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Reflections from Reagan's son

Of all the tributes to former President Ronald Reagan, the son remembering his father was one of the most moving. He, too, is an eloquent speaker with an easy manner and a gift for humor. Hardball’s Chris Matthews speaks with Ron Reagan, as he shares some poignant moments that the public never saw.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

President Ronald Reagan's farewell was a solemn ritual befitting a former head of state, but something unexpected happened during President Reagan's final American journey.

Thousands lined the streets for a chance to see his hearse roll by, tens of thousands stood in line for hours to file past his coffin. Ron Reagan, the late president's son, says the public's outpouring of affection for his father touched the Reagan family deeply.

Matthews: "Were you surprised that after all these years since he was president that it was so dramatic and wonderful?"

Reagan: "Well you think you know, jeesh, it's been 15 years since he's been in office. He's, for 10 years he's really been out of the public eye. And you think, Well, you know, there's affection but people forget."

But people didn't forget.

Reagan: "We were just astounded by what was happening, it built a momentum of it's own, the crowds and all. You know, when we'd go under an overpass, and the fire trucks would be there, and all the, you know, people would be saluting. It was just stirring. It was very moving."

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.

Reagan: "I remember what I used to love more than anything. He'd go swim laps in the pool, back and forth, back and forth. I couldn't resist for very long before I'd climb on his back and he'd just keep swimming laps. And I'd be hanging on his back. I can barely remember him raising his voice at any of his children. Certainly not at Nancy."

Matthews: "Really?"

Reagan: "Oh, yeah."

Matthews: "He never got angry? Or he never got out of sorts?"

Reagan: "Oh no, no. Never lost control, never, you know, sputtering, never, never lost control. Never."

Ron was at his father's bedside when he died, and was by mother's side as they shuttled cross-country last week on Air Force One.

Matthews: "There was a wonderful moment I thought when your mom was getting on the airplane to fly east. She turned around and waved."

Reagan: "Well, she's got, you know, a great sense of occasion and in the moment, and she was such a trooper the whole way. I mean, you know, she's 83 years old now. She's not as spry as she used to be. The rest of us were exhausted and we're a little younger. And she must have been just wrecked. But boy, she kept her chin up and just kept going."

However, he says at times he and his mother found the silence and the somber tone of the Capitol difficult to bear. 

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: "While I recognize the history, and was interested in it, I have to confess that I mostly was thinking 'that's my father in that casket.'"

The grandeur of the state funeral at the National Cathedral was comforting, he says, and uplifting. The music touched him.

Matthews: "And that 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 they played us out of the Cathedral with, I almost lost it."

He went back with me to the Cathedral this week, back to where his father's coffin was placed.

Reagan: "It was quite a moment, quite a place."

Matthews: "It was like this."

Reagan: "He was right here."

Matthews: "It seemed so evocative of almost a royal funeral."

Reagan: "There was something Middle Ages about it almost. The king is dead, long live the king. There was something, I don't know. I was touched by it. I'm sure my mother was, too."

And he says, he was moved by the eulogy given by former President George Bush.

George H.W. Bush: "As his vice president for eight years, I learned more from Ronald Reagan than from anyone I encountered in all my years of public life."

Reagan: "He was feeling genuine emotion. And he was there and it couldn't be contained, that we were all fighting, you know, to keep a stiff upper lip, and that just made it that much harder. But it was sweet, and it was nice, and it was heartfelt."

At the burial in California, it was Ron's turn to speak, and the son showed some of the rhetorical gifts of the father.

Ron Reagan: "He is home now, he is free. The idea that all people are created equal was more than mere words on a page, it was how he lived his life. 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 has 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."

Matthews: "That was in many ways the most remarked upon moment in a very dramatic week."

Reagan: "Well, what I find interesting about it is that everybody assumes that 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. There's a lot of-- I think there's a lot of false piety floating around Washington."

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, you know."

Matthews: "Including Iraq?"

Reagan: "Including Iraq."

This isn't the first time that Ron Reagan has criticized President Bush. Ron says he is an Independent, but his views have often been far more liberal than those of his late father. And that's part of a developing struggle over President Reagan's legacy.

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 Reagan’s, that's for sure."

Matthews: "But the case to make, 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."

Ron says 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 that 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."

At the burial, he says, he was most concerned about his mother. In the moments before his father's body was to be lowered into the grave, Ron could see his mother was faltering.

Reagan: "And she approached the casket and we could just see her, you know, after the whole week just starting to dissolve. And so we just, as one, sort of rushed up there to be with her and support her there. I mean, it's a very difficult thing. They've been together for a long time. And she was conscious that, you know, now she wasn't even going to have the casket anymore. That he was going into the ground now. And that this was goodbye. Yeah. So it was a touching moment for all of us, and very affecting."

President Ronald Reagan was at peace. But for his son, the memories of the father he loved, and his suffering with Alzheimer’s, are still fresh. Ten years ago President Reagan told the world he had the disease. His devoted wife of 52 years, Nancy, rarely left his side.

Reagan: "She 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."

This very public couple retreated into their own private world. Nancy called it the long goodbye.

Reagan: "It’s a death sentence, you know that there's no recovery. And it's just a slow, fading away."

Eventually Ronald Reagan could not even speak.

Reagan: "You know, 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 sad."

Matthews: "Could you see him trying?"

Reagan: "Yeah. He would. And sometimes you could sort of tell, you could almost tell by the cadence what he was, what he was getting at, and that he was telling a story. You know, you could almost imagine what the story was, because we'd heard most of them before."

Then, as the disease continued to ravage his mind, the great communicator forgot his greatest accomplishment of all.

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 he really, to the very end, his personality remained in tact. His nurses used to say the same thing. He was just such a sweet man."

At the very end, Ron says his father's love for Nancy broke through the cloud of the disease that had taken his mind, and was taking his life.

Matthews: "What happened at the end?"

Reagan: "Well, he hadn't opened his eyes for about three days, I guess. But literally, with his last breath, he opened his eyes and looked at my mother. And suddenly there he was again. His eyes were blue."

Matthews: "And you felt him. He's there."

Reagan: "Yeah."

Reagan: "It was beautiful and very peaceful. You know, my father always said, or he wrote my mother once, that she was the first thing he wanted to see in the morning and the last thing he ever wanted to see. And that's how it worked out."

Nancy Reagan lost her love, but the battle they fought against Alzheimer's gave her a new cause to champion.

Nancy Reagan: "Ronnie's long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where I can no longer reach him, and now science has presented us with a hope called stem cell research."

Ron says that stem cell therapy has the potential to treat dozens of diseases, including Alzheimer’s.

Reagan: Diabetes, Parkinson's, on and on, this is, you know, this is an issue that is very dear to her heart."

In 2001, President Bush heavily restricted stem cell research on moral grounds, because the extraction of the cells destroys human embryos.

Reagan: "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 she go head to head with the president?"

Reagan: "If that's what it took, yeah, 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, change his policy?"

Reagan: "Oh, I couldn't speculate on that."

Matthews: "You've got to believe they're thinking that. What's it going to take to get Nancy here?"

Reagan: "Well, that would help. If he said, ‘Okay, I'm going to change my mind now. I've seen the light… Nancy has shown me the 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: "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 is, you know, history will take care of itself. Those of us who knew him, knew him as a good man."

Last Friday, Nancy accompanied her husband for the last time. Ronald Reagan's final ride ended at a sunset service in Simi Valley. Their love affair had lasted until his last breath.

Matthews: "’Til death do us part."

Reagan: "Uh-huh."

Matthews: "She meant it."

Reagan: "Yeah, absolutely."