09/16/2012 03:32 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2012

Will the Real Ronald Reagan Please Stand Up?

Those people frighten me. I clutch my pearls every time I see hoards of self-proclaimed "real" Americans, patriots if you will, on television feverishly demanding to "take America back;" while others, albeit the more extreme of the group, tote signs at rallies with Sambo-like caricatures of our nation's Commander in Chief. From the birtherism debacle to the coining of Barack Obama as the "food stamp president," it's ironic that these radical ideas were given birth to and nurtured by our nation's "conservatives."

And so when I hear this conservative chorus chanting to "take America back," I'm always curious who they are taking America back from, and more importantly, where are they taking America back to -- because quite frankly, there are a number of places in our nation's past that certain segments of the population would prefer not to revisit.

Enter Ronald Reagan. Arguably one of the most iconic presidents in our nation's history, and a cornerstone of the Republican Party. His name hovers on the lips of every model conservative, and his presidency serves as their roadmap for the direction in which the country should be traveling. The reality, however, is that while for some Americans, Reagan's presidency reflects a glorious historical moment when the United States was the "Shining City on the Hill," for others, the Reagan '80s invoke flashbacks of failed trickle down economics and social policies that ravaged the inner cities. Reagan, therefore, serves as a window into what often feels like two different Americas, with two distinctly different agendas.

I embarked on a series of interviews with individuals from both the Left and the Right (including former Reagan and Clinton speechwriters) about the former president, in an effort to decode some of the rhetoric coming out of the Republican party, to delve further into the heart of the conservative movement, and to understand its impacts on the country as a whole. Below are excerpts from my conversation with Ron Reagan, the youngest son of former President Ronald Reagan. He was candid, honest, and challenged his father in ways that only a son could do.

Robyn: In your book, My Father at 100, you write that your father's hometown of Dixon would "serve as his original template for the 'shining city' he will later extol as a model for all that is good in American life." But you also shared a story about how the racist policies in Dixon did not allow your father's African-American football teammates to stay at the hotel with the rest of the team. Let's discuss Dixon and why it was a suitable template for "the shining city."

Ron Reagan: Dixon wasn't a shining city on a hill. Like most places in 1920's, 1930's America, particularly outside of the big cities, it was racist. You know, the theatre was segregated. Black people as we know were not welcome to spend the night in hotels in Dixon then. So, it's not a shining city on a hill then.

At the same time though, I'm sure if you're a citizen of Dixon, a white citizen of Dixon, everybody knew everybody. It was a nice, pleasant town. And it's a nice, pleasant small town now. I went back and spent some time there. I'm sure it had lots of attractive qualities -- the river running through it and all of that sort of thing. It was as good a town as any I suppose in the Midwest to be romanticized by a young man who was going to be heading off to Hollywood and then beyond. But of course the reality was different because those times were different. And the reality wouldn't have been different anywhere else really outside of Dixon. And worse, of course, in some places.

Robyn: You discussed your father's need to sanitize make chaos orderly. And so I'm wondering, with the glaring racism that was present in Dixon -- how that wasn't chaotic to him?

Ron Reagan:
That's disorderly. And particularly in retrospect it's disorderly. At the time, it probably represented an unquestioned order. Segregated movie theaters where black people sit upstairs in the balcony and the white people sit down in the orchestra section was simply the norm throughout America at that time. And the Civil Rights Movement hadn't really begun in earnest, the one that we think about, because there were others. But that was decades away. And so that may have represented a certain comfortable orderliness at the time.

In retrospect, by the time when you get to the point where he is looking back a that from the vantage of that from the point of the sixties, the eighties, nineties...that is a point of disorder and it needs to be ignored or tidied up or explained away. And for some people, holding two contradictory thoughts simultaneously in their minds is a disorderly kind of thing.

And I think particularly for older generations, and I'm sure for my father, it would be difficult to say, "Yes, in a way Dixon was a wonderful little shining city on a hill, but at the same time we have to realize there was a real dark underbelly there too. So really, it wasn't a shining city on a hill. It was a potential shining city on a hill. And America is a potential shining city on a hill, but we need to...blah blah blah."

You know, how much easier it is just to say, "It's all a shining city on a hill right now, if only naysayers could get out of the way."

Robyn: I'm clearly generalizing, but it often feels like critiquing or pointing out some of the fundamental flaws in our country is viewed as unpatriotic in some conservative circles.

Ron Reagan: It also demands solutions that are anathema to you if you are a conservative Republican, because it involves government and it involves equality. Not jut equality of opportunity, but indeed equality of result. Because real equality of opportunity will necessarily create an equality of result, to a certain extent.

Robyn: Why do you think there are so many poor, white Americans who are members of the Republican party? And why do these Americans identify with your father so much?

