The Long Goodbye

Father's day at the Reagan home, 1995:

After the gifts, the home-cooked meal, the snapshots in the backyard, son Michael finally rises to leave. Father Ron stretches out his arms for a goodbye hug. The two men warmly embrace. A grandchild scampers about; Grandmother Nancy smiles benignly.

It was not always like this, of course. When Michael graduated from high school, his father failed to recognize him. After making the commencement speech, Reagan had been asked to shake hands with a few of the graduates. As Michael stood proudly before him in cap and gown, his dad cheerfully announced, "My name is Ronald Reagan. What's yours?" Michael grew up to write a bitter tell-all book denouncing his parents for, among other things, never hugging him. But nowadays, the senior Reagan can't get enough. Michael, who began hugging his father six years ago ("It was a little dicey at first") says that now "when I get up to leave, he's standing there with his arms open, waiting to be hugged, when he may not even remember I was there."

Daughter Patti Davis also wrote a biting memoir, describing her mother as a manipulative pill-popper and her father as cold and remote. Until recently, Patti made a career out of flouting her parents, changing her last name out of disrespect for her father's politics, appearing nude in Playboy and writing no fewer than three books dumping on her dysfunctional family. Yet on this sunny Father's Day in Los Angeles last June, Patti was laughing and chatting with Nancy. Meanwhile, Mrs. Reagan, who as First Lady did not see one of her new grandchildren until the baby was 18 months old, was fussing over the newest addition to the family, a 10-year-old Ugandan child adopted last year by her stepdaughter Maureen. Describing this scene of family togetherness in correspondence with NEWSWEEK, Mrs. Reagan wrote, "As I sat there looking at everyone, ! couldn't help but think that this is the way it should be and the way I always longed for it to be."

Never mind the past, Ronald Reagan has always believed in happy endings, and now, in a way, he is living one. The onset of Alzheimer's in the 84-year-old former president's brain has brought peace to his once-warring family. "I think any illness brings a family closer together," Mrs. Reagan wrote NEWSWEEK. "It brings things into focus and should reshuffle your priorities." In response to a request for an interview, Mrs. Reagan agreed to answer written questions about her family's reconciliation. She also asked Patti to describe how she and her mother had come together after years of estrangement. Patti, as well as her brother Michael, spoke to NEWSWEEK about a family that never quite measured up to Reagan's dreamy rhetoric about family values.

The impact of Ronald Reagan's disease, which is slowly destroying his memory, has been especially hard on Mrs. Reagan. She has always been her husband's best friend and closest adviser. Now she must manage what she calls her husband's "long goodbye." Supremely conscious of appearances, she makes sure the former president is dressed in coat and tie and spends three or four hours in the office every day. Some friends whisper that she is perhaps overly concerned with the former president's image, but others insist that she is keeping up her husband's spirits. Short meetings are ranged with friends and a few trusted public figures. In July, the former president spent almost an hour with Scott O'Grady, the air force pilot dramatically rescued after being shot down over Bosnia.

The family has a pact of silence about Reagan's condition, and Nancy won't even allow him to be photographed. She was furious five months ago when the television tabloid show "Hard Copy" snuck a video-camera into the church the Reagans attend. Friends who visit the former president describe him as "in and out" and quite deaf. "You have to know which ear to shout in," says one regular visitor. Still physically fit, Reagan swims with his grandchildren and sometimes hits golf balls at a driving range on his way home from work. He has not lost his sense of humor. Michael tells of visiting one day as Nancy bustled about preparing her husband for lunch at the country club, dressing him in a sweater and issuing last-minute instructions. "Now honey, don't forget what I told you to do," she commanded. As soon as Nancy left the room, Reagan turned to Michael, smiled, and confessed, "I have no idea what she's talking about."

As Reagan fades, Nancy has found solace in her extended family. Her somewhat surprising new soulmate is Patti. The two talk on the phone daily, sometimes for an hour, chit-chatting about Patti's romantic misfortunes or the O.J. trial. (They discuss legal strategies. Nancy is concerned, says Patti-"I'm trying to be diplomatic here"-- that there "could be a travesty of justice.")

The rapprochement between mother and daughter has been slow and at times painful. When she moved to Manhattan in 1993, Patti simply left her forwarding address. It was actually Ronald Reagan who made the first real overtures. Reagan has always tried to stay in touch, but the messages took on some urgency a couple of years ago. "He would write me notes," says Patti. "He was trying to say to me, 'I'm 82, I'm 88. I'm not going to be here much longer. And I love you and we love you.'" There were telephone calls from her father, usually just before her mother's birthday, prodding Patti to send a card. "I didn't want to hear it," Patti says.

