It was all her idea. GOP gadabout Maureen Reagan once confided in an exclusive interview with me about how she told her dad way back in 1961, “I thought he could be president in 20 years.” Maureen Reagan – Mermie – who recently succumbed to cancer at age 60, was a large, pretty woman, wearing, on the spring day we spoke back in 1989, a sweeping black swirl of a skirt, a sumptuous silk shirt and insouciant red shoes.
The occasion was her memoir, “First Father, First Daughter,” but she was not quite Daddy’s Little Girl, ideologically speaking. At the time, the former talk radio host – daughter of President Ronald Reagan and his first wife, actress Jane Wyman – admired the scandalously free-thinking Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. At the time, she stood for feminism and long scarlet fingernails, a Ford Mustang and room service, the ERA and a third husband 12 years her junior, sleeping in Lincoln’s bed and seeing his White House ghost.
“One of the great myths of our town was that Ronald Reagan took naps. Ronald Reagan never took naps. He hates to nap. Hates it more than anything,” she declared. Then where did those dastardly canards start? “Well, at the time of the assassination attempt, there was time in the end, built into the afternoon for about a month after he had gone back to work, where he was supposed to go upstairs and not keep as full a schedule,” she explained. “And people who looked at the schedule every day from then on, who saw the 12 or 14 or 16 events that he would do in a day, refused to admit publicly, the media people, that this was a president who was working very hard.”
Did she see her father’s movies and think, Ohmigosh, Dad!, or was he just a guy? “No. Dad was the guy that took us to the ranch. He was the one with the funny stories. He was the one with whom we had adventures. No, I never thought of him as bigger-than-life. I just always thought of him as Dad. That’s why it was always such a surprise when I heard people talking about him in the context of being an actor or a politician, and their own characterizations of him. The way a friend of mine called me when he was running for governor and said, ‘Oh, Ronald Reagan is so sexy!’ Well, I said, ‘My father is sexy? Give it a rest.’ No, really,” she recalled. “I didn’t say he wasn’t handsome. It’s just that it’s very hard to think of your father as sexy.”
When she was a child, did she ever imagine one day her father would be president? “No, when I was a little girl, I never thought about it. When I was a big girl I thought about it,” she grins. Really? “Well, I told him in 1961 that I thought he could be president in 20 years. And the problem that we had was that he was a registered Democrat at the time, and I couldn’t figure out how to get around that,” she says. Hmmm – what made her say that? “Well, I had become very active in volunteering in 1960 elections. As with most envelope-stuffers,” she said dryly, “I was now an expert on politics.”
How did he react to her notion? “He laughed.” But he had shown political acumen, heading SAG and such. “Well,” she replied, “I always thought of that as community action. I never thought of him as being a partisan person. It was a great shock to have found he was.”
When did he take this to heart, her idea becoming his? “Well, I don’t think it had anything to do with an idea of mine, I think it was just a statement I made to him,” she said. But apparently she recognized something, she saw a quality, what? “The fact he was able to articulate in language everybody could understand, problems and solutions that had us involved. … And that was something that had been very missing from the political scene for a long, long time.”
The way the presidency is structured, I asked her, how much does it really matter what that one person does or is or believes? Because presidents are insulated by so many advisers, so much cabinetry, so many bureaucrats. Is it really different that there’s a George Bush or a Jimmy Carter or a Ronald Reagan when there is so much administrative forest surrounding the man? Does the country run itself, or limp along? “The country doesn’t run itself, and it does much more now today than limp along,” she asserted. “Ronald Reagan as president made a difference, yes.”
Many people believe a whole series of events were set into motion by various U.S. political assassinations. Did she subscribe to any theories of conspiracy, that perhaps JFK was killed in retaliation by Castro or the mob, and then George Bush as head of the CIA was part of some subsequent deal? “I haven’t figured out exactly what, which of the conspiracies I might think, agree with, but in my deepest recesses in my soul, I don’t think we have all the answers on the Kennedy assassination. I’ve never believed that we have,” she said. “And I can’t tell you why. I just don’t believe that we have all the answers. I don’t think Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.” Did she see any links between that assassination and Dr. King’s and the others’? “Well, that’s kind of hard to know, but the thing that’s important is it all emanates back to one event – the one event that just somehow doesn’t sit well with the American psyche.”
But, I persisted, does she think they’re connected? “There’s a good possibility,” she conceded. “There could be a possibility of that, but again, there’s no way of knowing, without coming to grips with that first one.” Does she think her father knew more than he told her about that? “No, I don’t think so. He served on the CIA commission, the Rockefeller commission of the Ford administration, and I asked him about it then. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was words to the effect something had been looked into, and everybody felt the information was out. Which means if all the information was out, and somehow our collective national psyche does not accept that as being enough, then something, some piece of information, wasn’t put into the system. Because it’s not coming back out.” Does she think he ever lied to her out of necessity or national security? ”You mean when he was President?” Then, or any other time? “I don’t think so,” she said.
What would she say about her struggles for personal independence? “I think everybody who comes out of a family of overachievers starts off with a little bit of an identity crisis. And so you start from the negative position, not a positive position. You have to overcome things before you can get to your own self. It just takes longer,” said Maureen Reagan, who, ironically, planned to live to 100.