know, willfully obscure, but the
way people think about that particular issue says a lot about how they view
the world and the universe that we live in. And so I'd want to know any
president's take on that to sort of gauge the sophistication of their world
view, you know, as a matter of science. If it were President Bush in
particular, I might be interested in that question, although he's already cast
some doubt on his belief in Darwinian evolution. I think he might agree with
Tom DeLay that it's, you know, `teaching kids that we evolutionized up from
the mud,' as he said after the Columbine atrocity.
But President Bush, I think I would be moved to ask him whether the innocents
in Afghanistan and Iraq, the innocent civilians there who've died under our
bombs, and there are now, oh, you know, 10, 15,000 perhaps of those people, if
in his mind they were going to be welcomed into heaven as he understands it.
I think that particularly given the times that we live in, where we're facing
an enemy, and it's a real enemy, who has a view of us as infidels and, you
know, that he's gonna drown us in a lake of fire and all that because we're
godless heathens, whether our own president thinks in similar terms of them.
The people, most of these people in Afghanistan and Iraq are, of course,
Muslims. Does he think that they're gonna go to heaven, these innocents,
these children in many cases who've died? You know, what does he think about
that and about them? Does he keep them in his prayers at night? Does he
mention them in his prayer circle? I think the answer to that would be very
GROSS: The five minutes that you've given the writers in this book, did you
ever have that kind of five minutes with your father when he was president?
You know, just like asking questions to the president as opposed to asking
questions to Dad?
Mr. REAGAN: No, I always just asked questions to Dad. I was asked by many
people who I worked for, you know, `Would you be willing to interview your
father?' and inevitably I would say no. It doesn't make any sense. I'm
the--you know, for me to actually interview my father in a professional
capacity or journalistic capacity, on the one hand, you know, I'd either be
ambushing him, which I wouldn't do, or I would be doing a puff piece, which is
pointless. So there would just be, you know, no reason for me to interview
him in that way. If I wanted to talk to my father, I could just go in and
talk to him. But it would always be father to son.
GROSS: The idea of family values was very important during your father's
administration, and family values were interpreted as being about the
traditional nuclear family, and it wasn't about feminism or there wasn't
really room for homosexuality, gay relationships, and in a way there wasn't a
lot of acknowledgement about how messy family life often is, the kind of
realities of divorces and feuds and just all the messiness of family life.
And because of that, I think some of your father's critics thought that the
pro-family agenda was based either on a fantasy or on hypocrisy, either in the
sense that even in your own family there were some of the problems that so
many families face. Your father was the first president to have been
divorced. There were times when your parents weren't on the best of terms
with their own children. You lived out of wedlock with a woman whom you later
married. Now, you know, didn't just about everybody do that? But it wasn't
part of the, you know, quote, "pro-family" agenda. That would have really
been condemned. Your sister, Patty, taught a seminar in recovering from
dysfunctional families. So I guess I'm wondering if it's the kind of thing
you ever wanted to talk with your father about, knowing that you were
violating some of those rules yourself just by, you know, living out of
wedlock with a woman who you later married and you've been married to for 20
Mr. REAGAN: Yeah, almost 24 actually. November it'll be 24.
Mr. REAGAN: Yeah, thank you. It's amazing how many people say, `You're
kidding. Twenty-four years? God.' It's kind of sad actually that, you know,
you're kind of singled out as being some kind of, you know, marriage icon...
Mr. REAGAN: ...after a certain amount of time. Well, you know, I've had
discussions with my father about some of these issues. I'm sure I can't
remember, you know, verbatim what exactly we said to one another years ago.
You know, this is a recurring theme in American culture and American politics,
certainly. We see it now with the whole gay marriage debate. It's curious to
me that for so long, you know, people who were pushing family values and
promoting marriage--and I believe that this administration is proposing that
we spend, you know, X number of billions of dollars to promote marriage in
certain communities, certain poor communities mostly, which may be all well
and good, but at the same time they're saying that, `There's a certain class
of people that we're not gonna allow to marry. You know, we don't like them
because, you know, they don't form stable relationships. But when they want
to form stable relationships, we're gonna stand in their way just because,
well, it makes us uncomfortable.'