Ron Reagan: Well that's the "what's the matter with Kansas" question. Why do people vote for Republican politicians who are going to enact policies that are not in their interest? And the answer mostly is fear. Not that this tactic hasn't been going on before Shakespeare, but this began in earnest during the 1960s with the Civil Rights era and the so-called Southern strategy, the Republican party which was an implicit appeal to racism initially. You can broaden that now to just an appeal to fear and ignorance. It's this idea that this mysterious "other" is, or not so mysterious perhaps, is coming to take out country away from us. And the reason you don't have a job, and your life is going to hell, and that your sister is a meth addict, is because these dark skinned people, often, and these "elite liberals," these "others" are taking your country away from you. And they're going to take your guns away, and they're going to make your son marry a man, and your daughter marry a woman, and they want to open the floodgates to brown people from the south, and on and on.

And they get people all ginned up about this kind of nonsense, and the birtherism thing with Obama is perhaps the latest example of that. Obama makes the perfect "other" for those people because he's Black. Because he's got that funny name. He lived abroad. How easy is it to suggest that he's not even a real American...that he's some sort of Manchurian candidate. And people who are uneducated fall prey to this sort of nonsense. It's an appeal to fear. And that's exacerbated when there are tough economic times. People get more scared.

Robyn: You have such dissimilar views from your father politically. How does it feel taking that stance? And how do people who love your father and his policies respond to you?

Ron Reagan: Those of them on the Right who knew both of us way back in the day are more tolerant of me. Those sort of new Republicans, people who use his name a lot but many have never so much as met him, they loathe me. They just tend to hate me. I'm not real popular with the Sean Hannity kind of crowd. But I wear that as a tiny little badge of honor. Emphasis on the tiny.

Robyn: People have really strong reactions to your father. On the one hand, he is an icon. On the other, his policies are demonized. Do these opposing reactions to your father represent two completely different America's that just don't get each other?

Ron Reagan: I think it becomes increasingly clear that there are at least two, maybe more Americas that don't get one another. It is quite possible to disapprove of President Ronald Reagan or Ronald Reagan's political positions or policies, and still like the man. If you met him or knew him, he was such a decent fellow. I think he had blind spots and made mistakes, and that led to bad policy which could be harmful to people and on and on and on. But it was never his intention to do anybody any harm.

I remember once we were at the White House for a Christmas dinner, and I had a read a column in Newsweek magazine the week before by Meg Greenfield. And her point in the column had simply been that no matter what a national leader does, no matter what decision a national leader takes, that decision is going to hurt somebody. It may be to the benefit of society as a whole, but somebody is going to get hurt. And I brought that up, maybe inappropriately to him at a Christmas dinner, but I was young and used to kind of goading my father at these things. I brought this up to him kind of as a general point, saying, "Yes, this must be difficult knowing whatever you do somebody, was going to get the shaft." And he immediately reacted to this with a defense of his position of welfare, as if I was specifically saying "So how can you defend your welfare position." I really wasn't. It was a more general question. But he was appalled at the thought that anything he was doing was going to hurt someone.

Robyn: Let's discuss your father's ideas about welfare and his references to "the welfare queen.

Ron Reagan:
It's odd, of course as many people have remarked, because his own father worked for the WPA, for Roosevelt's program during the Depression and would sign people up to work in government work programs. But, my father just became obsessed with this notion that it was all a big swindle, and that people were just t right and left ripping off the system.

And by the way, I'm sure you know the alleged woman in Chicago with fifty aliases whose driving a Cadillac, or whatever my father references in the speech, never existed. (laughs) Why didn't somebody point out to him that if he knew who this person was and all these details of her life, then why hadn't somebody stopped her? (laughs) I mean, who is this woman that we know all about, but apparently she's still out there still ripping off the system for just hundreds of thousands of dollars?

The whole thing was just kind of absurd, which is sort of an example of both my father's tendency to sort of accept something like that and even make use of it. It's an example of the public and media's ability to hear something like that, not point out the obvious fallacy of the presentation...even if you agree with it. Again, who is this woman? Point her out. You know all about her. You know how many social security cards she has, so who is she? Where does she live? And nobody can do that because she is fictitious.

But I think he just thought that welfare was breeding dependency and was leading to -- just like Medicare -- would lead to a socialist sort of reality where we'd all wear grey jumpsuits and go to work in the mines.

Robyn: The way you describe your father in your book, he appears very gentle and well-intentioned. But your description of him also makes it seem like he had this uncanny ability to dismiss and ignore some very important things.

