It was, as Michael Reagan pointed out, like preaching to the choir. His audience, after all, was the Salt Lake County Republican Party, in a state that once gave his dad the biggest majority of any state.
No need, then, to explain why he thinks George Bush needs to be re-elected or why he thinks George Bush did the right thing to wage war in Iraq. Instead, Ronald Reagan's oldest son told the party faithful Friday night why he loves his father.
Suffering now from Alzheimer's disease, the Great Communicator can no longer speak and his memory is just a memory itself. But Michael Reagan remembers his father as a man who made him work hard, shared his warmth in quiet ways, "had the nerve to say 'nyet' to Mikhail Gorbachev," and shared with his son a love of God.
The greatest gift his father has given him, he said, "is that I know that when he passes. . . he's going to heaven to be with his Lord and Savior."
Michael Reagan, now a talk-show host syndicated on 200 radio stations and on Fox-TV, delivered the keynote speech at the Republicans' Lincoln Day Dinner at the Downtown Marriott Hotel. He shared the podium with the party's Utah luminaries: Senators Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett, Rep. Rob Bishop, Gov. Olene Walker and Salt Lake County Mayor Nancy Workman. Several hundred grassroots county Republicans also attended the dinner.
Reagan told how his father and his mother, Jane Wyman, adopted him; how his father, even after divorcing Wyman, never was an absent father; and how both he and Wyman instilled in their son a work ethic, making him get a job selling papers to pay for a new bike. When 8-year-old Michael asked for a raise in his allowance, his dad told him "When there's a president elected who gives me a tax cut, I'll give you a bigger allowance."
As a candidate, a governor and then a president, Reagan said, his father often did small gestures that made people love him. Once, he recalled, his father was campaigning in North Carolina and granted an interview to some students from a school for the blind. "He walked over to the children and invited them to feel his face as he answered their questions. . . .There were no cameras, no media, just my dad caring."
Despite their close relationship, Reagan said, his father had never told him he loved him. Reagan said he blamed his father for this gap in their relationship, until he realized that he had never expressed his feelings either. "I made a decision to go forward," Reagan remembers about the time he hugged his father for the first time.
"Well," Reagan remembers his father saying — the famous "well" that comedians have always liked to imitate — "I love you, too." Now, many years later, his father can no longer say his name, "but he knows the face of the man" who still hugs him.