You know, that's really what it is. I've heard religious arguments against
gay marriage. I've heard political arguments against gay marriage. I've
heard the emotional argument against gay marriage, which is really, you know,
what the others rest on, which is sort of a, `Yick, it makes me uncomfortable,
so let's have a law against it.' You know, we really need to get beyond that.
We need to be more mature as a culture. It's not gonna threaten any
heterosexual marriage. I've been married for 24 years. My wife and I aren't
gonna get a divorce just because Rick and Steve can, you know, now get
married. You know, that's just absurd. I have yet to hear a rational
argument for prohibiting homosexuals from marrying one another.
GROSS: I assume that through your father's early years in Hollywood and your
mother's closeness to so many people in the world of design, that they knew a
lot of people who were gay, and I'm wondering if you think that that affected
your father's political vies of homosexual rights.
Mr. REAGAN: My father was born in 1911. He was from a generation that
wasn't, you know, particularly comfortable with homosexuality. He grew up at
a time when, of course, it was all very closeted and all, but he at the same
time did know many gay men and I'm sure lesbians in Hollywood. He might not
have known he knew lesbians but...
Mr. REAGAN: ...I'm sure he must have. You know, and again, he saw these
people, he would have seen them as children of God, and he might have thought
that, you know, they had gone down some unfortunate path by being homosexuals.
I never asked him, but he might have thought that it was a choice instead of a
condition of birth. I don't know that, but that's possible. But, you know,
he never tried to scapegoat them or go after them. I know that some people
who associated themselves with him, you know, some of the Moral Majority, do
use gay people as scapegoats. They are the only minority now that you can
still slander with some impunity. But that's changing, you know. Give it
another generation or so and I think we'll see gay marriage and we'll see the
end of gay bashing, I would suspect.
GROSS: My guest is Ron Reagan. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Ron Reagan. We're going to talk about his late father,
You were eight when he was elected governor of California, and so after being
governor he became president. I mean, he was a busy man.
Mr. REAGAN: Yes.
GROSS: How much time did you get to spend with him?
Mr. REAGAN: Well, actually he was a busy man, but he didn't like to be too
busy. He guarded his private life jealously. He was the sort of person,
hard-working but not a workaholic. He didn't need the job to sort of complete
him, so he enjoyed coming home in the evening. We had dinner together more
often than not for sure. Most nights we would eat dinner together as a
family. And he loved to come out, you know, on the weekends or in the
evenings or whatever and, you know, get into a game of touch football on the
lawn with the, you know, neighborhood kids and me.
On the weekends sometimes, of course, he'd have to work and he'd be at home in
his office and, you know, going through papers or whatever, and, you know, I'd
have friends over, we'd be playing football, and I've move the game around to
the front yard because I knew that his window overlooked the front yard, and I
knew that if he saw us playing out there, that pretty soon, given a half an
hour or so, he wouldn't be able to resist leaving the desk and coming out and
playing with us, which indeed he would do. He would always insist on being
quarterback for both teams, 'cause he didn't want to, you know, seem unfair
choosing sides, and we had a sort of unspoken agreement that the two of us--we
never talked about it, but we just understood that this was the case--that if
he was playing quarterback on my team and I was, you know, going out for a
pass or whatever with the other kids, that he would look to the other kids
first to throw the ball to, and only if all of them were, you know, covered or
had fallen down or whatever, would he throw the ball to me, because he didn't
want the other kids to feel like it was all sort of nepotism and, you know, he
was favoring me in any way. And I understood that, and so we just had that
GROSS: Did he show movies at home, either his or favorites by actors who he
Mr. REAGAN: Yeah, we'd occasionally see movies in our house in Los Angeles.
