“Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Father, President Ronald Reagan”, With Michael Reagan

…When I got married, my father wrote me a letter. Basically it was really about being a man. It was about being faithful and being true to the woman you love. My father also wrote: “Remember, when you come home at night from work, there’s a person on the other side of that door who’s […]

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6/3/85 1985 Official portrait of President Reagan in oval office
6/3/85 1985 Official portrait of President Reagan in oval office

…When I got married, my father wrote me a letter. Basically it was really about being a man. It was about being faithful and being true to the woman you love. My father also wrote: “Remember, when you come home at night from work, there’s a person on the other side of that door who’s waiting for the sound of your footsteps.” At the end of it he goes, “P.S, you’ll never, you’ll never get in trouble if you say I love you once a day”.

My father also was someone who during Christmas holidays never left the White House. We would have Thanksgiving at the ranch in Santa Barbara for the family but he would always spend Christmas at the White House. Why? Because he wanted his Secret Service agents to be able to be with their families and their loved ones on Christmas Day. So he made sure he didn’t travel on Christmas. Now more and more Presidents are in fact doing that. Some don’t, but he did that because he wanted to honor his agents and allow them to be able to be with their families on Christmas Day.

Today, June 6th, 2019 is the 75th anniversary of D-Day. I had the distinct pleasure to have a conversation with Michael Reagan, the adoptive son of former president Ronald Reagan. Michael Reagan founded the Reagan Legacy Foundation. He also recently started the Walkway To Victory initiative, to honor the Allied soldiers who liberated Europe and to honor the legacy of Ronald Reagan. Michael is an American political commentator, political strategist, former radio talk show host, and author.

Yitzi Weiner: Michael, it’s really a delight to meet you! Can you tell our readers a bit about your backstory?

Michael Reagan: I grew up in a family with a mother, academy award winning actress, Jane Wyman, and a father who would become president of United States. There’s only two people in the world that ever lived that life and that was my sister Maureen and myself, so it’s interesting. The questions are always, “how was it growing up in that family?”, and I seem to be always answering that old question. Like I told my sister, it’s not easy being the children of famous people because people don’t see the things that you’ve done because they are so overshadowed by the things that your parents accomplished.

Not too many years ago, in 2001, my sister, Maureen, passed away of melanoma. She was 60 years old. We talked about our father and talked about his legacy and things I could do to carry on the legacy. So a few years ago after the USS Ronald Reagan was commissioned in San Diego, my wife and I started a foundation, The Reagan Legacy Foundation. It began as a way to provide scholarships to the family of the crew of the USS Ronald Reagan. We really loved going on the ship and meeting the crew, passing out scholarship money each and every year.

But it just kind of evolved to new things. In Germany on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall, we opened up a Ronald Reagan center at Checkpoint Charlie. The museum was an honorary museum in Berlin to honor my father. Since then, we’ve gotten a plaque in the ground near Brandenburg Gate, with the speech he gave on June 12th 1987, the “Tear down this wall speech”.

We worked with the Polish people to have a statue of my father and Pope John Paul set up in Gdansk Poland.

Then, a few years ago I was asked to raise the flag at the American cemetery in Normandy. I went over there and did that and got to visit Normandy and Sainte-Mère-Église. I became very good friends with the people in Sainte-Mère-Église, which was the first town freed by America on D-Day, at 4:00 o’clock in the morning. And I said, what can we do to honor those who served the Europeans here, those who parachuted on D-Day or hit the beaches?

So just last year, we began what we call a Walkway To Victory where people can go online to walkwaytovictory.com and can purchase a brick for $250. One can purchase a brick in the name of someone who served the European Theater during the second World War; for a friend, a loved one, whoever that might be. We’re bricking in all the walkways at the Airborne Museum, who we partnered with in Sainte-Mère-Église, in Normandy, France. So when people go there on D-Day or any day to visit Normandy and go to Sainte-Mère-Église, which is a must see, they will see the names of those who served and really saved the world there on D-Day, 1944.

Michael Reagan with his father

Yitzi: Wow, amazing. Did your father ever tell you some stories about his experience in World War II?

