When Ronald Reagan takes the podium of Detroit’s Cobo Hall this week to become his party’s nominee for President of the United States, he will appear with his entire family for the first time in the campaign. At his side will be Nancy Reagan, his wife of 28 years, and his four children. The elder two—Maureen, 39, and Michael, 35—are the offspring of his first marriage, to actress Jane Wyman. The younger two—Patti, 27, and Ronald, 22—are his children with Nancy. For a political convention, the scene will be familiar, even comforting—a study in family unity and solidarity. But for the Reagan family it will be a most unusual—perhaps uncomfortable—reunion.
As a prospective First Family, they are unique. Ronald Reagan’s children are older, on average, than presidential offspring have ever been at the start of an Administration—old enough to have failed at important things, too old to be muzzled for the cause. They are also children of a controversial, famous man; their indiscretions and idiosyncrasies have been widely noted, tittered about and filed. Four insistently independent men and women, they have diverged, as children will do, from what their father may have wished for them: Two have been divorced, two have lived with unmarried partners, and all have gone through periods of strained relations with their parents. They disagree outspokenly with their father on crucial issues in the 1980 campaign—nuclear power, the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion—and they are in some respects unforgiving with each other. Yet they also show an unmistakable fondness for and loyalty toward their father.
They are, in short, an authentic American family, and they invite judgment in a refreshing new way: not as the campaign PR experts would have them be—neatly pressed, hair slicked back, all smiles—but as they actually are. They spoke with PEOPLE correspondent David Sheff.
Patti: ‘I’m kind of antipolitical’
If Ronald Reagan weren’t her father, would Patti vote for him in the 1980 election? “Gee, uh, I don’t know—maybe I wouldn’t vote for anybody. I’m really kind of antipolitical. I just get the newspaper and turn to the comics.”
Patti Davis—she says she uses her mother’s maiden name for professional reasons—has had a hard time as a Reagan. Of all the children, she has strayed furthest from the mainstream, home-and-hearth values her father espouses. She was an undergraduate at Northwestern when, as governor of California, he clamped down on the state’s campuses during the Vietnam war; like fellow protesters, she came to see him as the enemy—”on the other side,” as she puts it. After dropping out, she moved in for more than a year with Bernie Leadon, then guitarist with the Eagles. They wrote a song together, One of These Nights. (She denies rumors that she took part in the rock drug scene.) Patti was invisible during her father’s run for President in 1976; some reports had it that they weren’t even speaking. “You should have heard the way she used to talk about him,” says one friend.
This year Patti is working hard on détente. She’s not campaigning for her father, but she’s not hiding either. At present she lives in her parents’ home in Pacific Palisades “until I can find a new apartment,” and she has given her father an unqualified public endorsement. Her reminiscences stress the positive—long horseback rides they took together on the family ranch in Malibu, for example. “Everything I know about the land or about nature I learned from him,” she says.
She also credits him with inspiring her ambition to be an actress, though it has so far been satisfied only by bit parts on TV series—Fantasy Island, CHiPs, Vega$ and Love Boat. “He’s a very good, instinctive actor,” she says. “He helped put me in touch with that in me. He taught me you have to believe in your part or no one else will.”
To the extent that her cameo role in the Reagan campaign demands it, Patti believes. She wants to put the animosity of the past behind her. “Those were inflammatory times,” she says. “We all said things we didn’t mean.” But Reagan’s two children by Jane Wyman remain suspicious of Patti’s support for her father. “I’d like to be a fly on the wall when she talks about him,” Mike confides. She explains her absence from the campaign as a character trait more than anything else. “Ron and I are both more into the arts and our careers,” she says. “Our energies are just not in a political direction.” Still, she has said she will use her visibility as Reagan’s daughter to help her favorite cause, the antinuclear power movement, despite her father’s support for nukes. That rankles Maureen especially. “I don’t know what she means when she says that she’s not political,” complains the eldest Reagan sibling. “She’s out getting signatures when it’s something she believes in.”
Mike: Campaign aides wanted ‘the real kids’
Michael is the only adopted Reagan—and his father’s staunch campaigner. “Forty percent of the reason I support him is because he is my dad and I love him,” Michael says. “But 60 percent is that I have a son, Cameron Michael, who is 2 years old, and I am concerned about his future, his rights and his freedoms.” Yet Michael, who has made some 250 speeches for his father, has felt curiously unwanted on the campaign trail at times, and undervalued by the people closest to Reagan. “I suppose it makes Dad look old, having older children,” he reasons. “Headquarters may feel it’s embarrassing if Maureen and I are in the forefront, and the real kids [the two by Nancy] are not. Sometimes I’ve felt like I was fighting to volunteer.”
According to family legend, Michael owes his adoption to Maureen, who agreed to save her pennies to buy what she wanted most—a baby brother. (Jane Wyman had been told after Maureen’s birth that she could not have another child.) “One night,” Maureen remembers, “a lady walked into the house with a 4-day-old baby boy. My father says he couldn’t see me for dust—I was upstairs and back with my piggy bank with 97 pennies in it.” She laughs at the memory. “I keep telling Michael he’s bought and paid for. Actually he’s wonderful—I wouldn’t trade him for all the money in the world.”
Michael and Maureen grew up together in Wyman’s home until Michael was sent off to boarding school in first grade. “I was really rotten,” he says—and admits taking a long time to find himself. A dropout after two stabs at college, he worked at various jobs and was a world-class motorboat racer until the early 1970s. Michael calls himself “a player—I’m always looking for a way to make a quick fortune.” He drifted through a brief marriage to a dental assistant in 1970. Eventually he became a successful boat salesman and, in 1975, married his current wife, Colleen, an interior decorator. This year he put together enough capital to form his own company. It sells equipment to farmers for the production of grain alcohol, and grain alcohol to producers of gasohol. “The energy field is a good new field to be in.”
