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Monday, June 07, 2004 - Page updated at 12:28 A.M.

Spotlight singed Reagan children

By Corky Siemaszko
New York Daily News

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NEW YORK — Ronald Reagan's children grew up in his shadow and spent most of their lives trying to escape it.

Three of them, Maureen, Michael and Patti, wrote tell-all books in which they described their father — the man who made the term "family values" part of the political currency — as a loving but often distant parent.

As children of a Hollywood heavyweight, they grew up both resenting and craving the spotlight their dad's profession threw on them. And while all three faced unique difficulties as the adult children of a sitting president, all eventually reconciled with their father.

It was Reagan's namesake, Ron, whose life was the most disrupted by his father's ascension to the Oval Office. Although he was often at odds with his father's conservative politics, he remained loyal — even protective — of his dad to the very end.

Reagan's battle with Alzheimer's disease helped narrow the bitter divide between Ron and his mother. But he is burdened by his father's legacy.

"It just never goes away — I'm always going to be somebody's son," he said when his father first fell ill.

His firstborn
Maureen traumatized by parents' divorce

Maureen Reagan was the president's firstborn, his daughter by actress Jane Wyman. Born into celebrity, she was traumatized by her parents' 1948 divorce and felt frozen out when Nancy Davis married her dad in 1952.

"They don't need anybody else but themselves," she said in an interview.

Maureen leaned on her adopted younger brother, Michael, and both endured lonely childhoods in a succession of boarding schools — an ordeal she chronicled in her book "First Father, First Daughter."

A college dropout, Maureen emerged in the 1960s a conservative to the right of her father. While the country was convulsed by anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, Maureen condemned them as "Communist-inspired."

Maureen's first two marriages, in her 20s ended in divorce.

In 1982, Maureen made an unsuccessful bid for the Senate from California, and she later failed to win a congressional seat. She drew her father's ire when she bucked party leaders and began championing the Equal Rights Amendment.

Despite her oft-stated vow to never remarry, she fell for a Sacramento public-relations man 12 years her junior named Dennis Revell. They married and adopted a teenage Ugandan girl.

Maureen also drew close to Nancy Reagan.

Of her father's battle with Alzheimer's, she said: "This long goodbye — it's watching somebody disappear before your eyes and not being able to do anything about it. It hurts."

But Maureen said goodbye first. She died of melanoma, a type of skin cancer, in August 2001. She was 60.

The 'shmuck'
Reagan's adopted son grew up bitter, angry

When Michael Reagan was a boy, his father called him "shmuck."

The love-starved youth was so proud and happy that his pop had bestowed a nickname on him he insisted everyone call him shmuck. Then he discovered what the word really meant.

Whether or not the future president realized he was calling his troubled boy the Yiddish equivalent of "jerk" is not clear. But the fact remains that the adopted son of Reagan and Wyman grew up bitter and angry. He was, at one point, so estranged from his father that he had to go through the White House staff to reach him.

Michael, 58, doesn't blame it all on his dad.

In his best-selling "On the Outside Looking In," Michael wrote of being molested by a camp counselor, of his confusion over being adopted, of his anger about being shuttled from boarding school to boarding school — and from parent to parent.

He was hardest, however, on himself, revealing his bedwetting and his inability to find a career, stay out of debt and get along with parents.

After dropping out of college, Michael loaded freight cars, raced speedboats, sold chain saws, worked as a game-show host, acted in soap operas, gave motivational speeches and made headlines that embarrassed the White House.

First he was investigated for stock fraud and exonerated. Then he came under fire for using his father's name to hawk aerospace equipment.

But the event that nearly ruptured the relationship with his parents came when the Secret Service accused him of stealing knickknacks from the White House — a charge Michael denied.

Then in 1989, he stumbled into talk radio and after a few years became a rising right-wing star. He boasts that his is the No. 1 nightly radio broadcast in the country, with more than 2 million listeners who tune in every night to hear him lambaste the Democrats and take the GOP to task for betraying "the vision of Ronald Reagan."

Rebellious wild child
Patti Davis' views veered to the left

Patti Davis is Ronald Reagan's rebellious wild child.

When her dad was governor of California and denouncing anti-war protesters, she was out there with the students demanding that the U.S. pull out of Vietnam.

When her pop was running for president in 1976 and trying to court conservative Republicans with appeals to morality, she was shacking up with Bernie Leadon of the Eagles rock group.

Then, in 1992, she unloaded on her family in "The Way I See It," a memoir in which she described her father as clueless and her mom as a pill-popping shrew who slapped her around.

"I thought it was important for them to hear the truth," said Patti, now 51.

Reagan's daughter by Nancy Reagan, Patti began using her mother's maiden name when she dropped out of college and launched her acting career. She worked as a singing hostess at a Santa Monica, Calif., restaurant. Later she landed bit parts on TV series.

Eventually they patched things up, and Patti even donned a Dior gown and showed up for Reagan's inauguration. But the reunion was short-lived, as Patti alienated her parents with her racy novels and her candid appraisals of her dysfunctional family. Her decision to pose nude in Playboy at 41 was seen as another slap in the family's face.

But when Ronald Reagan went public with his Alzheimer's, Patti and her siblings raced home to be with their dad. In a touching tribute that appeared in Ladies' Home Journal, she wrote of her father's reaction when she told him she loved him.

"He looked at me, paused and asked, 'You did?' Because our troubled history had stood between us for so long, I felt my heart leap toward his words. ... But the truth is, he had simply mixed up the tense."

The good son
He was loyal despite disagreeing on policies

Ronald Prescott Reagan tried to be the good son. He waved and clapped and smiled on cue, even though he violently disagreed with his father's politics.

He defended his dad against charges that he wasn't doing enough to combat the spread of AIDS. And while his siblings wrote memoirs that tarnished the Reagan family image, he kept what he really felt bottled up inside.

"Maybe it seems like I'm closer to my family because I'm the only one who hasn't written a book slamming them," Ron Jr., 46, said in a 1998 interview. But by then it had been at least five years since he'd spoken with his mother, Nancy, and he was barely on speaking terms with his brother and sisters.

For a while, he hosted a talk program called "The Ron Reagan Show" that tried to give viewers an intelligent alternative to the other late-night celebrity gabfests. While it never generated big ratings, it did lead to a series of TV gigs as a freelance reporter for American Movie Classics, E! and the British Broadcasting Corp.

Most recently, Ron was a guest co-host on MSNBC's "Buchanan & Press" show. And he has reconciled with his siblings.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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