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Michael Reagan, the son of a Hollywood star and an American president, is determined to keep the legacies of his late parents alive.
The 77-year-old is the son of Academy Award-winning actress Jane Wyman and fellow Warner Bros. contract player-turned-President Ronald Reagan. He was adopted by the former couple when he was just three days old. Today, he is the chairman and president of The Reagan Legacy Foundation, which aims to advance the causes the patriarch held dear in his lifetime.
The 40th U.S. president passed away on June 5, 2004, at age 93 after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. His first wife, whose decades-long career spanned from the 1930s, died in 2007 at age 90. Reagan has written several best-selling books, including “Lessons My Father Taught Me.”
Reagan spoke to Fox News Digital about his unique upbringing, the memories of his parents that make him smile today and why growing up in the spotlight wasn’t easy.
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Fox News: Your mother was an Oscar-winning actress and your father became president of the United States. What was their relationship like?
Michael Reagan: You know, they always had a relationship because they shared two kids. My mom was pregnant with a little girl named Christine, and she gave birth prematurely. I believe Christine lived for about three days and passed away… They divorced in 1948.
I didn’t find out until my mother passed away, and I was going through her things, that she still had a pristine copy of their marriage license. She had saved letters from my dad to her thanking her. She had sent money for his presidential campaigns. I had no idea. She never talked about it… But I am the way that I am because of my parents. My mother was the best. She was tough and strong. I remember at 10 years old, she loaned me money to buy a bike. I had to pay her back, so she made me get a job. I sold papers in front of the church on Sunday mornings. She said, “I build men, not boys.”
She instilled the importance of hard work and paying your dues. My dad and I would speak on that. But he, too, valued the importance of hard work. When I dropped out of college, the door was locked at my dad’s house. The door was locked at my mom’s house. If you left college, it was on you to find a place to live and get a job.
Fox News: It sounded like they wanted to make sure you wouldn’t become a Hollywood brat.
Reagan: Absolutely. I was around Hollywood brats. But my parents never lost their Midwestern values. They certainly didn’t lose it when they made it in Hollywood. And those values were instilled in our household. Hard work is important and don’t feel sorry for yourself.
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I remember I used to work on a trucking dock from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. when my father was elected governor of California. The guys used to say, “Your parents hate you.” My mother was a Hollywood star and my father was elected governor, and yet here I was working on a trucking dock. I remember on the night after he got elected I asked him for a job. I figured every politician gives their kids jobs. He just looked at me and said, “Michael, I don’t believe in nepotism.” I thought to myself, “God, I must have voted for the wrong guy.” *Laughs*.
Fox News: What do you think compelled your father to pursue politics?
Reagan: I don’t think he pursued it. I think it pursed him. He fought communism in Hollywood. He was named president of the Screen Actors Guild. He’s the reason actors and actresses get residuals. And when he pursued politics, he made sure his movies were not a part of it. He didn’t want people to think or believe that he was only doing it because his career was on the downturn. He was always determined to make a difference.
Back in the ‘60s, my dad was doing “General Electric Theater.” He toured the country and visited GE factories and civic groups. His speeches were well known. All of a sudden, Bobby Kennedy picks up the phone and calls [“GE” President] Ralph Cordiner and tells him, “If you want government contracts, get Reagan off the air.” Within 48 to 72 hours, “General Electric Theater” was canceled. It was in the top 10 every Sunday night, and yet it was canceled. My dad lost his job.
So in a way, Bobby Kennedy launched my dad’s political career. Now that my dad wasn’t hosting his top 10 show, it gave him time to write a new speech. And he filmed one on behalf of Republican candidate Barry Goldwater. It was a powerful speech. It was also a pivotal point for dad. That speech, known as “A Time for Choosing,” forever changed his life. It launched a political career that eventually led to the presidency of the United States.
So if Bobby Kennedy hadn’t made that call, that probably wouldn’t have happened… My dad was originally a Democrat. He used to say that he didn’t leave the party, but the party left him… My parents had the money to do what they wanted. But they also understood that if you don’t have a work ethic, you’re not going to survive. And if you do survive, you’re not going to be happy surviving.
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Fox News: When your father became president, how did it change your life?
Reagan: My world was turned upside down. It’s one thing when you’re the governor’s son, but it’s completely different when he’s president… It can be very tough. You have Secret Service agents, and you’re having to constantly give out information. What are you going to do this weekend? Where are you going for dinner? What time are you going to leave? What time will you be back? Who’s going to be with you? The Secret Service protects the president not only from bodily harm but also from harm in other ways. If I’m doing something that could potentially embarrass the president, they will let the president know.
People always want to do deals with you when they know you’re the president’s son. Everybody wants to use you. I would call the White House lawyer and say, “Hey, what do you think of this?” They would always say, “Mike, if you’re calling about this, and your stomach is already telling you it’s a bad deal, then you know the answer.”… Stuff will come at you, and you always have to say no. I guess it’s because a lot of people think we don’t have jobs and need the money. Maybe some do, I don’t know *laughs*.