Reagan: Well, my father was in the Calvary and wanted to be in the Army, but because of his vision he just couldn’t get into the Army; unless he cheated. So what he did was he memorized all the eye charts. When he went into take his exam to get to the Army, and they asked him to cover his right or left eye and read line three, he had it memorized and he would just go, yeah, D F Q A D. They said, “You’re in Reagan”. So that’s how he got into the Army, but he couldn’t go overseas because of his eyesight. So he served by making about 300 films, training films that were used by our military, training them how to do parachuting and what have you. He was very busy doing that and he ultimately retired from the Army at the rank of captain.

Yitzi: Wow. From your own career what would you say are your proudest moments?

Reagan: The proudest one was when dad won the Presidency of United States…I was pretty proud. My family, my sister and I worked very hard, to help our father get there.

I was proud when my wife gave birth to our son Cameron and to our daughter Ashley, very proud.

I’m proud with what we’re doing with the men and women aboard the USS Ronald Reagan. You just see these kids come up with tears in their eyes, because you’re giving them a $1,000 check or $2,000 check to help with their education so they can better themselves when they get out of the Navy. That makes me feel good that we’re able to carry it forward, and honor those who serve on the USS Ronald Reagan.

You have a 98 year old guy come up to you and put his arm trying to hug you and salute you, all because your father was the President of the United States of America and thank you for what you’re doing and say “It’s a great project, doing what you’re doing to honor those who served”.

In fact this year I’m not going to be going to the 75th anniversary of D-Day. I was at the 70th. I am going to Normandy, at the end of July. But the reason I am not going to D-day this year, is, as follows. I could spend the money from the Foundation there, and pat myself on the back. But what we decided to do instead is take that money we would spend on ourselves, and instead, to sponsor somebody who actually landed on D-Day in Normandy, France, and give him the money — and his family the money — to be able to go there and be there. It’s probably the last time that they’re going to have a chance to go there because they’re like 98 years old. They’re not going to be there for the 80th anniversary.

So, I’m proud that we’re able to do that and help someone who really helped all of us.

Yitzi: Beautiful. As you know, it’s not so common to see a marriage that is as loving as the relationship between Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Your parents were famous for being so in love with each other until the very end. Can you tell us a story, that would exemplify the love your father had for Nancy or Nancy had for your father?

Reagan: You know, when I got married, my father wrote me a letter. Basically it was really about being a man. It was about being faithful and being true to the woman you love. My father also wrote: “Remember, when you come home at night from work, there’s a person on the other side of that door who’s waiting for the sound of your footsteps.” At the end of it he goes, “P.S, you’ll never, you’ll never get in trouble if you say I love you once a day”.

That was the letter he gave me and I still have it. So that kind of tells you about the relationship he had with Nancy. He was trying to pass that down to his son, “here’s what I want you to know about marriage”. “This is what you need to remember. There is that person on the other side of the door who is waiting for the sound of your foot steps”.

Yitzi: Wow. That was a beautiful anecdote. Do you have any stories that you can recall from your childhood that would exemplify your parents’ parenting style?

Reagan: Well, the parenting style, really the discipline came from my mother. I mean, dad was smart, you know, he made everybody love him and made everybody mad at their mothers. Sometimes there would be disciplinary actions from Jane, my mom, or Nancy. But Dad was always the good guy. If you got in trouble, you wanted to go before Dad. You didn’t want to get in trouble with the moms.

I was raised by my mom that you have to do it on your own. You have to be self-sufficient. Nobody’s going to give you anything.

I remember when I started my radio talks shows, which was on radio for 26 years. I was driving 262 miles a day from L.A to San Diego. One day, back from the show I called my mom. I wasn’t getting paid any money to get the show off the ground and I had two kids. I called my mom on the phone and I said, “Hey, you know, things are really tough, can you help us out? Can you give us something for the short term to get me through? Or what can you do for me?”. She said, “I can give you some great advice”. I said, “ok mom, what’s the advice”? She said, “shut up and keep driving” and she hung up on me. I called her back and I said, “did you hang up on me”? And she said, “yes, I did. Nobody said you didn’t have to pay your dues. You’ve got to pay your dues just like everybody else. So shut up and keep driving, goodbye”. So I kept driving and that national radio show lasted from 1992 to 2009. It was 17 years because she said, shut up and keep driving. That’s the way they were.

