Reagan's family await merciful release
- The Sunday Times
by Sarah Baxter
HE was a key figure in ripping down the iron curtain
and ending the cold war, which brought the 20th century to a
close with America as the only superpower. Yet Ronald Rea-
gan's horizons have shrunk to his bedside as Alzheimer's
disease ravages his mind.
Michael Reagan, his elder son, believes that death
would be a merciful release for the former American presi-
"It's time for him to go. It's very sad," he said in an
interview. "I'm going to hate the day Dad dies. You think
you are ready for it, but you never are. But I sometimes
pray that if God wants to take him home, then take him
Reagan, 91, sleeps on and off for 18 hours a day,
according to his son. He was always a sound sleeper, even
when his policies were under attack in the 1980s.
His waking hours are a nightmare of befuddlement.
Reagan fell in the bedroom of his Bel Air home in
California in January 2001, broke a hip and has been bedrid-
den ever since. He is fed, washed and cared for 24 hours a
day by medical staff, but can neither leave his bed, even
for the most basic functions, nor make himself understood.
"Some days are better than others but they are all sad
days. You see a man who is referred to as the Great Communi-
cator and he can't communicate because he doesn't know who
he is. He talks gibberish," said his son.
Reagan does not know that his daughter Maureen died
last August of melanoma at the age of 60. On the day of her
funeral he stayed at home. "You wouldn't have wanted to tell
him," said Michael. "Even if he could comprehend, he would
have no way of expressing his feelings."
Michael, 57, was adopted as a baby by Reagan and his
first wife, the actress Jane Wyman. According to family
legend three-year-old Maureen was in a Hollywood chemist's
when the pharmacist asked what she wanted. She put 97 cents
on the counter and said: "I want a baby brother." Her birth
had been difficult, so the family chose to adopt.Today
Reagan's son is a radio chat show host in California who
buried some of his family demons with an autobiography more
than a decade ago. The children had many run-ins with their
emotionally distant father but Michael now visits him once a
month. "He doesn't know me, but I go there for Nancy, to
show up. I hug and kiss him," he said.
"In some ways I go there out of guilt. We're not like
every family I was at boarding school from the age of five,
so I'm seeing him more than I used to. It's the way our
family works, by appointment it's always been by appoint-
Nancy, who was 81 in July, still looks at Reagan ador-
ingly, said Michael. She wants others to remember him the
way he was but even she confessed last week that she was
lonely. She was not sure that her husband knew her any more
and said: "When you come right down to it, you're in it
alone and there's nothing anybody can do for you."
The strain is beginning to tell on her. "She's frail,"
said Michael. "She's much frailer than she would have been
because of Dad's illness. She's a professional worrier.
She's always carried a burden of some sort. She worries
about what people are saying about Dad, about his place in
"I worry that when Dad goes Nancy won't be far behind
because she lives and breathes for Dad." She need have no
fear about history's verdict on Reagan, whose virtues are
frequently invoked in this post-September 11 world.
"George W is closer to my father's ideology than he is
to his father's," said Michael, who believes that the Sep-
tember 11 attacks would not have happened under Reagan. "He
responded to the Muammar Gadaffis. They knew where he
stood." Despite backing Bush, he thinks his father would
have disapproved of the "giant conversation" under way over
Libya was bombed in 1986 after a terrorist attack on
Americans in West Berlin. "Dad didn't hold a press confer-
ence saying what we'll do with Gadaffi. He just did it,"
Reagan's descent into Alzheimer's was remarkably rapid
after he left the White House in 1989 and soon became impos-
sible to conceal.
Michael said Reagan's great ally, Margaret Thatcher,
was guest of honour at a birthday party for him in 1993.
"Dad gave Maggie a great introduction, as he always
did, and she got a standing ovation. Then the applause
stopped and Dad reintroduced her. Everybody stood up and
applauded again as if nothing had happened.
"After that Nancy and Dad felt it was time to start
thinking about getting the word out about Alzheimer's."
In 1994 Reagan published a touching letter about his
plight in which he said: "I only wish I could spare Nancy
from the painful experience."
He could not. By 1997 he was still active some golf,
walking on the beach but his mind was faltering. He would
spend hours sweeping leaves from the swimming pool and his
secret servicemen would quietly put them back, simply to
keep him occupied.
Every now and then he would show a flash of insight,
his son recalled. "My daughter Ashley hugged him and said,
"Grandpa, I love you." He looked directly at me and said in
a full voice, "You know why I'm hugging her? Because she's a
she." He'd remembered how Michael had complained about his
lack of hugs as a child.
Now Michael understands that Reagan was a typical post-
war father. At the time, however, the children were often
unforgiving and even today the family is politically divid-
At the launch of the battleship USS Ronald Reagan last
year, Nancy's children Patti Davis and Ron Reagan stayed
away. "They're the 1960s generation, the liberals. To them
the ship was a killing machine," said Michael. "I felt sorry
for Nancy that day. She fought hard to have the ship commis-
sioned before my father died. It had never been done in
anybody's lifetime before, so it was an honour. I was there
with my wife and children. George W Bush was there.
"Nancy and I have not always had the greatest of rela-
tionships and I began to wonder if the problem was not that
she's so angry with me but that she's jealous that the Wyman
kids Maureen and I would show up no matter what was going on
in the family."
Maureen was Nancy's chief support until she succumbed
to her own illness. In the past year Patti has grown closer
to her mother and believes the reconciliation makes her
father happy. Nancy said last week: "She thinks he has a
feeling of the two of us together. As she says, his soul
doesn't have Alzheimer's."
Michael is grateful. "When Maureen passed away, Patti
stepped up and she's there with her mother all the time.
It's been good for Nancy and it's great for Patti. She's
finally getting close to Dad."
Maureen sacrificed her own health, Michael believes, by
campaigning non-stop for an Alzheimer's cure instead of
fighting her cancer.The time is nearing when Reagan will
join her. "Maureen has been waiting for him for a year and
has probably got a good spot for him beside her. She'd love
it. No brothers, no sisters, no moms. Just her and Dad." For
Michael, it is a consoling thought.
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