Did the Reagan Family Embody the Family Values They Acclaimed?

President Ronald Wilson Reagan is still considered to be one of the greatest Presidents of all time. Americans admire his economic policies, his drive to make America a better place, and his personality. Reagan was not just a President, a Governor, an actor, but also a father. He was married twice and had five children in total. He married a fellow actor, Jane Wyman, with whom he had his daughter, Maureen, and adopted his son, Michael (“The Reagan Children”). They also had another daughter, Christine, who died on the day of her birth. After divorcing Wyman, Reagan met the true love of his life, Nancy Davis, and had two more children with her, Ronald Jr. and Patti (“The Reagan Children”). In the 1980s, President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan wanted American families to exhibit the traditional family values from the 1950s; however, it is questioned if the Reagan family embodied the family values they acclaimed.

President Reagan focused on the idea of traditional family values. He believed the importance of family declined over the decades leading into the 1980s and that “traditional families were starting to disintegrate” (Fallon 2015). He felt that America lacked the values once held in the 1950s. From the beginning of his campaign for presidency, Reagan wanted the American people to put a focus on family and children. In his address when accepting the Presidential nomination, he stated, “Let us make a commitment to care for the needy; to teach our children the values and the virtues handed down to us by our families; to have the courage to defend those values and the willingness to sacrifice for them” (Reagan 1980). In stating this in his acceptance speech, Reagan was able to show Americans where he believed the focus of American life should be, which was on the future. Reagan often addressed the nation to share his wish that “the American family could be, and should be, much, much stronger” (Reagan 1986). He hoped that parents would teach proper values to their children in terms of “right and wrong, respect for others, self-discipline, the importance of knowledge, and, yes, a sense of our own self-worth” (Reagan 1986). In one of Reagan’s addresses to the nation regarding family values, he explains that “it’s become more difficult to raise children than it once was,” but that he believes that America could still “preserve family values” by “entrusting [those] tradition to our children, our greatest hope for the future” (Reagan 1984). He believed that it became more difficult due to inflation and the growing prices of raising a family. Though he spoke of this, he was having a difficult time raising his own children, but not in regards to finances.

As the Reagan children got older, they became more open regarding the relationships they had with their father growing up, in fact, many wrote books about their father. His four children all voiced, at some point in time, “he was a stranger to them” (D’Souza 1997, 8). None of the Reagan children appeared to share a connection with the President and have said that he was not open with them (D’Souza 1997, 8). Not only did the children feel this way, but his first wife, Jane Wyman, felt an “emotional detachment” from her husband and that this detachment continued to grow and led to their divorce (D’Souza 1997, 49).

Over the years, the Reagan’s faced many problems with their children and the children agree that they were difficult when growing up. Ron seemed to stay out of trouble with his parents; however, they were not particular happy when he decided to become a dancer. They believed that in order for him to make that decision that he must have been homosexual, which was strongly against their religious beliefs (D’Souza 1997, 225). Maureen would often fight with her parents and eventually chose a career in politics like her father. Though she appeared to follow a similar path, their relationship still was not close considering he “failed to endorse his daughter” during her election (“The Reagan Children”). Patti frequently did not agree with her father and his political choices. She did not want to be associated with her father’s politics and chose to go by Patti Davis, Nancy’s maiden name, in order to disconnect herself (D’Souza 1997, 223). Patti especially felt that she did not know her father. She “remarked that she did not feel she knew her father any better than the countless Americans who knew him as a public figure” (D’Souza 1997, 224). Out of all the children, Michael seemed to get in the most trouble. Michael grew up thinking that he could do whatever he wanted to because of who his parents were. He thought that his parents would fix his mistakes (D’Souza 1997, 223). Michael would often scream at his parents on the phone, sometimes about the fact he was adopted (Reagan 2007, 281). President Reagan would write in his diary when the children would call, which was not often. Frequently during these calls, a fight would occur causing one of the children to hang up on him or Nancy. In some of these arguments, Reagan would attempt to make amends and he would write, “I think it opened the door to a closer relationship” (Reagan 2007, 107). Though Reagan would write such things in his diary, the relationships never seemed to get closer. It was almost as if he was trying to convince himself that it would work itself out. Though the children did not have close relationships with the President, they “finally understood and appreciated him when he was ill and dying” and chose to be stay by his side (Walsh 2015).