Ronald Reagan with Jane Wyman

Here is another example. When I was 10 years old I wanted a 10-speed bike. Every other kid in Beverly Hills was getting bikes, given to them by their moms or dads. Mom asked me how badly I wanted the bike. I picked it out, it was a 10 speed bike, newest thing on the market. I loved it, and my mom said, “Well, how badly do you want it”? I said, “more than anything, I’ll love you forever mom”. She said, “well, you know, do you want it bad enough to get a job”? I said, I’m 10 years old, 10 years old, mom. And she said, “well you can sell papers”. I said, “why do I need to sell papers”? She said, “you’re going to have to sign a note where you’re going to owe me money for loaning you the money for that bike and you’re going to have to pay me back, and the only way to pay me back is if you get a job”. So at 10 years old I actually signed a note with my mother, owning her money for the bike she was buying me.

I ended up selling papers in front of our church on Sunday mornings and every Sunday I would give her a part of my earnings from selling the papers and pay her back for the money she loaned me for the bike. I asked her, “why in the world are you making me do this when all my friends are getting bikes given to them by their parents.” And my mom said to me, “because I build men, I don’t build boys”.

I think about that. She was right. She said, I don’t want you to be a 40 year old child. I want you to be a 40 year old man and you better start learning that now.

One of the things you deal with, with being born famous, is the fact that everybody thinks everything’s always given to you. You don’t need a job, you don’t need to do anything. Your parents passed away, they left you a bundle of money. But that’s not the way my parents were. They wanted us to be self-sufficient.

Yitzi: Wow. That’s fascinating. So, can you share an interesting anecdote from your life in the White House?

Reagan: Well, I didn’t live in the White House because I was too old to move in. I was not living at home at 35 years old. Kids today are living at home at 35 but I wasn’t.

I have some great memories of being at the White House. We had a Super bowl party in the theater room with my friends and that was tremendous.

It was a great honor to have my children, Cameron and Ashley, have their hand prints in the White House Children’s Garden.

It’s a wonderful, beautiful place to visit. To be able to spend the night there and be at the Lincoln bedroom, with the queen’s bedroom or be up on the solarium or the family quarters is really kind of awesome.

But it is the people’s house. You can’t get too heavy with it, because it all stops, you know, in four or eight years.

On the White House Lawn, 1981

Yitzi: That’s great. I often write about work culture. Do you recall seeing incidents or hearing about incidents about how your father treated his employees, his surrogates or people around him?

Reagan: The reality is, he treated them just like people. My father started a lot of things when he was President of the United States. For example, he was the first president to visit Normandy on D-Day. My father went there on the 40th anniversary. No president had ever visited Normandy on D-Day and now every President’s been visiting Normandy on D-Day during their Presidency or on special occasions. Donald Trump will be there on the 75th anniversary. We were there when Obama was there on the 70th anniversary.

My father was the first president to salute while getting on an Air Force One or Marine One helicopter. He taught how to show respect to those who fought for our country. And now every President salutes getting on and off Air Force One or Marine One.

My father also was someone who during Christmas holidays never left the White House. We would have Thanksgiving at the ranch in Santa Barbara for the family but he would always spend Christmas at the White House. Why? Because he wanted his Secret Service agents to be able to be with their families and their loved ones on Christmas Day. So he made sure he didn’t travel on Christmas. Now more and more Presidents are in fact doing that. Some don’t, but he did that because he wanted to honor his agents and allow them to be able to be with their families on Christmas Day.

I remember growing up with my dad and I remember when Christmas would come. I would get in the car with my dad and he would drive to the Shell station in Brentwood and give the owner of the shell station a check for Christmas saying “thank you for the service”. For Christmas he’d always put a check out there for the man that delivered the milk. He would give a check to the postman who would deliver the mail.

He always remembered people who helped him during the year and he would give them a check on Christmas. I’d ride around with him and he’d go to all these places with people that worked with him during the year and give them a little something for Christmas. I don’t know anybody else who does that. I really, don’t. I’ve never seen anybody do that but that’s what he would do. He was that magnanimous kind of a person. I think that’s what showed in his Presidency.

That’s why he is so loved around the world today. That’s why he made friends out of enemies. Even Mikhail Gorbachev sat right behind me and my family at the funeral of my father. I’m very lucky that he was so loved, not only in the United States, but around the world.

