Reagan blasts Bush
"My father crapped bigger ones than George Bush," says the former president's son, in a flame-throwing conversation about the war and the Bush administration's efforts to lay claim to the Reagan legacy.
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By David Talbot
April 14, 2003 | The Bush inner circle would like to think of George W.'s presidency as more of an extension of Ronald Reagan's than of his one-term father's. Reagan himself, who has long suffered from Alzheimer's disease, is unable to comment on those who lay claim to his political legacy. But his son, Ron Jr., is -- and he's not pleased with the association.
"The Bush people have no right to speak for my father, particularly because of the position he's in now," he said during a recent interview with Salon. "Yes, some of the current policies are an extension of the '80s. But the overall thrust of this administration is not my father's -- these people are overly reaching, overly aggressive, overly secretive, and just plain corrupt. I don't trust these people."
Reagan spoke with Salon from his home in Seattle, where he lives with his wife, Doria, a psychologist. A former ballet dancer ("At 45, I'm afraid those days are over"), he has worked in recent years as a magazine journalist and a TV personality, currently hosting dog shows for the Animal Planet network ("I live 'Best in Show'"). He and Doria have three cats, but no children ("They're like kids, without the tuition"). Though he never followed his father into politics, Reagan takes a strong interest in public issues, serving on the board of the Creative Coalition, an organization founded in 1989 by performers like Susan Sarandon and Christopher Reeve to politically mobilize entertainers and artists. Reagan recently moderated a Creative Coalition panel discussion in San Francisco on the topic of free expression during wartime, featuring Alec Baldwin on the left and Michael Medved on the right (and a smoldering Sean Penn in the audience).
Reagan, still as lean as he was in his dancing days, has a sharp tongue -- but like his father, he has a knack for softening his barbs with a charming affability and disarming sense of humor.
Reagan took a swipe at Bush during the 2000 GOP convention in Philadelphia, which featured a tribute to his father, telling the Washington Post's Lloyd Grove, "The big elephant sitting in the corner is that George W. Bush is simply unqualified for the job... What's his accomplishment? That he's no longer an obnoxious drunk?" Since then he's been quiet about the current occupant of the White House -- until now.
Some observers have compared Bush's persona as an intellectually challenged but politically gifted leader to that of Reagan. But the younger Reagan vehemently rejects the analogy. "The gunslinging cowboy, the actor who just read his lines -- that stereotype doesn't fit who my father really was.
"My father had decades of experience in public life. He was president of his union, he campaigned for presidential candidates, he served two terms as governor of California -- and that was not a ceremonial office as it is in Texas. And he had already run for president, against Ford in '76, nearly unseating the sitting president in his own party. He knew where he was coming from, he had spent years thinking and speaking about his views. He didn't have to ask Dick Cheney what he thought.
"Sure, he wasn't a technocrat like Clinton. But my father was a man -- that's the difference between him and Bush. To paraphrase Jack Palance, my father crapped bigger ones than George Bush."
Reagan says he doesn't have anything personal against Bush. He met him only once, at a White House event during the Reagan presidency. "At least my wife insists we did -- he left absolutely no impression on me. But Doria remembers him very negatively -- I can't repeat what she said about him, I'd rather not use profanity. I do remember Jeb -- a big fella, seemed to be the brightest of the bunch. And of course their parents were very charming."
But Reagan has strong feelings about Bush's policies, including the war in Iraq, which he ardently opposes. "Nine-11 gave the Bush people carte blanche to carry out their extreme agenda -- and they didn't hesitate for a moment to use it. I mean, by 9/12 Rumsfeld was saying, 'Let's hit Iraq.' They've used the war on terror to justify everything from tax cuts to Alaska oil drilling."
Of course, Reagan's father was also known for his military buildup and aggressive foreign policy. "Yes," he concedes, "there are some holdovers from my dad's years, like Elliott Abrams and, my God, Admiral Poindexter, who's now keeping watch over us all. But that observation doesn't hold up. My father gave a speech a couple years after he left the White House calling for 'an international army of conscience' to deal with failed states where atrocities are taking place. He had no thought that America should be the world's policeman. I know that for a fact from conversations I had with him. He believed there must be an international force to intervene where great human tragedy was occurring. Rwanda would have been a prime example, where a strike force capable of acting quickly could have gone in to stop the slaughter.