He had a little projection booth in the living room, a tiny little room with a
projector in it and a little window you could slide a painting across the wall
and there would be these little, you know, windows for the film to be shown
through, and he'd set up a screen. You know, we'd do this thing with the
tripod and unfurl the white screen and all. And, yeah, we'd occasionally see
movies. Sometimes, you know, one of his, sometimes something else. I also
remember at--oh, I must have been, oh, I'm guessing 12, 13 years old maybe, he
took me aside and he said, `There's some stuff I want to show you here. I
think you're old enough now.' And he had been, during World War II, involved
with the outfit that would take in all the news reels and things that were
coming from the battlefields and overseas, and he had saved a lot of the
footage from the liberation of the concentration camps. And he wanted me to
understand how bad things can get, how awful other people can be to their
fellow human beings. And I remember to this day watching those raw, unedited
news reels, and it had quite an impact.
GROSS: How old were you?
Mr. REAGAN: I'm guessing that it's somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 to 13
GROSS: And did you talk about it with him afterwards?
Mr. REAGAN: Oh, sure. Sure. You know, just about the evil that can lurk in
people and how even good people can be bullied or somehow drawn into doing
these terrible sorts of things to other human beings, and how you always had
to be watchful for that, and to guard against that, you know, sort of
temptation in yourself--not to the extent, obviously, of concentration camps,
but that, you know, people are capable of bad things as well as good, and that
that's important to keep in mind.
GROSS: When your father was shot, I mean, obviously the nation was horrified.
You went to be at your father's bedside as soon as you heard about it. And I
guess I'm thinking about the impulse to protect your father and make sure he
spends a lot of time in bed and healing afterwards and slowly going about
recovery and not taking on too much, and then knowing that, you know, the
country wants him to, like, become president again, you know, like, assume his
duties again as soon as possible. Was that like a conflicting period for you,
you know, wanting to protect him from the burdens and pressures of the office,
and at the same time knowing that he really had to get back to it as soon as
Mr. REAGAN: Yeah, although we knew that my mother had that area covered
pretty well. There was nobody who was more protective of my father than his
wife. So that wasn't a huge concern. But, yes, you do feel protective. I
wasn't really crazy about him running for a second term because, you know,
there are more John Hinckleys out there who might, you know, feel compelled to
take a shot at him or whatever. So, yes, there's that protective feeling.
The more immediate feeling, of course, when he was shot was that I wanted to
find this Hinckley guy and, you know, beat him to death with my bare hands,
but--you know, which is something that I've tried to get over through the
years. But my father forgave him right away. He knew that he, you know,
couldn't ask forgiveness for his own sins, as it were, without forgiving the
crazy young man who had done this to him.
GROSS: You know, for most people who are lucky enough to have a parent who
lives into an old age, they also have the pain of watching their parent endure
pain or a terminal illness or dementia caused from Alzheimer's or another
illness, and, you know, it hurts to watch someone who you love, who had always
seemed to powerful when you were a child, now be in a weakened, compromised
state. Now for your father, he was not only your father, he was the former
president of the United States, somebody who was in a powerful state not only
for you personally as your father, but as, you know, head of the free world.
So were there parts of his personality that remain even when his memory was
gone and even when he couldn't, you know, communicate verbally with you
Mr. REAGAN: Yes, remarkably so. Even really up to the very end. He was
unable to speak and communicate effectively for some time, of course, but even
up to the very end you could see glimpses of his personality. He was actually
a very gentle man, a very kind man, very considerate of other people, treated
everybody the same. I mean, whether you were, you know, the doorman or the
queen of England, you got the same treatment from him. He was the same person
with you. And that was apparent right up to the end, as I said.
GROSS: Now you are a reporter and analyst now for MSNBC, and you've been
Mr. REAGAN: You make it sound very fancy, reporter and analyst. I'm
just--sometimes I think of myself as a citizen embed in the pundit corps.
Just sort of a pissed off citizen who often wonders what everybody's talking
about. Everybody's so interested in a horse race all the time, and I'm
thinking, you know, I'm interested in whether this is right or wrong, not
whether, you know, somebody's gonna score points off of it. So anyway--but,
yes, go ahead.
GROSS: Well, you've been working in the media, you know, for years, like
since the late '80s probably, yeah?
Mr. REAGAN: Yeah, yeah, mid to late '80s.
