20 Questions: Ron Reagan

As the son of the late President Ronald Reagan, Ron Reagan has one of the most famous names in America. Reagan, a known liberal, recently signed on with Air America for a show that airs from 8 to 9 p.m. EST. He has taken over the slot previously filled by host Rachel Maddow, who has moved to 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. EST.

He has been in the public eye for much of his life. High school years weren’t so pretty — he was thrown out in his senior year. He dropped out of Yale after a semester to become a ballerina.

And no, he’s not gay. News reports have accused him of such, he laments, but it’s not true. Nor did his parents miss all his ballet performances.

Reagan lives in Seattle with his wife, Doria Palmieri, who is seven years his senior.

First off, congratulations on your new show on Air America.
Well, thank you. As a guy who works for a living, I’m always happy to have a regular gig.

Will it go beyond the elections?
I hope so. For the time being it’s just through the elections. A lot will depend on how I do.

Be honest. Do you ever watch Fox News?
Um, very rarely. I have some liberal friends who do because they feel they need to keep tabs about what the right-wing talking points are. There’s also a comedic value to [show hosts Bill] O’Reilly and [Sean] Hannity. But life is short. The idea of wasting screen time on Fox doesn’t appeal to me. Once in a while one of these chuckleheads will have something to say and you want to just check in.

What is your take on Sarah Palin?
This is not really about Sarah Palin herself. She was McCain’s choice. He is the author of this Palin comedy we now have. It was the most reckless, irresponsible choice I’ve ever seen a candidate for president make. John McCain knows as well as anyone that Sarah Palin has no business being anywhere near the Oval Office. I’m sorry, it’s got nothing to do with the fact that she wears skirts — she’s grossly unqualified. The choice itself is sexist. If she had a penis she would not be on the ticket.

I didn’t know we were going to go there today.
Well, it’s true. I don’t know anyone who could deny it.

Let’s move away from the lower anatomy and onto hair. What do you think of Sarah Palin’s hairdo?
You look at women at the Republican convention and women at the Democratic convention. Republicans have a certain aesthetic beauty that involves more makeup, bigger hair, more lurid outfits. It’s just a little more over the top. Michelle Obama’s outfit was a knit with a brooch. Cindy McCain looked like she was in a gold outfit. I’ll bet that was really expensive. It is a different aesthetic. I’m sure it appeals to a lot of Republicans. That’s based on conversations with my wife, who is a woman.

Your thoughts on McCain?
John McCain has shifted into this mendacious homunculus. In other words, he’s a lying little — well, mendacious homunculus. I’ll leave it at that. Half the stuff that comes out of his mouth doesn’t even make sense.

Whom would you prefer for president, Sarah Palin or Michelle Obama?
Michelle Obama, absolutely. I’d feel a lot better about John McCain if Michelle Obama was his running mate. I’m a little troubled because she [Palin] shoots wolves from the helicopter. To me, it’s a character flaw more than anything else. That’s like [Vice President Dick] Cheney and [Justice Antonin] Scalia shooting down birds. That’s not hunting. That’s a character flaw.

Does anyone ever meet you for the first time and not mention your father?
[Laughs] I’m sure it happens, but the subject of my father comes up with some frequency, particularly at a Republican convention. They just sort of omit me.

For many, your father is a hero. Is he yours?
In many respects, yes. We didn’t disagree all of the time. My father was a sterling character in many, many ways. He, of course, became a really powerful person, but I never saw him abuse that power personally. He wasn’t someone who made up demeaning nicknames, as our current president does. My father was not a bully. I almost never heard him raise his voice to anybody. I never heard him say, “Well, I’d kick his ass.” Never. Never.

What was life like growing up in your house?
I was able to travel with my parents from a very early age around the world. I’ve met Chiang Kai-shek. I met the Marcoses, stayed in the Philippine palace.

