Reagan’s family allowed to mend differences in final years

By Alex Veiga: The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — In a week of enduring images, perhaps the most poignant came at the end.
Nancy Reagan, saying her final farewell to her husband of 52 years, rested her head on his casket, crying and caressing the mahogany coffin as she was surrounded by the president’s three surviving children.
They formed a picture of a tightknit family, loving and supportive, all the more touching because such unity had so often eluded them in the past.
The public perception of the former first couple’s relationship with their children, particularly with daughter Patti Davis, had long been one of a family divided.
The children found themselves competing for attention from a father whose time was split — first by acting, then by divorce, then by politics. In the end, however, all found a way to reconcile with a man they came to revere.
“The more I understood him, the more I began to love him as a father and put things behind me,” Michael, Reagan’s son from his first marriage, to actress Jane Wyman, told The Associated Press in an interview this past week. “I started to remember the wonderful times he gave me instead of the times he couldn’t be there because he had other obligations.”
The former president’s surviving children had been in the background while the nation mourned their father. Another child from Reagan’s first marriage, Maureen, died of cancer in 2001 at age 60.
Until Friday, they spoke about their relationships with him only in magazine columns or brief interviews.
But during the burial service at their father’s presidential library, Michael, Patti and Ron Reagan gave eulogies that honored him as caring, warm and committed.
“Honest, compassionate, graceful, brave,” said Ron Reagan, 46. “He was the most plainly decent man you could ever hope to meet.”
Davis, 51, wrote in an essay scheduled to appear in Newsweek this week that her father remained in shadow for much of her life.
“No one ever saw all of him,” she wrote. “It took me nearly four decades to allow my father his shadows, his reserve, to sit silently with him and not clamor for something more.”
America, she wrote, often seemed the family’s most important child.
“I resented the country at times for its demands on him, its ownership of him,” she said.
Davis and Ron Reagan, their father’s children with Nancy, rejected their father’s politics and spoke out against some of his policies as president, including those on the nuclear arms race and AIDS.
Patti even rejected her father’s name, adopting her mother’s maiden name instead, and published books that stung her parents. “Home Front,” her 1986 novel, was about a daughter who grows up in a powerful political family with a calculating and power-hungry mother.
The Reagans did not publicly comment about the book at the time but reportedly were hurt by its unfavorable allusions to the family.
For Michael and Maureen Reagan, it wasn’t politics but their parents’ divorce that forced them to sacrifice time with their father.
Michael Reagan, 58, a conservative radio talk show host and syndicated columnist, said he has since gained a better perspective.
“I think anybody who was raised in a family like ours as children, there’s something you always want — it’s attention,” he said in the interview with the AP. “I had to learn to understand that. You go through life, you grow up sometimes angry, because you’re not getting all the attention.”
As they grew older, and especially over the last decade as the president’s powerful personality receded into the darkness of Alzheimer’s, the criticism evolved into compassion, the hard feelings made way for understanding.
During Friday’s eulogies, Michael Reagan recalled that his father never spoke of him as being adopted but welcomed him into the family as his own son. He spoke fondly of Saturday mornings after his father and mother divorced when Reagan would take him and his sister to the family ranch for games, horseback riding and swimming.
“When his families grew to be two families, he didn’t walk away from the one to go to the other,” he said. “But he became a father to both, to Patti and then Ronnie, but always to Maureen, my sister, and myself.”
Davis reconciled with her parents in October 1994, two months before her father went public about having Alzheimer’s.
In Newsweek, she wrote that she and her mother decided to quit their “long dispiriting war, allowing the rest of the family to breathe easier, drift toward one another.”
She began praising her parents publicly and wrote warmly about her father in a column coinciding with the publication of a compilation of his letters.
Last year, she wrote a column blasting CBS and the producers of “The Reagans” for their unauthorized, made-for-TV movie, which depicted her family as dysfunctional and her father as a confused president controlled by his wife.
People magazine last week published her touching remembrance of the last days of her father’s life, including his final moment. His eyes, she wrote, hadn’t opened for days when suddenly they did, looking straight at his wife.
“They were clear and blue and full of love, and then they closed with his last breath,” she wrote. “If a death can be lovely, his was. The greatest gift you could have given me, my mother managed to say to him through tears, through ’I love you,’ through the towering beauty of that last moment.”
On Friday, she said her father had taught her as a child not to fear death, for it was natural and meant freedom from pain and sorrow. Still, she had a difficult time reconciling the disease that robbed the family of enjoying his final years.
“I don’t know why Alzheimer’s was allowed to steal so much of my father before releasing him into the arms of death,” she told guests at the burial. “But I know that at his last moment, when he opened his eyes, eyes that had not opened for many, many days, and looked at my mother, he showed us that neither disease nor death can conquer love.”