The Reagan’s knew the relationships they had with their children were not exemplary. They felt that they gave their children too much freedom and independence and it seemed that the children did not know how to handle it (D’Souza 1997, 223-225). Reagan was always busy with the American people and did not find time to spend with his own family. The children often rebelled and went against their parents’ wishes. For example, Patti chose to move in with a man before marriage, in spite of her parents’ premarital views (D’Souza 1997, 224). Over the years, the Reagan’s began to realize that they could not force their children to share the same beliefs. Reagan did want his family to have better relationships with each other and “never understood why Nancy and he could not connect better with their children” (D’Souza 1997, 225).

The Reagan children never visited their parents, which highlights the relationship they had with them. This was especially true when they were living in the White House. The President and First Lady rarely visited them either. In fact, they barely knew their own grandchildren. One grandchild was once asked if he saw his grandfather and the child responded, “On TV” (D’Souza 1997, 225).

Though the relationships between the Reagan parents and Reagan children were not perfect, Ronald and Nancy’s relationship could not be closer. “Some observers believed that Nancy and Ronald Reagan were so close to one another that there was no room for anyone else, including their children” (Knott and Chidester 2009, 175). Many Americans idealized the couple and believed that their marriage was perfect. It seems as though their priorities were one another and the American people instead of their children. Ronald Reagan’s attention to Nancy was most likely influenced by his “emotional detachment” to his first wife. This gives the impression that he was trying to make this marriage work and tried to be a better husband, when perhaps he should have tried to be a better father. Though President Reagan may not have instilled traditional family values in his own home, he tried to teach his children specifically his sons, the importance of a being a good spouse (D’Souza 1997, 224). He did this by teaching them the “traditional views of marital fidelity” and how couples should worship each other as he and Nancy did (D’Souza 1997, 224).

Over the years, the people of the United States heard, read, and watched President Reagan ask the nation to focus on family and for parents to teach their children “traditional family values.” Americans also heard the children speaking ill of their parents and sharing opposing views from their father’s politics. Three of them have written memoirs to “disclose firsthand accounts” of their life with their parents (“The Reagan Children”). Many of Reagan’s opponents have used what the children have said to “accuse him of not practicing the family values he preached” (“The Reagan Children”). It seems, as though the President was asking America to create ideal families, one of which he did not have. “The American people knew that Reagan had family problems that made his pro-family rhetoric more of an aspiration than a domestic reality” (D’Souza 1997, 225). Americans knew that the family was “dysfunctional” and believed that the children were “constant embarrassment[s] to the President” (Fallon 2015). The people of the United States listened to Reagan acclaim these family values and were able to see through the press that the First Family did not even have these values. The “press would exploit the friction between them [the Reagan children] and their father” based on information they received from the children (Fallon 2015). Americans could question that if the First Family was not able to exemplify these values, how could the rest of the nation adapt to the ways of traditional families of the 1950s?

It was not only clear to many Americans that the Reagan family was not the best example of traditional family values, even Nancy Reagan was aware that her family was not perfect. She stated in her memoir, “I always felt hurt when people said we were hypocrites because our own family sometimes fell short of those values. It’s true that we weren’t always able to live up to the principles we believed in, but that doesn’t mean we don’t believe in them” (Hall 2004). This statement alone proves the fact that the Reagan’s did not embody the values they were acclaiming. It seems as though the Reagan’s realized that their family along with many other American families did not embody these values and wanted to teach traditional values to the nation.