GROSS: And in a way, you know, I might have thought that, you know, growing
up in the media spotlight, that you might have wanted to get out of the media,
that you might have really not liked journalists or journalism. So I'm just
wondering how growing up in the political media spotlight affected your
thoughts on journalism and the media.
Mr. REAGAN: Well, I mean, you know, you realize that some people in the media
will sometimes be unfair, will take unnecessary shots. But, you know, you get
used to that. That happens to everybody who's in the public eye, whether
you're a politician or a, you know, movie actor or whatever it might be. As
far as getting into journalism, well, I didn't intend to originally.
Originally I wanted to be a ballet dancer and, in fact, was for a while with
the Joffrey Ballet. When I left that, I really was just sort of looking
around for some way to make some money, and I started writing for magazines
and then kind of fell into television in a way, but was amazed, having made,
you know, $11,000 a year as a ballet dancer, that you could actually make, you
know, like a living wage doing this television stuff. That was just
remarkable to me. And so, you know, I kept doing it and kept doing it and got
reasonably good at it, I guess, and then, you know, you turn around and you
look back at your resume and it's got all this stuff about television in it
and that begins to seem like, you know, kind of what your career is.
I'm not a real careerist. I have to admit, I don't sit around plotting my
career path all the time, which is probably a mistake and it's probably why
I'm, you know, where I am instead of some place grand. But, you know, that's
just the way I am. I guess I concentrate more on my private life than the
GROSS: Now I want to get back to next week. You'll be speaking at the
Democratic convention about stem cell research. This is speculation, I know,
and you might not be comfortable speculating about this, but do you ask
yourself what your father would have thought if he knew that you were speaking
at the Democratic convention, and if he knew that you were speaking on behalf
of stem cell research? So those are two separate issues, I think.
Mr. REAGAN: Well, I'd like to think that he'd be happy and proud that, you
know, his son or any of his children were speaking out for something that they
believed in, whether that was at a Democratic National Convention or somewhere
else. On the issue of embryonic stem cell research, many people have floated
the idea that he wouldn't have approved of it. They don't have any right to
speak for him, and I won't speak for him. I don't know what he would have
thought. I never had a chance to ask him. The person who knew him better
than anybody else on Earth, which is my mother, seems to feel that he would
have supported embryonic stem cell research, and so I'll take her word for it.
GROSS: How is your mother, and how is her health?
Mr. REAGAN: She's doing OK. This is difficult, of course. She was married
to him for 53 years. Now he is not there anymore. That's an adjustment that
you have to make, and it's a difficult one. But she's strong and I think
she's gonna be fine. She's got a new dog. Her good friend, Merv Griffin,
gave her a sharpei puppy, which she named Dutchess, after Dutch, of course.
And, you know, she's gonna be fine. The dog helps.
GROSS: Sure. I'm sure. Well, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. REAGAN: You bet. Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Ron Reagan will speak next Tuesday at the Democratic convention. He's
edited and written the forward for a new book called "If You Had Five Minutes
With the President."
HBO has received nearly twice as many Emmy nominations as any broadcast
network. Coming up, critic at large John Powers considers what makes HBO
different. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: HBO's unique programming
TERRY GROSS, host:
The Emmys were announced last week and leading the nominations with 21 was the
HBO miniseries "Angels in America." Next up with 20 nominations was the HBO
drama "The Sopranos," seven more than last year. Our critic at large John
Powers wasn't surprised by HBO's big tally.
JOHN POWERS reporting:
When the Emmy nominations came out recently, HBO received 124 of them, nearly
twice as many as the next highest network. The startling thing wasn't that
HBO got so many, but that anyone still found this startling. Well, HBO is far
from America's most watched network; in fact, all four of the major
broadcasters outdraw it every single day. It is the one that's been shaping
our popular mythology.
In a period otherwise dominated by reality TV, when the year's most quoted
line is, `You're fired,' HBO tells stories that have viewers talking. Is
Adriana going to get away with betraying the Sopranos? Will Carrie really
wind up with that aging reptile Mikhail Baryshnikov? And did you see this
week's "Six Feet Under" where that psycho hijacks David and starts messing
with the dead body?
