Ron Reagan Rises to a Cause; GOP Decries Choice of Venue
WASHINGTON — Ronald Reagan’s spiritual heirs will fill the halls of the Republican convention in late August, but the Democrats have secured his flesh and blood for a prime time spot at this month’s bash in Boston.
Ron Reagan, the former president’s 46-year-old son, plans to use the global platform of the Democratic National Convention to endorse embryonic stem cell experiments, an area of research that some believe his father would have opposed but which his mother supports.
Politically, the booking is a triumph for the Democratic ticket of John F. Kerry and John Edwards, which promptly trumpeted its ability to attract “individuals from all political backgrounds.” Affronted Republicans, meanwhile, moved to discredit the famously renegade son, who often disagreed with his family’s politics and is an outspoken critic of President Bush.
“I think his speech is a cute little story for convention coverage, but I don’t think it’s the sort of thing that will influence any voters,” said Gary Bauer, a conservative activist and domestic policy adviser to President Reagan.
Summing up a sentiment widely held among conservative groups, Wendy Wright of Concerned Women for America called the planned public appearance “sad.”
Ron Reagan’s decision to deliver a five- to eight-minute address at the Democrats’ showcase event has left Republican loyalists wondering: Is he an astute activist seizing the moment to promote a cause — or a traitor to his father’s legacy?
Conservatives remember the younger Reagan’s affinity for flustering his family, dropping out of Yale in 1976 in a bid to join the Joffrey Ballet, writing articles for Playboy magazine and professing atheism.
While his father was president, he recorded a public service announcement criticizing the government’s AIDS policy and encouraging viewers to write to Congress or — as he suggested with a wry grin — “someone higher up.”
“He is seen as someone who didn’t hesitate to embarrass his family,” one conservative leader remarked, hesitant to criticize any member of the Reagan clan.
This time, though, the maverick son has his mother’s blessing.
“She’s OK with it,” he said last week on MSNBC, where he is a political commentator. “She supports the issue. She’s aware, as I am, that there is a political aspect to this, and we need to be careful about that.”
Mother and son came separately to their positions on the value of embryonic stem cell research but wound up in the same place. The late president’s long bout with Alzheimer’s, an incapacitating brain disease, helped reconcile the splintered family, which found an unexpected point of concurrence in supporting the research, said former Reagan adviser and family friend Michael Deaver.Even before Ronald Reagan’s death last month, Nancy Reagan and her children pressed the urgency of the new science, which involves the destruction of human embryos and faces limits on federal funding imposed by Bush. Scientists believe the work could lead to treatments for a range of diseases, including Parkinson’s, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. (Reagan’s older son by a previous marriage, Michael, opposes the research.)
NancyReagan’s position has been quietly forgiven by her most ardent conservative admirers in deference to her devotion to her husband, whom she lovingly saw through “the long goodbye.” But they are far less tolerant of her son’s view, questioning whether it is part of an attempt to use his father’s passing to attack Bush.
In a gravesite eulogy June 11, Ron Reagan took a discrete swipe at Bush that aggravated many Republicans. “Dad … never made the fatal mistake of so many politicians: wearing his faith on his sleeve to gain political advantage,” he said.
It was not the only time he appeared to be trying to distance Bush from his father’s legacy. “My father really didn’t know George W. Bush from Adam,” he recently said on CNN.
The tributes to Ronald Reagan will continue at the GOP convention with a film honoring the late president, who died June 5 at age 93. Republican planners sought to invite Nancy Reagan to their convention, but the message came back through family friends that she would decline.
While Michael Reagan has consented to appear at the GOP convention, Ron Reagan’s scheduled speech at the Democratic gathering is galling to many Republicans.
“Ron Jr. has either allowed himself to be used or he’s knowingly partaking in something whose purpose is to damage the party his father spent all of his adult political life in,” Bauer said.
A registered independent who is critical of both parties, Ron Reagan lives in Seattle with Doria, his wife of more than 20 years, who is also a former dancer. They have no children.
Reagan, who did not respond to requests for an interview, told MSNBC his speech would stick to the topic of science and avoid any Bush-bashing.
“I’m aware that some people will say … I’m being used by the Democrats. Maybe to some extent that’s true. But then, I’m using them, too,” he said.
(Optional add end)
For all the speculation, the question of whether President Reagan would have approved of his son’s views or the venue where he has chosen to express them will remain forever unsettled. He opposed legalized abortion, leading his followers to deduce that he would similarly oppose embryonic stem cell research.
But Lou Cannon, author of five Reagan biographies, said he would likely have struggled with the stem-cell question.
“While he had great certainty on issues like taxes, these were not the kinds of issues he felt great certainty about,” Cannon said. “He tended to rely on Nancy on things like this. She was a doctor’s daughter. … He would have respected her position.”
What would have troubled him less is his son’s decision to take a public stand, Cannon said. “He always thought his children were free to speak for whatever they wanted. I think he’d be happy to have his son politically involved. He probably would have joked that he, too, used to be a Democrat.”
Times staff writer Doyle McManus contributed to this story.