Ron Reagan: Well exactly. I could sit here and defend him relative to subsequent presidents, you know, who torture people and go off to wars under false auspices. Outside of Grenada we didn't have a lot of military action going on when my father was president; and he didn't really want there to be military action. Particularly in his second term, his whole purpose was built around the Soviet Union and getting them to the table and eliminating nuclear weapons.

So yes, personally he was a very gentle guy, but he became enmeshed with a political movement, i.e. conservatism, that is not gentle. And I don't think he ever fully understood what some conservatives were really after.

Robyn: Do you feel like he was in some ways out of touch with the communities he made policies for, specifically the African American community?

Ron Reagan: All presidents are. On some level all presidents are out of touch with some communities they are making policies for. I mean, how could it not be? Yeah, sure he was out of touch. (laughs) Of course he was. How much time did my father spend hanging out in the Black community? Not much. It's just, he wouldn't have. It didn't make him a racist. I'm not saying that my any means. But no, he had no idea what it was like to live in a housing project in the inner city. No. Not a clue.

Robyn: Your father is loved by so many people. But do you think it hurt him to know that there were others that didn't feel the same affection for him? Do you think he rethought any of his policies that had adverse effects on some groups? Was there ever a sense of regret?

Ron Reagan: Unfortunately because of the disease he was afflicted with, he didn't have a lot of time to do that. He was sort of in office, then out of office, before being diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

He wasn't by nature somebody who spent a whole lot of time questioning himself, and re-thinking stuff, and critiquing himself. I think in retrospect, he would have wished to been paying a little more attention during the Iran contra business, and have paid more attention to issues with the staff. But you know, I might be reading my own thoughts into how he would think.

Robyn: In your book you said this about your father, "Tenderhearted and sentimental is his personal dealings, he could nevertheless have difficulty extending his sympathy to abstract classes of people, an obliviousness that was, understandably, taken for callousness." Will you elaborate?

Ron Reagan: Yes, it would allow him to tell that welfare queen story without really thinking about, "Gee, my father was out of work sometimes. And he worked with other people who were out of work. I know what it's like to be out of work sometimes and poor, and kind of hit tough times. Live through the Depression and all that. I shouldn't be making fun of people who are getting a hand out. My own family got a hand out." But welfare recipients become this sort of fuzzy, amorphous blob out there that you can hit with a stick once in a while.

But if you brought a welfare recipient into him...and that's why I told the story about the woman who we saw on the news who was going to lose her apartment. She was a single mother. And he sits there and writes her a check. And you want to just take him and shake him and say, "But you understand you can't write everybody a check. We all have to write them a check. Right. That's what the welfare thing and unemployment thing is. So, your impulse with that woman was a good one. But how do we extend that to all the women who are just like her. Or all the men, or all the children, or whoever just like her. How do we do that because it can't be your personal checkbook, can it?" Anyways... but if you could give him a human being, he was sold.

Robyn: So what you mean by abstract classes, are people that didn't come face to face with him, or he didn't get to know personally?

Ron Reagan: Right. People you could categorize. Communists. Welfare recipients. Environmentalists. Hippies. Whatever. Pointy-headed intellectuals. But what does any of that mean. It's meaningless. I guess for the Census Bureau it might have some meaning, but for nobody else. But again, if you brought anybody from any of those categories to him, and sat them down for five minutes with him, not only would they come away liking him enormously, but he'd be wanting to do something for them. He'd be like, "You know, that pointy headed intellectual fellow came in the other day, and I didn't know that they the college. So let's get somebody to do something about that, can we. He was a nice fellow, that pointy headed intellectual."

Robyn: What were some of the major successes of your father's presidency?

Ron Reagan: The Soviet Union...which was more second term. And first term was more military build up. And while I'm personally uncomfortable with that, one could say put extra pressure on the Soviet Union that may have sped up the demise of the Soviet Union. And I'm pretty clear on that being a good thing.

And as many people have mentioned and I sort of agree with it in a more vague way, but a palpable way, a certain renewal of pride and enthusiasm for the country. But at the same time, it's true, having gone through the seventies and the oil embargo and all that, America was kind of back on his heels, and really through force of personality as much as anything else, he made a lot of people feel kind of good about the country again.

Robyn: What do you think some of the failures of his administration were?

Ron Reagan:
There were mistakes like Iran Contra. I don't agree with the welfare policy for the most part. I don't agree with all the tax cuts that were enacted. But eventually, if you're talking to me, you get into such large broad areas. You know, we're just talking about a different philosophy of governance all together. And so, you know, nobody really cares about what I think. (laughs)

Robyn: Did you vote for your dad in both elections?

Ron Reagan: Yes. Sure. I figured, you know, I'll get him into the White House and I'll tell him what to do. (laughs) I can't do that with anybody else. (laughs)