After rereading my initial reflections paper, I have realized that my thoughts have grown over the course of the semester. In my paper, I discussed Reaganomics, the AIDS epidemic, and the music and fashion of the 1980s. Though I knew of these events, I did not know of the events that came about due to them or that were related to them. I knew of music from the 1980s because of my parents and other family members; however, I did not realize the impact that music videos and MTV had on musicians and American teenagers. When seeing music videos from this time period, some things are shocking to me, but I would not have thought about how shocking they would have been in the ‘80s. I was also familiar with the AIDS epidemic since it was so tragic and the fact that AIDS still exists today. It was informative to learn about organizations like ACT UP and the protests that ensued.

In my initial reflections paper, I wrote about President Reagan in regards to his economic policies and my parents’ positive views of him as a President. My thoughts on President Reagan have grown tremendously. I believe that he is one of the greatest and most influential Presidents of the United States. Throughout this semester, I have learned much more about President Reagan including his involvement with the Berlin Wall and his charge to return to the traditional family values of the 1950s. After researching about his family and reading how the children felt about their father, I have concluded that the Reagan Family did not embody the traditional family values that he acclaimed to the people of the United States. He did not appear to be an integral part of his children’s lives; in fact, Nancy Reagan also did not appear to be involved. Since his children frequently rebelled and spoke ill of him to the press, it is clear that values such as, respect for one’s parents and the difference between right and wrong, were not properly taught to the Reagan children.

I believe that Reagan’s presidency affected my life as an American citizen decades later. Legislators today still look to Reagan’s policies in order to try to make America a better place to live. As an economics major, I have been able to learn about Reaganomics and how he and the Reagan administration, through his policies, were able to create a much stronger economy for the American people. Reagan’s views on traditional family values have and have not affected the course of my life. My parents have instilled values such as respect, kindness, and responsibility. They taught my brother and I that having faith is important, but that our beliefs do not have to be strictly in unison with the faith we practice. Also, I grew up in a household with two working parents. When I was small, my mother would stay home to take care of me during the day, but would work a night shift in order to make ends meet. This may not have been the “traditional family” Reagan envisioned, but with hard work, my parents were able to purchase a house and cars, which Reagan hoped for families across the United States.

In the 1980s, the people of the United States were able to witness one of the nation’s greatest Presidents. Many Americans were enthralled by President Reagan and how he transformed the nation from the failures of the Carter administration. He saved the declining economy, saved hostages on the night of his inauguration, and overall made America a better place. While he created a trusting relationship between himself and the American people, the relationship between him and his children continued to shatter. Perhaps instead of trying to get Americans to adopt the traditional family values of the 1950s into their homes, President Reagan should have chose to spend time with his children in order to teach them the values he felt were so important for all American children to be taught.

Bibliography

D’Souza, Dinesh. Ronald Reagan How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader. New York: Free Press, 1997.

Fallon, Christopher G. 2015. Interview: Ronald Reagan and Traditional Family Values in the 1980s. In person.

Hall, Mimi. “Picture-Perfect Family Values.” USA Today. June 8, 2004. Accessed December 14, 2015. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/people/2004-06-07-reagan-family_x.htm.

Knott, Stephen F., and Jeffrey L. Chidester. At Reagan’s Side. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009.

“President Reagan’s Radio Address to the Nation on the American Family – 6/16/84.” YouTube. Accessed December 14, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iykNw-OOu3M.

Reagan, Ronald. The Reagan Diaries. Edited by Douglas Brinkley. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2007.

Ronald Reagan: “Address Accepting the Presidential Nomination at the Republican National Convention in Detroit.” July 17, 1980. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=25970

Ronald Reagan: “Radio Address to the Nation on Family Values.” December 20, 1986. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=36826.

“The Reagan Children.” American Experience. Accessed December 14, 2015. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/biography/reagan-children/.

Walsh, Buffy. 2015. Interview: Ronald Reagan and Traditional Family Values in the 1980s. On phone.

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