But your life forever changes. The Secret Service protects blood relatives. They don’t protect spouses. Maybe that’s changed, but back then, I had protection and my son had protection. My wife didn’t, but she could also just get in a car and leave… It’s not easy having people constantly follow your every move. We would go into stores to shop, and the manager would call security because they thought I was walking in with guys who were there to rob the place because they were carrying weapons. My son was in preschool, and he had Secret Service. He was never invited to a party given by another child in his class.
… When our daughter Ashley was born, we found out her code name – Raindrop. I remembered [my wife] looked at me and said, “Is there anything about us that’s private anymore?” No, not really *laughs*. Cameron was Rhyme, so I figure she would be Reason. But nope, she was Raindrop. She now has a tattoo of raindrops on her foot. Dad would say, “You don’t want me at your house, because I’m a 26-car motorcade. If you want your neighbors to really dislike you, just have me drive by.” Your privacy disappears.
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Fox News: How did your mom feel about your dad becoming president?
Reagan: She never, ever talked about it… If she was asked any questions about her former husband during an interview, she would walk off. She finally said something on the day we buried my father. She said, “The world lost a wonderful, wonderful human being.” She was a very classy lady who was loved by her Hollywood peers.
Fox News: What’s one memory of your mom that makes you smile today?
Reagan: … I remember when I was in boarding school and somehow, she thought I needed a dog. She went out and got a standard poodle named Stuffy. She would say, “When you’re home, you have to train him for an hour a day.” I mean, what fifth grader wants a standard poodle named Stuffy? It’s not the manliest name *laughs*.
… I remember I was saving these two-dollar bills. I had a stack of them on my dresser. For some reason, my mom was going through my dresser one day. She walked down the stairs and started ripping up these two-dollar bills. “Michael, why are you collecting all of this phony money?” I just remember my friends going “No, no, no!” *laughs*.
Fox News: What about your dad?
Reagan: I think about sitting on the right front seat of a station wagon on any given Saturday morning after mom and dad divorced. Dad would pick me up and we would spend time together. We just talked and talk. He spoke to me about America and answered any questions I had. I think about those times because I know not everyone has that kind of relationship with their parents. Those moments, just being with him and talking to him on the ranch on any given Saturday morning, make me smile.
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… I remember one time, I was alone with my father by a fireplace. I asked him, “Why do you want to run for president?” He said to me, “You know, Michael, for so long I’ve watched American presidents sit down with secretary generals of the Soviet Union. And every time we sit down with them, it seems that they’re always asking us to give up something. I’m running and hoping to win the nomination for the presidency of the United States so that I could sit down with the secretary general. I’m going to let him pick the table, the chairs and the place, because Michael, that’s how they do things at that level. And after the secretary general tells me what I’m going to give up, I want to get up from the table, walk around the other side of it, lean over and whisper in his ear, “nyet.”… It’s those kinds of moments, those stories he would tell me, that still make me smile. Because I knew I was living history. I was seeing it and being a part of it.
Fox News: How would you describe your relationship with your dad in the later years?
Reagan: We had a wonderful, wonderful relationship… I used to be like other people and say, “If only my dad would tell me he loves me.” I was in church saying that one morning. I hear this voice in me that says, “When was the last time you told your dad you loved him?”
I realized I never told my dad I loved him. When I saw him the next time, I hugged him and said, “I love you.” I scared the hell out of him *laughs*, but he told me, “I love you too.” I realized how stupid of me it was to hold my dad accountable for not telling me those words when I had never told him. So every time we saw each other, we would hug and say, “I love you.”
Even after he got Alzheimer’s and could no longer say my name, he recognized me as the guy he hugged. And we would hug so much. When he would see me, he would open his arms and I would just go into them and hug him. He would hug me hello and goodbye. He just pulled me in. I remember one Sunday while visiting Nancy, we had to do some other stuff that day. So we got up, walked out the door and went into the car. My wife looked at me and said, “You forgot something.” I said, “What?” She said, “Look at the door.” When I turned, there was my dad. He had taken these baby steps with Nancy’s help to the front door of the house. He was standing there with his arms wide open. He remembered that I had forgotten to hug him goodbye.
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I just ran to that door and hugged him. I told him, “I love you.” I still see him vividly in front of that door with his arms wide open. And to this day, I’m so grateful that I got to do that. I still get emotional when I think about that day.
When he didn’t know who I was, I never got angry. I understood it. But I always got that hug and I always gave it back to him… I remember my sister asked me when she was dying from melanoma in 2001. She said, “Michael, promise me… you’ll carry on the legacy of our father. It’s so important that people get the correct story.” I promised her I would do just that… You know, not many people can say their mother was an Academy Award-winning actress and their father was president of the United States. I need to tell the stories and keep their legacies alive.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.