Ron Reagan: Mourning a president and a father


Read a transcript of Chris Matthews’ conversation with msnbc special correspondent Ron Reagan during today’s funeral services for former President Gerald Ford in Washington, D.C.:

Photo: Ron Reagan


Chris:  Let’s bring in our pal Ronald Reagan. Ron Reagan, very much like to hear your thoughts, you were there a couple of years ago for your dad. How is today different?

Reagan:  Well it was very much the same.  I was struck by the juxtaposition of the public and the private, I mean, the ceremony was beautiful of course, these things always are, its the people who do this who know how to put on a funeral or a memorial service. But you’ve got to remember that when we’re talking about the Ford family, we are talking about a family, they’re not saying goodbye to a president, they’re not saying goodbye to a commander in chief, they’re saying goodbye to a husband and a father.  And they’re doing so under the glare of the lights, in full public view and I have to say my heart when out to them, they’re so much they’re going through, there’s so much emotion that is welling up in you at a time like that.  The sense of finality, you really are saying goodbye to a loved one and yet you’re doing it with everybody watching and you’re trying so hard to contain the emotion inside of you and it can be difficult at times.

Chris: Is there a pressure to synchronize your inner feelings with what is expected of you?

Reagan:  I think you put a little bit of that pressure on yourself.  I mean, nobody would say anything like that to you but you are conscious of the fact that you’ve got a camera zooming in on you all the time and you want to contain that emotion.  And it is very powerful.  This is these people’s husband, and father, this is their loved one, this is not just a big public event for them, its something that is intensely private and personal but you are conscious that you are in public and you do expect yourself to behave in a certain way.

Chris:  We’re watching you with your mom here. What is this picture here we’re watching?  Is it the funeral?

Reagan:  I’m actually not in front of a TV right now. 

Chris: We’re watching you and your mom, looking at flowers and flags in memorial to your dad.  You know, its amazing to me, as Tom Brokaw pointed out, that President Ford, they asked him to give that address today which he gave so well, a year ago - is that the norm that there is this much preparation in advance? 

Reagan:  Yes, in fact there is. In fact, most presidents start discussing their funeral while they’re still in office.  I don’t know that Gerald Ford did that, but I know that my mother and father talked to people about what would happen should he die when he was still in office, many years before he passed away. And that is the norm. They want to have things set, so that they come off as well as they do.  They want to know what the families’ wishes are and what the presidents’ wishes are.  So I’m sure that this was discussed well in advance.

Chris: I wonder if that’s because - well, your dad was shot, Kennedy was shot and killed, and I wonder if it was because of the abrupt need for Jackie Kennedy, the first lady at that point, and Sergeant Shriver needing to put together this heroic public procession and display of nationhood so quickly after Dallas, and whether they must’ve said, ok, from here on out, we’re going to have this stuff ready. 

Reagan: Yeah, I don’t know that for a fact, but that sounds logical to me.  Because people hadn’t really thought too much before Kennedy’s assassination that a president could die in office, I mean, its possible, but yes, you want to be ready.  There’s a lot that goes into this.  And people want to know what the president’s wishes would be so that they can get it right.

Chris: What’s in your heart right now, from your father’s funeral?  What do you remember, what is the postcard that comes back to you most frequently?

Reagan:  A lot of little things.  I remember the music that they played out of the cathedral with, which I found very official.  It was very beautiful and it was very difficult to contain emotion as we walked out of the national cathedral.  But I also remember just driving along the highways, to and from the library in Simi Valley and I remember my wife telling me about a man that she saw in the agricultural field, and there were many people lined up along the roads, but there was one man in particular, who appeared to be a farmer, appeared to be Hispanic man, she said, and he was standing all alone in his pickup truck in his field as we went by and it was clear she said that he had put on his Sunday best, which happened to be a clean pair of blue jeans, and a Levi’s jacket and a clean white shirt, and he had a straw cowboy hat on, and as we moved past, she said she saw him, remove his hat and in a very courtly old world sort of way, all alone, in that field, standing in the back of his pickup truck, bow.  to the motorcade as it went by.  And things like that stay with you. Its true.

Chris:  Well, as you know from your dad, Ron Reagan, the American presidency is a very personal thing for every American. We all, not just sons of presidents, look upon the President in a very, each President we’ve had, in a very personal way. Its us and him.  And he takes us through the worst and the best.  It is a very connected thing. I think people don’t always think about it that much, people have a strong attitude today towards the president, President George W. Bush today, I don’t know anybody who doesn’t have a strong emotional attitude towards him.  Certainly you experienced that when your dad was president.  Gerry Ford might not have engendered that kind of strong feeling one way or the other, but there is certainly a lot of respect.  I was standing on line Ron the other day with my wife Kathy yesterday and there were a lot of people there.  Unlike your dad, there was 100,000 for Ronald Reagan, but there was at least half that number for a president who didn’t have the eight years of glory that Ronald Reagan did, and didn’t make it into the top ten or so presidents and yet people have these memories, of personal connection.

Reagan:  And yes well they do. People do identify with a president.  I think you’ve heard a lot about Gerald Ford’s innate decency and modesty over the last few days and I think that’s something that just comes to mind for everybody when they think of Gerald Ford.  I don’t think there is much use in comparing one funeral with another, you know how many people came to view the casket, one year versus the next, circumstances of my father’s burial were very different from Gerald Ford’s and it doesn’t, its not a referendum on them as human beings, its not a popularity contest.  Of course.

Chris:  well I would disagree in one sense, I think we should go with the case and the casket, rather than the hearse, from now on.  I think your dad’s funeral was so beautiful and so wondrously patriotic, to show a man who has served his country as he did, to be carried past us in the end, in a fashion that was relevant of our history and of our commitment to defending this country as he did and to do it in kind of a commercial hearse from the funeral home just doesn’t work for me. I’m sorry, I think its better with the caisson.

Reagan:  I think you’re right.

Chris: When I see the old guard at Arlington Ceremony burying soldiers who fight and die for our country, I want that to be on a casein, I want the old guard to carry, I want the horses to draw that caisson, I want it to be historic.

Reagan: It is more evocative, and I agree and of course it was Kennedy’s casket being drawn on a caisson with a riderless horse, and everybody remembers that, and I think my parents remembered it, and when they thought about, how do we want to do this, they harkened back to that and they too felt as you did, that it, its more evocative.

Chris: Thank you, I love it.  I say that for every soldier, woman or man who dies for their country, deserves the caisson.  Anyway, we’re watching the hearse and all the cortege arriving at Andrews Air Force base.  The President is going to be, former President’s remains are going to be delivered now to Grand Rapids, Michigan for another public viewing.  And tomorrow another funeral service at home, his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, where his library is, I’ve been there, the presidential library of Gerald Ford and former President Jimmy Carter is going to give a eulogy.  That will be very interesting for us to be covering.


Ron Reagan: Mourning a president and a father