Such excitement isn't purely a product of skillful writing, though that
shouldn't be underestimated. It's a question of imaginative intent. HBO's
best programs do for today's TV what the famous 1970s movies did for
Hollywood. They capture aspects of reality and create memorable characters
that go far beyond the norm of routine television. In fact, HBO is the
wayward id of network TV, its shows presenting a murkier and more amoral
version of already existing programs.
"The Wire" is "Law & Order" without either law or order. "Sex and the City"
is "Friends," but with sex and the city. The Italian-American family menace
of "The Sopranos" is a murderous mirror of "Everybody Loves Raymond." You
better watch out for those bullying matriarches. And "Six Feet Under" plays
like a metaphysical repose to "C.S.I." Both programs always begin with a dead
body, but where the cop show ties up everything neatly, Alan Ball's drama
about a family of morticians does just the opposite. It suggests that the
meaning of everything is always elusive, buried.
Just as the '70s movies took us inside bad behavior, with all those "Easy
Riders" and "Raging Bulls," HBO makes a specialty of showing us fascinating
jerks, from Tony Soprano to the yappish Hollywood hangers-on in its new series
"Entourage." None is more enjoyable than the self-absorbed Larry David of
"Curb Your Enthusiasm," which is like a "Seinfeld" that doesn't rein in its
Where network shows shy away from controversy--think of how CBS pulled its
Ronald Reagan biopic--"Curb Your Enthusiasm" gleefully brings sacred cows to
the slaughter. Here Larry David is about to renew his wedding vows when he
offends his rabbi with an off-hand reference to 9/11.
(Soundbite from "Curb Your Enthusiasm")
Mr. LARRY DAVID: All right. Everybody ready?
Unidentified Woman: Yeah.
Mr. DAVID: All right. Let's roll.
Unidentified Man: What? Let's roll? What did you say?
Mr. DAVID: What?
Unidentified Man: You knew that my brother-in-law died on September 11th.
How dare you say something like that?
Mr. DAVID: With all due respect, wasn't that just a coincidence? All right,
poor choice of words.
Unidentified Man: What the hell kind of a...
Mr. DAVID: All right, that's the wrong...
Unidentified Man: Oh, you know, I don't want to do this. Forget it. Forget
Mr. DAVID: Oh, I didn't know that if you died...
Unidentified Woman: Larry.
Mr. DAVID: ...Uptown on 9/11, that it was part of it, the tragedy.
Unidentified Man: Do I have to listen to this? Do I have to go on and on and
on about this?
Mr. DAVID: I didn't know that an Uptown death on West 57th Street was part of
Unidentified Man: All right, look, look. I don't think I want to do this.
POWERS: Perhaps nothing captures the network's allure better than its
brilliantly ambiguous slogan, `It isn't TV, it's HBO,' which allows it to play
a marvelous double game. HBO positions itself as classy programming for the
elite, while also implying that it will give you all the nudity and swearing
you can't get on free TV. It has the cache of PBS, only cool, and this makes
it catnip for the media folk who create the national buzz.
Of course, as a subscription channel, HBO doesn't have to make shows intended
to appeal to everyone. That was fine 40 years ago when the whole country
watched the same three channels. But we live in a big box culture now with
scores of channels and viewers raised on the idea of niche viewing. These
days nothing is duller than to be stuck in the middle, caught trying to appeal
to a mainstream that is becoming a trickle.
For the last hundred years, modern culture has been all about the creative
tension between high and low, trash and art. At the moment, nobody milks this
tension more neatly than HBO. It can offer both a high-tone production like
"Angels in America" and a lucrative franchise like "Real Sex," a series so
nudy and smirky that just watching two minutes makes me want to join the
HBO's best serials bring the high and low together at the same time. They're
great works of popular culture. They capture the crazy quilt texture of
contemporary life, where gangsters dream of getting into the movies, cops know
that nobody's quite clean, families share the same house but live in
voluminous solitude, and women talk about sex more frankly than men. At a
time when storytelling seems like a lost art, HBO has taught America to say
GROSS: John Powers writes the column On for LA Weekly and is the author of
the book "Sore Winners," which will be published next week.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.