She started listening after her own life fell apart. Two years ago, after turning 40, she ended a disastrous engagement by calling the police to remove her fiance from her home. Desperate, on the verge of bankruptcy, she began writing stories from her childhood. She recalled simple homilies her father had told her, spiritual stories Reagan had used to comfort her as a little girl. She wove these tales together with a stream-of-consciousness tribute to her father's faith. "It felt like a rope that I was holding onto, to remember all this, and to reacquaint myself with things that I hadn't thought about for a long time," she says.

Patti was well along on the book chronicling her spiritual journey, "Angels Don't Die," when she met with her mother in a New York hotel room last fall. Patti was ready to confront the past; her mother less so. "I was a little hesitant, understandably," Mrs. Reagan recalled. "It had, after all, been a long time. But we spent four hours talking." The discussion stiffened when it turned to Patti posing in Playboy. "I don't want to look at a perfume ad in Vogue and see a naked body," Mrs. Reagan said. "Well, I do," retorted Patti. Both women burst out laughing, and the tense moment passed. "We made out first tentative baby steps towards reconciliation," wrote Mrs. Reagan.

Patti began telephoning her mother. When Patti's Playboy video was publicized on TV last fall, she called her mother with the hours it would air so Nancy could watch and "get my father out of the room," recalls Patti. Her mother came to realize that, after "zaftig" teenage years and an-orexia in her 20s, Patti was proud of her body. Having overcome an addiction to diet pills, Patti describes herself as a serious student of body sculpting, "addicted" to her daily workout.

She is amused that not long after she appeared in Playboy her book of her father's spiritual lessons took off at the bookstores. "You won't believe it," she laughingly told her brother Michael, "but I'm number four on the Christian Booksellers' list, right behind the pope." Nancy wept when she read a draft of the book-and began reaching out to her daughter. Still, old wounds lingered. Despite public assertions that she had not read any of her daughter's earlier "fiction"-Mrs. Reagan's dismissive term-the former First Lady had apparently devoured every word, and kept coming back to the harsh memories in her daughter's uncharitable memoir and autobiographical novels. Patti finally realized that she had been "as brutal to my mother as she had been to me." Last November, a couple of weeks after her father's Alzheimer's had been disclosed, she decided to apologize. She told her mother she was sorry for "the pain I have caused."

Those were the words Mrs. Reagan needed to hear. "You have no idea how much that means to me," she choked out through sobs. The two began sharing confidences. When a new boyfriend stood Patti up, her mother offered wise solace. "I had walked around Central Park all morning like a little rain cloud, observing all the happy couples, the people rollerblading and jogging," Patti recalls. "When I got my mother in the early afternoon, she said, 'Why are you doing all this? He's obviously not right for you'." Patti can now joke about her mother's understandably chilly reaction when she showed up with her first live-in boyfriend, the lead guitarist in the rock band The Eagles. "Obviously, our relations then and now are like night and day," Mrs. Reagan wrote NEWSWEEK. "She's filled a void in my life that was very empty."

The new warmth has spread throughout the family. "Once my mother and I repaired our relationship, it invited other relationships to be repaired," Patti says. She has grown closer to Maureen and now finds Michael "very funny." (Michael and Maureen are Reagan's children from his first marriage, to actress Jane Wyman; he and Nancy had Patti and Ron.) Michael, a conservative radio show host, has learned to live under the shadow of his famous father. When the former lifeguard and ex-president, then 80, heat Michael's 12-year-old son Cameron in a swimming race in the family pool, Michael consoled his son, "That's all right, I never beat him either." On warm afternoons now, Reagan often splashes around with Rita, his adoptive granddaughter from Uganda. "Rita is a real 'water baby,' thanks to our pool and my husband," writes Nancy. The younger Ron, who was never as distant from his parents as his sister, has been struggling lately, mostly unemployed since his television talk show was canceled in 1992. He has dropped from the showbiz scene for now and lives with his wife, a clinical psychologist, in Seattle.

Patti, who recently read her father's old love letters to her mother, says she hasn't dated for months because she can't find anyone enough like her father. In the past, she realizes, she rebelled against him by seeking out men who were completely different from Reagan: "Poor, hair in a pony tail, with a Harley in the garage," she says. Now she keeps a journal detailing how she and her rediscovered family anticipate losing a father and husband who also belongs to the wider world. Watching President Nixon's funeral on TV last year, Patti began to cry, not for Nixon, but because she could visualize her own father's state funeral. Writing about her feelings has always been a catharsis, she says. But this time she is showing the pages of her journal to her mother first, before she sends them to the publisher.