Yitzi: Wow. So your father was and is known today as an extraordinary communicator. I’m old enough to remember the Challenger Disaster. Actually, my cousin was Judy Resnick who was one of the astronauts who perished. I remember your father talking after that and it still sticks with me how great of communicator he was. Did your father ever give you advice about how to be a good communicator?

Reagan: Yes, in 1980, when I was helping my father with his campaign, I asked him, “Can you give me a suggestion because I usually give somewhere between 10 or 15 speeches a day for 20 minute talks with Q&A”. My father said, “here’s the rule. You may be giving the talk you’re giving for the 12th, 10th, 15th time, but the audience that you’re giving it to is hearing it for the first time. You need to give it the 15th time, like it was your first one”.

So whenever I give a speech, whatever the issue is, I remember that. I cannot just get up there and leisurely give a talk. I’ve got to give every speech I ever give, like it’s the first time I’ve given it because it’s the first time the audience has heard it.

Yitzi:. That’s fantastic. I think today we often think about your father’s successes. But as you mentioned there were times that he didn’t win the election, or that things didn’t go right. Do you recall him talking to you about how to pick up from failure, how to move on and persevere?

Reagan: The truth is, that generation didn’t talk about when things didn’t go well. But I did ask him, in 1976, when he lost the Republican nomination, “Why in the world did you want become President of the United States?”. He said, “ I have watched American Presidents sit down with the Secretary General’s of Soviet Union, and every time we sit down with them, they’re always asking us to give up something to get along with them. He said, “I want to be the first President to sit down with the Secretary General’s of Soviet Union to get up from my chair, walk around the other side of the table, lean over, whisper in his ear, NYET! I want to be the first president to say NYET to the Secretary General of Soviet Union.”

Now think about that for a moment. That was August of 1976, 10 years later, in 1986 he went to Iceland and met with Mikhail Gorbachev for the START agreement. Mikhail Gorbachev said, he’ll only sign the agreement if my father gives up on the SDI “Star Wars” program. We’ve all seen the photos of my dad turning to walk away. I think I was the only one in the world who knew what my father was going to say ahead of time. He had told me what he was going to say in 1976 and he actually followed through and said it in 1986. He gave the same NYET to the Secretary General. Because he did that and walked away from Reykjavik, ultimately with the other things that were going on, the Soviet Union would collapse, the Berlin Wall would come down and Israel would be able to protect itself today.

Yitzi: Thank you. That’s a great story. So you mentioned that your father started out in the show business, but then he went to politics. Can you share with us what inspired him to leave the kind of the glamour of Hollywood to become a politician?

Reagan: You know he started out in radio in Iowa. He was actually the announcer for the Chicago Cubs on WHO radio. They used to have their preseason and training camp on Catalina Island off the coast of California. My dad was there and doing the Cub games when Jack Warner asked him to come over and do a screen test. He does a screen test and next thing you know, he’s going back to Iowa, grabbing his mother and moving out to California and then becoming an actor and getting into Hollywood.

I like to tell people, that people always talk about my dad. But my mother Jane Wyman has two stars on the Hollywood walk of fame. My Dad only has one star on the Hollywood walk of fame. My mother has handprints and footprints at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. My father has no handprints and footprints at Grauman’s Chinese. My mom was on the A list of acting. My Dad would say he was the king of Bees, king of B-movies.

It’s not an easy business. He was president of Screen Actors Guild back in the 40’s, 50s. It was a great career, but it had its ups and downs. When the career in television went away, he became very political, going around the country speaking. He ended up giving that great speech for Barry Goldwater in November 1964 and went on from there to run for governor of the state of California.

He always said, “I never looked back, been there, done that but I’m not going to let failure define my life, I’m going to move on”. Too many people let their failure define their life and they use that failure to fail the next time and the next time and the next time. My father never looked at failure as something that was going to define his life.

I learned a lot from him about that because I’m entrepreneurial. I became entrepreneurial because I watched my dad. As one door closed he would find the other doors to open.

Yitzi: Wow, that’s fantastic. Your father was famous for not being shy about evolving. He started out his early life as a Democrat, as an admirer of FDR, but then he became a Republican. Did he ever talk to you about why he shifted his perspectives?

