Family Ties

<B>Correspondent Susan Spencer</B> Reports On Former President Reagan's Children

Warm memories are what families hold on to in difficult times. And all this week, Ronald Reagan's children have been there for their mother and for each other.

"He was a great dad for a very small child," recalls son Ron Reagan. "He loved nothing better than to sneak and play hooky from whatever he was doing, and go out and play football with the neighborhood kids or something."

But, as for the children of many famous figures, this has been a long and rocky road for the Reagan family. Correspondent Susan Spencer reports.

"To a large extent, he led a detached life from them," says Edmund Morris, Reagan's official biographer.

"When he was with them, they rejoiced in it. But not with them very much. And when the session came to an end, father then reverted to being governor or president or whatever he was."

Still, as Reagan moved through public life, his son, Ron, came to understand and appreciate his father.

"I have never seen him condescend to anyone. I have never seen him belittle anyone," says Ron Reagan.

"I have never heard him gossip about anyone or telling stories. He's a nice man to the core and a terribly dignified man. He treats everyone the same way. Now, when you're his kid, of course, that doesn't always work for you."

President Reagan had four kids: Maureen and Michael from his marriage to Jane Wyman, and Patti and Ron from his marriage to Nancy Reagan.

For years, there were public feuds, estrangements and tell-all books. But the one thing that remained constant was the all-consuming love between Nancy Reagan and her husband.

Morris thinks Reagan's distant approach to his children also reflected the former president's own background.

"You must understand that Ronald Reagan was a very strong man who had made his own life," says Morris.

"He believed passionately in the responsibility of the individual to carve out his own place in the universe, and he expected his children to carve out their places."

For Maureen, who died of cancer in 2001, this would mean three marriages and a try at politics -- for which her dad seemed hardly enthusiastic.

Michael, whom Reagan adopted, is now a radio personality. But for years, he struggled to find his place.

And Patti was the out-and-out rebel. She dropped the Reagan name, posed for Playboy, and supported the nuclear freeze her father denounced. In an interview with Correspondent Mike Wallace, her doubts about his policies also showed: "I'm going to vote for my father. It wouldn't be very nice to not vote for him, would it?"

When asked by Wallace if that was the only reason, she replied, "No, I'm gonna vote for him because he'd be a good president."

Looking back, Ron Reagan says there is one thing that often got lost in all the feuding: "All his children love him desperately."

And this is a fact that was brought home in the worst possible way during the 1981 assassination attempt, which came within inches of taking the president's life.

"That's when all four children realized they were in danger of losing him, and they realized at that moment how desperately they loved him and wanted him to survive," says Morris.

"I remember them wheeling him in and he had a tube down his throat," recalls Ron Reagan. "And he's claustrophobic, and the idea of this tube down his throat was very unnerving to him. And he wrote, you know, 'I can't breathe.'"

Still, even as the nation came together to support the wounded president, it would take years, not until 1994, for the Reagan family to come together and reconcile.

"It was a hard time," said . "But things change and you begin to remember just the good times, and not the bad times."

This week saw, at last, a family united, with Patti, once the estranged daughter, gently comforting her mother.

"Her relationship with her mother which used to be a non-relationship has now become very close," says Morris. "She's reconciled with her mother so they're going through another phase."

In this week's People magazine, Patti Davis eloquently described the family's last moments with her father: " intimate vigil, a bond formed that no one will forget ... the room was filled with whispers, shared stories, soft laughter over fond memories ..."