PHOTOS (COLOR): Into the sunset: On Inauguration Day, 1981 (left), at home on Fathers day, 1995.

PHOTO (COLOR): Coming to terms: After writing a book of her father's homilies in '94, Patti began to reach out to her mother; now, they speak every day

Reagan, then a movie actor, had his first family after marrying Jane Wyman in a celebrated 1940 Tinseltown match.

Jane Wyman: The marriage to Wy-man--a film and TV presence who starred in "Falcon Crest" until 1990-lasted eight years.

Maureen: Now 54 and the adoptive mother of a Ugandan child, she is a women's activist in California.

Michael: Adopted in '45, the southern California-based radio-show host wrote a tell-all about his dad but is now reconciled.

PHOTO (COLOR): Reagan with his first family: Jane Wyman, wife; Maureen, daughter; Michael, son.

Reagan met Nancy, then a fledgling starlet, in '49. They married in '52, and he moved from show business to politics.

Nancy: Ten years his junior, the former actress helped Reagan rise from Warner Bros. to Washington.

Patti Davis: Born in '52, she changed her name to create her own identity, then moved from acting to writing.

Ron P.: The 37-year-old former ballet dancer sported briefs on an '87 Saturday Night Live, lost his TV show and now lives in Seattle.

PHOTO (COLOR): Reagan together with his second family: Nancy, wife; Patti Davis, daughter; Ron P., son.

MELINDA BECK

For years, Ronald Reagan privately worried about his failing memory. His own mother, he would say, had been severely "senile" before her death. During a 1979 interview Reagan asked The New York Times's medical reporter, Dr. Lawrence K. Altman, to explain the nature of senility. At the time, researchers were beginning to better understand the disease known as Alzheimer's. Reagan told Airman that if he were elected president, he'd have his doe-tots cheek him routinely. And he said he'd resign if the disease struck.

Once in office, Reagan's memory lapses-like mistaking his own HUD secretary for a visiting mayor--did provoke titters. But aides shrugged that he'd been absent-minded for decades, and Reagan laughed, too. ("That's the great thing about having Alzheimer's--you get to meet new people every day," he joked to aides- long before he was diagnosed.) Doctors say they saw no signs of the disease during his annual physicals at the White House and the Mayo Clinic. But in its early stages, Alzheimer's is difficult to distinguish from normal aging. Even now, the only certain diagnosis comes from an autopsy, when doctors can see the nerve tangles and protein deposits that bring on the brain's progressive deterioration.

Each case is different. Some victims decline very rapidly. Others remain physically healthy for many years. Reagan, who was diagnosed last year, seems to be one of those. His family and physicians won't discuss his condition. But they say he goes to his office every day, plays golf and attends church regularly. Many of the hundreds of well-wishers who call each day "are under the misconception that he stays at home and is very ill," says chief of staff Joanne Drake. "In fact, he is very much enjoying his life." Other friends paint a bleaker picture. They used to say he had "good days and bad days." Now they say the days are mostly bad. Some of his closest political acquaintances, NEWSWEEK has learned, have stopped visiting because it hurts too much to see how far he has slipped away.

What's ahead will be more painful. In later stages, Alzheimer's robs victims not only of their memories, but of their personalities. Eventually, many become incontinent, unable to walk, eat, dress and bath themselves. The strain on those who care for them can be overwhelming. In a public-service message made after Reagan's diagnosis, Nancy says: "No one is immune. Families really need help to understand it and cope with it."

There is still no cure. But researchers have isolated three defective genes seemingly linked to the rare eases that occur while victims are in their 40s and 50s. Yet another gene may be a risk factor for the more common form that develops late in life. But having a defective gene doesn't mean Alzheimer's is inevitable. Other chemicals that affect brain function may play a role. Researchers are studying whether estrogen, vitamin E or anti-inflammatory drugs might delay the onset of symptoms. Others are exploring a use-it-or-lose-it theory: older people may be able to stave off the disease by staying mentally active and stimulating new connections between brain cells.

As tantalizing as such research sounds, it's still preliminary. "There seem to be multiple causes of this disease, so we need to investigate multiple channels," says Kathryn Kane of the Alzheimer's Association. That will require more funding. But the alternative--an estimated 14 million victims by the year 2050 -will be even more costly. And most of them won't go off into the sunset nearly as gracefully as Ronald Reagan has.

Unless a cure is found, the incidence-and cost--of Alzheimer's will rise precipitously as the population ages.

Roughly 4 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease today; 14 million may have it by the year 2050

The disease strikes one in 10 Americans over age 65 in some form-and nearly half of those over age 85

Alzheimer's costs the economy $100 billion in 1995, but the U.S. government will spend only $311 million on research