Did you see Imelda Marcos’s shoes?
I did not see her shoes. I did not go into her closet. The guest room I stayed in had mother-of-pearl all over the wall. And it wasn’t lost on me that we had driven through some pretty abject poverty to get to that palace.

When did you begin challenging your father’s political beliefs?
Oh, puberty. Probably by age 12. That was when I told them [my parents] I would no longer go to church with them because I was an atheist. One thing leads to another. It wasn’t a great leap to then disagree on politics.

Was he upset?
Yeah, but he wasn’t angry. He was a Christian and took it fairly seriously. He was worried that my life would be diminished if I didn’t accept Christ as my savior. We’d argue at the dinner table all the time, but I don’t think he was losing sleep over it.

You have openly criticized the Bush administration for equating his administration with your father’s. Do you still feel that people steal your father’s legacy inappropriately?
Oh, of course they do. Look at the history of Republican presidents. Who are they going to cite, [Richard] Nixon? Ronald Reagan is really the only thing they’ve got. He was such a success for them. On the other hand, it becomes a little ludicrous. With George [Bush] you want to ask him, “Why are you wearing cowboy boots? You’re scared of horses.” You try to take it in stride, but it can be annoying at times.

I take it that you’ve visited the Ronald Reagan building here in D.C. What do you think of it?
I’m not sure that I have ever been there. I’m thinking I’ve driven past it. I’ve been to Reagan National Airport. I tell people it was named after me.

Do people criticize you for having different political beliefs from your father?
If they’re conservative, yeah. People are weird. They [Republicans] get gratuitously personal right away. You somehow are defective. I was in D.C. in January 2005 for MSNBC. I was at one of the balls with the rest of the press. A young woman approached, so I walked over and she leaned forward and said, “Your father must be ashamed of you. He must be rolling over in his grave.” He had just died a few months back.

Do you feel that you got to spend enough time with him growing up, between his acting and political careers?
Well, you know, you can always wish for a little more. He was a great dad for little kids. He would always go out and throw the football around, riding horses, swimming in the pool. Invariably he’d see us through the window and have to come out. His only rule was that he would be the quarterback for both teams. He was scrupulously fair about distributing the ball.

Did you know he had Alzheimer’s disease when the rest of the world did not?

Well, Alzheimer’s is a very tricky disease. Nobody knows when someone really has it. No, I did not know that he had Alzheimer’s before other people did. As with most families you notice that yeah, memory seems to be slipping.

What is it like to have such an enormously famous name, both first and last?
It’s important for anybody to get up in the morning and see your own face and not somebody else’s. I don’t think of myself first and foremost as his son. It’s a fact of life that I am. There’s nothing I would change about it. I’m conscious that it’s a bigger deal for other people than it is for me. I get that. I’m who I am. He is who he is. There you are.
 
Did your father ever punish you for anything? If so, how?
I was grounded on occasion for various infractions. I don’t know that that was my dad [as] opposed to my mother. They’d sort of team up for that sort of thing. He never hit any of us, that is for sure. His way of disciplining was to sit down with you and have a conversation. He’d make you feel bad. If you were mean to someone, he’d have a talk with you about that.

Why were you expelled from the Webb Schools?
They thought I was a bad influence on the other kids. As I recall, the immediate reason was I went to a dance at a neighboring girl’s school in a classmate’s car. This was an infraction. They had been looking for an excuse. I didn’t get caught at anything.

Why did you drop out of Yale after one semester?

Because I wanted to dance and there’s no way you can become a professional ballet dancer through a college.”

You were a ballerina. What did your parents think of that?
They were surprised. I think they were intrigued. Once they knew, my father called his friend, Gene Kelly, and asked him where the best school would be. From there I got a scholarship to the Joffrey School. They didn’t come often. I danced at the Met and they came to see me there.

To recommend a political personality for 20 Questions, call Betsy Rothstein at (202)628-8516 or e-mail her at betsyr@thehill.com.