Reagans' close relationship didn't always include kids

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - He was the nation's greatest booster of "family values."

He was also America's first divorced president. But Ronald Reagan's marriage to second wife Nancy was as close and strong a partnership as the White House has ever seen.


"I miss her if she just steps out of the room," he wrote in a 1990 autobiography, Ronald Reagan: An American Life, adding in his dedication, "I cannot imagine life without her."

She was at his side from the time of their Hollywood marriage in 1952 through his last years, as he suffered the ravages of Alzheimer's disease.


"There is a special place in heaven for caregivers," Maureen Reagan once said about her stepmother, Nancy. "She is the one who wakes up with it every morning, and goes to sleep with it every night."

Maureen, Reagan's daughter from his marriage to actress Jane Wyman, died of skin cancer in 2001.

Nancy Reagan was as much a partner in her husband's presidency as such powerful first ladies as Sarah Childress Polk, Rosalynn Carter and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"It was Nancy who pushed everybody on the Geneva summit [with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev]," former White House aide Michael Deaver wrote in his memoir, Behind the Scenes.

Reagan's relationships with his four children, however, often were far from the national ideal, or even the norm.

As narrator David Ogden Stiers noted in a public television American Experience documentary on Reagan, "He preached family values, but presided over a dysfunctional family."

Daughter Patricia "Patti" Davis, who uses her mother's maiden name, has even conducted seminars on the subject titled "Recovering from Dysfunctional Families."

The Reagans kept the Executive Mansion a formal place. When not entertaining, they invariably retreated to their cozy private apartment upstairs, leaving the staterooms of the mansion deserted and museum-like.


"There always seemed to be a controversy about when the Reagans had last seen the kids," recalled Reagan's press secretary, Larry Speakes, in Speaking Out, his White House memoir. "And who was coming for the holidays, if anybody."

Ronald Reagan and Wyman, who were married from 1942 to 1948, had another child in addition to Maureen: an adopted son, Michael, now a radio talk show host in San Diego. After Patti, Reagan and Nancy had a son, Ronald, a ballet dancer turned television correspondent.

"There was closeness, mostly when the kids were younger," said Wendy Weber, Patti's roommate at the University of Southern California and a former White House aide to Nancy Reagan. "But as adults, it was different. They spread their wings and showed their independence a little bit more. Maybe that's when the troubles really started."

Maureen said she and her brother were kept at arm's length from Nancy and the other two Reagan children for years. Patti was 7 before she was told of her sister, Maureen.

When she was 26, Maureen said she read an official biography of Reagan that said he had "two children, Patti and Ronnie."

Reagan did not attend his son Michael's wedding, going to Tricia Nixon's that day instead. According to Michael, the standard holiday invitation from Ronald and Nancy Reagan was "Come at 5 and be gone by 7."


Patti reportedly didn't invite her parents to her first wedding.

Reagan's election to the presidency brought most of the family closer, at least for a time.

Maureen recalled on the first inaugural night going to the Oval Office and swiveling back and forth in the presidential chair.

During her father's presidency, Maureen became a representative to the United Nations and co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee. She also moved into the White House.

"She was [at the White House] almost all the time, living with us and sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom, which she loved," Nancy Reagan wrote in her memoirs, My Turn. "These visits solidified her relationship both with her father and me."

Before her death, Maureen served as a sort of family spokeswoman concerning her father's illness, praising Nancy for giving her father "wonderful care."


"Dad's sickness hasn't been easy for my family," Maureen had said, "but it has led to some of the closest times we've shared."

The most estranged from the former first couple was daughter Patti, but the former president's Alzheimer's disease softened her outlook.

"I had a choice," Patti told reporters. "Am I going to try to look at it in a loving, forgiving way, or am I going to be a punk?"

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.