Reagan: He always said that he didn’t leave Democrat Party, the Democrat Party left him and that is basically it. The Democrat Party actually left him and so that’s why he moved on. That pushed him to be the first Republican in the family.

It didn’t help the Democrats, that Bobby Kennedy got involved with General Electric Theater, where my father had a TV show, and began making some phone calls. Bobby Kennedy called General Electric and that caused him to cancel the television show my dad was on. Bobby Kennedy didn’t like the fact that my father was regularly speaking ill of his brother or against the politics of JFK. He called the head of General Electric, to let them know that their government contracts are up for renewal. It would help them much if, that guy, who is around going the country speaking at GE plants, was no longer doing that. 72 hours later, GE cancelled it. Ronald Reagan doesn’t have a job.

And Ronald Reagan, said , “oh I think I’ll become a Republican” and the rest is history. I know this because my dad told this to my sister, myself and Nancy, at the dinner table. He explained to us that he’s not going to be on the TV show tonight and here’s the reason why.

If Bobby Kennedy had not picked up the phone and called the head of General Electric, and caused the firing of Ronald Reagan, there’s a good chance Ronald Reagan never gives the “A time for choosing speech” for Barry Goldwater, which means he never is found to run for governor of California, which means he never ends up being the President of the United States. Remember, Ronald Reagan was doing the top 10 television show every Sunday night, right? He didn’t have time to sit down and come up with a new speech, A Time For Choosing. He didn’t have time to go on and campaign for Barry Goldwater. So imagine if Bobby never made that call. Bobby Kennedy made the call that changed the course of Ronald Reagan’s life, and that helped put him in the White House in 1980.

If youreally think about that, that they changed the history of the world. There is a direct progression from General Electric Theater, to becoming governor, to becoming the President.

Yitzi: I’m 37. When I grew grew up, whenever I’d opened up a candy box it would have your stepmother’s slogan, “Just say no”. As you know, today different states are legalizing marijuana and Denver just legalized, psychedelic mushrooms. What did your parents tell you about drugs? What do you think they would say today?

Reagan: We have too many parents trying to be best friends with their kids instead of being parents. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said “where’s this generation’s Nancy Reagan”. Just say no.

You have doctors prescribing opiates, like, candy. People worry about the drugs coming across the border but your doctor is prescribing you opiates. You got a problem. There’s nobody saying, just say no and going around and talking to the youth and really gaining the attention of youth.

I wish that a person was out there doing that, but there’s nobody out there doing it. There’s too much of a push to legalize. Everyone is saying, let’s do this, let’s do that but you’ll see the damage that ultimately it could do.

I feel sorry for this generation. There’s no limits. There’s no, “just say no”. There’s no stop, no safeguards and I worry, I really worry about this generation quite a bit. I wish there was somebody out there, who people respected, joining the fight. Just say no, drugs are not the answer.

Yitzi: So, you’ve touched briefly on some of the legacies that Nancy Reagan left and that your father left. Can you articulate what you think are, the top two or three legacies that Nancy left behind, and the top two or three legacies that you father left behind?

Reagan: Well, I think the “just say no program”. I think that’s what she’s really remembered for. I think, also the way she was the First Lady, and what she did to really transform the interior beauty of the White House, was magnificent. I think those are probably the legacies of Nancy.

The legacy of my father is, that he lead the world to a better place than when he came into the White House. The legacy of the Berlin Wall coming down. They hadn’t been free since the 1960’s. That’s a heck of a legacy to leave. That’s probably a legacy that will be remembered to this day. It’s amazing.

Yitzi: So, I think I’m done with my questions. Is there anything else you want to share? Is there anything else you you think is important for our readers to know?

Reagan: The only other thing to share is that if you want to really honor my father and honor his memory, please go to reaganfoundation.org and get involved with our foundation, with our scholarship program. If you want to honor a vet, please go online to walkwaytovictory.com, purchase a brick to be put in the ground at Sainte-Mère-Église at Airborne Museum. There are not many WW2 vets left. We need to remember the ones who were there. That’s the way of saying thank you to them and is a way to also honor my father.

Michael Reagan

Yitzi: Michael, thank you so much. Thank for your time. I learned an extraordinary amount and I think this is going to be a really important article. I think that you shared so many important stories that have very, powerful and long lasting lessons. I really appreciate your time.

Reagan: Well, thank you.

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