"Now George and Dick and Rummy and Wolfy all have a very different idea about America's role in the world. It was laid out by [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz back in '92 -- Iraq is the center of the Middle East, its axis, and it's of such geo-strategic importance that we can't leave it in the hands of Saddam. We need to forcibly change that regime and use Iraq as a forward base for American democracy, setting up a domino effect in the region, and so on. My father, on the other hand, was well aware of the messiness of the Middle East, particularly after [the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in] Lebanon."
Reagan says his opinions about the war were not changed by the rapid fall of Baghdad. "Look, whether or not Saddam was a bad guy, or whether the Iraqi people were terribly oppressed, was never the issue. I mean I'm happy for the Iraqis, but that's not what this was all about. Nor was the military conclusion ever in doubt; this was the Dallas Cowboys playing a high school team. Their army was a third the size it was in '91, and it didn't give us much trouble then.
"And the weapons of mass destruction? Whatever happened to them? I'm sure we'll find some," he laughs. "They're being flown in right now in a C-130.
"There were, and will be, a lot of people killed over there. And if you don't care about the Iraqi casualties, what about the American? We stand to lose more people in the next months of occupation than we lost in the weeks of war. One of the reasons we escaped largely unscathed so far was because our military moved so fast. But now we're sitting targets -- we have to establish bases, patrol the streets, guard checkpoints. We're sitting targets for suicide bombers and other terrorists."
Reagan's parents were notoriously remote from their four children. Ron Jr. reportedly had the closest relations with his parents and he remains close with his mother, Nancy Reagan, who as the keeper of the Reagan flame is often called upon to dedicate public sites bearing her husband's name. Reagan says his mother shares his "distrust of some of these [Bush] people. She gets that they're trouble in all kinds of ways. She doesn't like their religious fervor, their aggression."
Reagan says his family feels particularly alienated from the Republican Party over its opposition to embryonic stem cell research, which could have significant benefit for Alzheimer patients like his father. "Now ignorance is one thing, ignorance can be cured. But many of the Republican leaders opposing this research know better, people like [Senate Majority Leader] Bill Frist, who's a doctor, for God's sake. People like him are blocking it to pander to the 20 percent of their base who are mouth-breathers. And that's unconscionable -- there are lives at stake here. Stem cell research can revolutionize medicine, more than anything since antibiotics."
Reagan, who says the label "progressive" would fit him, does not belong to a political party. "I'm certainly not a Republican; I couldn't belong to any party that had leaders like Tom DeLay. And the Democrats are too busy trying to out-Republican the Republicans."
His father entered politics at a relatively late stage in his life, after careers as a sports broadcaster, actor and General Electric pitchman. Has Reagan ever considered running for office? No, he insists, "I have no political ambitions. For one thing, I'm not interested in raising all that money. It's just not the life I want to lead. When is the last time you heard a politician speak his mind? McCain? Yes, he came close. But I once asked him at a Creative Coalition meeting, 'You talk passionately about this nexus of money and influence that is corrupting our democracy. Why don't you name names?' His response was a demurral.
"I have no problem with public service. And yes, better people should be running for office. But personally I just can't see myself doing it, to live in Washington D.C., the whole package. I was immersed in that my whole life. I saw politicians up close and there were so many who just repulsed me."
What if a group of concerned citizens approached him and helped raise money for his entry into politics -- would that make a difference? "You mean like they did with George W.? 'Hey, you've got name recognition, that's all that matters -- we'll give you millions of dollars to run!' Imagine coming to a man with just two years' experience in public office, and a ceremonial one at that. Imagine installing such a blank slate in the presidency of the United States! This is a regency, not a presidency.
"And they told us, 'Don't worry about W. not knowing anything, good old Dick Cheney will be his minder.' Dick Cheney? And this was going to be compassionate conservatism? Dick Cheney is to the right of Genghis Khan, he wants to drill in your backyard, he wants to deny black people their rights --it was all there in his voting record for us to see. What were we, rubes?"
While Reagan rejects a political career, he clearly doesn't shy from speaking out. What if GOP conservatives, who still lionize his father as the greatest president of the 20th century, pressure him to shut up? "That wouldn't be a smart thing for anyone to do."
About the writer
David Talbot is Salon's founder and editor in chief.