WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Ronald Reagan's farewell was solemn ritual befitting a former head of state. The public's outpouring of affection for his father touched the Reagan family deeply.
“I don't think anybody who was in the middle of it is ever going to forget it—not my family,” says Ron Reagan, the former president’s son.
“It's been 15 years since he's been in office. For 10 years, he's been really out of the public eye. And, you know, there's affection, but people forget,” he says.
But people didn't forget.
Ron Reagan sat down with Chris Matthews to talk about his father’s final moments, the Reagan legacy, his pointed remarks at the funeral, his mother, and helping find a cure for Alzheimer’s.
Now 45, Ron Reagan is a political contributor for MSNBC. As Ron and Nancy's youngest child, he says he has many fond childhood memories of spending time with his dad.
Remembering his father
RON REAGAN: I remember I used to love more than anything—he'd go swim laps in the pool, back and forth and back and forth. I couldn't resist it for very long before I'd climb on his back, and he'd just keep swimming laps, and I'd just be hanging on his back. I can barely remember him raising his voice at any of his children, certainly not at Nancy.
CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: He never got angry? He never got out of sorts?
REAGAN: Oh, no. No, no. Never lost control. Never, you know, sputtering—never.
On the final days
MATTHEWS: You were at your father's bedside when he died and with your mother as you both shuttled cross country last week on Air Force One. There was a wonderful moment, I thought, when your mom was getting on the airplane to fly east. She turned around and waved.
REAGAN: Yes. Well, she's got a great sense of occasion and the moment. And she was such a trooper the whole way. She's 83 years old now. She's not as spry as she used to be. And the rest of us were exhausted, and we're a little younger. And she must have just been just wrecked. But boy, she kept her chin up and just kept going.
MATTHEWS: What was your feeling going into a place where you knew Jack Kennedy had been laid out, where Lincoln had been laid out?
REAGAN: Well, I recognized the history, and I was interested in it. I was mostly thinking of my father, who's there, you know, in that casket. The funeral was certainly one of those moments where you had to sort of bite your tongue a little bit to keep from, you know, welling up and spilling over. The music that they played us out of the cathedral with—I almost lost it.
MATTHEWS: It seemed so evocative of almost a royal funeral.
REAGAN: There was something of the Middle Ages about it, almost. You know, the king has died, long live the king. There was something—I don't know. I was touched by it. And I'm sure my mother was, too.
MATTHEWS: What did you think of George Bush’s eulogy?
REAGAN: He was feeling genuine emotion—it was there and it couldn't be contained. And you know, we were all fighting to, you know, keep a stiff upper lip. It just made it a little harder. But it was sweet and it was nice and it was heartfelt.
On his pointed remarks at the eulogy
Ron’s eulogy in many ways, the most remarked upon moment in a very dramatic week.
During his speech, he 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 is a profound difference.”
He seemed to have criticized George Bush – and if he did, it wouldn’t have been the first time. Ron says he's an independent. His views have often been more liberal than those of his late father, and that's part of the developing struggle over President Reagan's legacy.
REAGAN: Well, what I find interesting about it is that everybody assumed I must be talking about George W. Bush, which I find fascinating and somewhat telling. If the shoe fits...
MATTHEWS: Were you?
REAGAN: Well, I said “many politicians.” If he's lumped in that group, then fine. Fine. That's all right. I think there's a lot of false piety floating around Washington and...
MATTHEWS: Ron, do you feel deeply that the president has used religion to make his case for the war with Iraq?
REAGAN: I think he's used religion to make his case for a lot of things.
MATTHEWS: Including Iraq?
REAGAN: Including Iraq.
MATTHEWS: Many of the people in this administration who are most hawkish claim a Reagan mantle here in fighting this war. Should they?
REAGAN: No. With all due respect, I don't think they knew my father as well as I did. And another thing I would observe is that my father never felt the need to wrap himself in anybody else's mantle. He never felt the need to pretend to be anybody else. This is their administration. This is their war. If they can't stand on their own two feet, well, they're no Ronald Reagans, that's for sure.
MATTHEWS: But the case that is made for preemptive, preventive war is you have to be aggressive, you can't simply contain the other side. You can't contain communism. You must beat it. Ronald Reagan taught us that. You can't contain Saddam Hussein. Ronald Reagan would have knocked him out.
REAGAN: Well, Ronald Reagan didn't knock him out. Ronald Reagan did not send troops into Iraq. He was interested in peace. He hated war.
Despite that, he really didn't mean to stir up a political controversy with his eulogy and he wanted to make it clear that he appreciated the president's generosity to him and his family last week.
REAGAN: He was very nice about providing anything the family wanted -you know, staying at Blair House, the use of Air Force One and everything. And that made life a lot easier, and we're all grateful to him for doing that.
Ten years ago, President Ronald Reagan told the world he had Alzheimer's disease. His devoted wife of 52 years, Nancy, rarely left his side.
REAGAN: [My mother] was there every day, you know, with him, had every meal with him, even, you know, when he no longer could speak or really recognize people or even when he was just sleeping.
Alzheimer’s is a death sentence. You know that. There's no recovery. People with Alzheimer's eventually lose the ability to understand language and to use language, but they can feel love. That was sort of a tragic irony. For a guy who used to love to tell stories and jokes and things to not be able to speak was—you know, was sad. Sometimes you could sort of tell -- you could almost tell he was trying by the cadence what he was getting at and that he was telling a story. And you know, you could almost imagine what the story was because we'd heard most of them before.
MATTHEWS: When did he forget being president?
REAGAN: Well, it was probably five, six years in, maybe. But I couldn't say for sure. But the remarkable thing was that, really, to the very end, his personality remained intact. His nurses used to say the same thing, that he's such a sweet man.
Stem cell research
MATTHEWS: You say that stem cell therapy has the potential to treat dozens of diseases, including Alzheimer's.
REAGAN: Diabetes, Parkinson's, on and on. This is an issue that's very dear to her heart.
MATTHEWS: In 2001, President Bush heavily restricted stem cell research on moral grounds because the extraction of the cells destroys human embryos.
REAGAN: But there's no down side to this. There's no real moral problem here. We're talking about cells in a petri dish, not creatures with brains and spinal cords and fingers and toes.
MATTHEWS: Will you mother go head to head with the president?
REAGAN: If that's what it takes, yes. Sure. She's doing what she thinks is right, and she doesn't care who's standing in her way.
MATTHEWS: Would she be willing to go to the Republican convention in New York this fall and speak for the president if he promises to open up stem cell research and change his policy?
REAGAN: Oh, I couldn't speculate on that. I just...
MATTHEWS: You got to believe they're thinking that, “What's going to take to get Nancy here?”
REAGAN: Well, that would help. If he said, OK, I'm going to change my mind now. I've seen
the light. You know, Nancy has shown me light, and I'm going to change my mind on stem cell research. And would you please come to the convention and address it? Under those circumstances, she might.
MATTHEWS : You says your father's love for Nancy broke through cloud of the disease that had taken his mind and was taking his life. What happened at the end?
REAGAN: Well, he hadn't opened his eyes for about three days, I guess. And but literally, with his last breath, he opened his eyes and looked at my mother. Suddenly, there he was again. His eyes were blue.
MATTHEWS: You felt him. He was there.
REAGAN: Yes. It was beautiful and very peaceful. You know, my father always said that—or he wrote my mother once that she was the last thing he ever wanted to see. And that's how it worked out.
MATTHEWS: What do you want the country and the world forevermore to think of Ronald Reagan?
REAGAN: That he was a decent and kind man who did his best to live a good life, as he understood it. History will take care of itself. Those of us who knew him knew him as a good man.