Beneath his pride in accomplishment and devotion to his father, however, is an almost palpable hurt that he cannot be closer to his father now. He says that while his mother, Jane, has seen a lot of her grandson while he and Colleen have been campaigning, Reagan himself has seen Cameron “only a few times” since his birth. “One thing about Nancy Reagan,” Michael says. “She lives and breathes for Dad, she’s very protective of his time. Maureen and I were closer to her before Ron and Patti were around. We’re not so close to her now.” Still, his loyalty to his father is absolute. “If Dad had had his druthers, we’d have been out campaigning from the start,” he says. “I’m sure that Nancy appreciates that we’re out there for Dad.”
Maureen: ‘We’re not all high-minded here’
“I am anticipating a very rough campaign,” says Maureen Reagan, and she’s ready for it: “In my long experience I have had occasion to walk the low road. We are not all high-minded over here. We will certainly be able to sling the mud, to kick below the belt, to trip, to scratch if we have to.”
Maureen is the eldest of the Reagan kids and, within the limits of political discretion, the most outspoken. Like Michael, she has felt shunted aside as a member of Reagan’s first family—particularly during his 1966 campaign for governor. “His managers were gun-shy about the divorce issue,” she says. “They sort of pretended that Michael and I didn’t exist. I guess I understood.” Unlike Michael, though, Maureen has given Reagan’s handlers some cause for concern, particularly with her firm support for ERA, which her father opposes. “I want to live in this country as a free and independent citizen,” she says. “My father says that can be done by statute [instead of by constitutional amendment]. I say I won’t live that long.”
The choice between ERA and her father’s candidacy, though, is no contest for Maureen. “What good will it do if the whole economic system goes down the tubes and we’re all equal when it happens?” A GOP volunteer since 1960, Maureen is working so hard on behalf of Dear Old Dad—or “D.O.D.,” as she calls him—that she gets up at 4:30 a.m. to do her laundry.
Maureen does not seem to blame Nancy Reagan for whatever coolness there is between the two families. “I was delighted when he married her,” she says. “I named my horse after her—I don’t know what more an 11-year-old can do to show undying devotion, though maybe she didn’t take it that way.” Maureen is close to young Ron; she was his date at his first ballroom dance. Her disagreements with Patti seem to stem from differences in character and values. “We’re not really like sisters,” she says. “We don’t have much of a relationship.”
Maureen had her own troubles finding herself. She suffered through two failed marriages and held a number of secretarial and minor acting and singing jobs before becoming a successful television talk show host in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the early ’70s. She gave up her ambitions in show business two years ago—”I didn’t want to be 40 years old and still billed as somebody’s kid.” Maureen has since become a director of Sell Overseas America, an organization devoted to improving the U.S. balance of trade by increasing exports, a cause candidate Reagan very much supports. The job provides an outlet for her resourcefulness and, she says, a pleasing measure of autonomy. “I like the idea of putting something together, getting in there and really working,” she says. “I’m not a figurehead-type person.” The notion of being a presidential daughter doesn’t worry her one bit; indeed, she seems to love the idea. “The politics of the ’80s,” she declares, “are going to be just wonderful.”
Ron: ‘What else could we do? Run for God?’
The other Ronald Reagan is the youngest of the four siblings, and he grew up almost as an only child. Patti left for boarding school when he was 7, and the older children rarely visited. Reagan dotingly called him “Skipper” and taught him horseback riding. Like brother Michael, he played varsity football in high school and worked on his father’s campaigns. He worked in the 1976 presidential race, and his entrance to Yale the following year was widely trumpeted by the Reagan staff. Then something happened: The family stopped mentioning Skipper.
What happened is that Ron decided, at the age of 18, to drop out of college and become a ballet dancer. His father persuaded him to finish the semester, then went to friend Gene Kelly for advice on where his son should study. He underwrote Ron’s living expenses while he studied ballet on scholarship, first in Los Angeles, currently in New York. “He’s all man—we made sure of that,” his father told a reporter who raised the predictable question two years ago. Ron was mainly amused. “It surprised me that there were people who still felt that dancing was non-masculine,” says the lithe six-footer. “There are gay truck drivers too, but nobody talks about that. It’s just the fact that truck drivers don’t wear tights.”
In fact, young Reagan seems thoroughly heterosexual; indeed, the greater threat now to his father’s image is Ron’s live-in relationship with former L.A. dancing school classmate Doria Palmieri, 28. “I don’t mind talking about it,” he says, “but I’ve been asked not to.”
Ron remains staunchly protective of both his parents. Of Nancy, he insists, “A lot of people have tried to paint her as a domineering kind of woman. She’s not. She’s very sensitive. She’s always tried to be there. In fact she’s tried a little too hard—but you can’t fault a parent for that.” Young Reagan says that he agrees with his father on most political issues and grows angry when the candidate is attacked. “It’s awful when you realize that your father has this image that he’s a monster or a warmonger or worse. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Yet Ron is decidedly his own man. (He’s not a Junior; their middle names are different.) “If my father becomes President I guess everyone in the family would be overshadowed to some extent,” he says. “What else could we do? Run for God? That’s what’s good about ballet—no one can say you’re only there because of who your father is. You can either do it or you can’t.” Now on a full scholarship with the prestigious Joffrey II road company in New York, he stands a good chance of making the regular troupe. Ballet is all he wants. “I don’t care about being famous or anything like that,” he says. “I just want the personal satisfaction of being respected by other dancers.” Says Joffrey II director Sally Bliss: “We don’t know what we’ll do if his father is elected. Put Secret Service men on the buses, or in the ballets? But Ron’s got his head just where it should be. His priority is dancing.”