WASHINGTON -- Amid the spontaneous outpouring of respect and affection for Ronald Reagan following his death, a discordant note was sounded by his son. In a succession of television and newspaper interviews, Ron Reagan Jr. used the occasion to trash George W. Bush by drawing invidious comparisons between his father and the current president. Nobody knew how to respond in a time of national mourning. Nobody, that is, except William F. Buckley Jr.
The elder statesman of the conservative movement considered Ron Jr.'s remarks a public challenge that ought to be challenged publicly. Buckley wrote Reagan a letter that specifically addressed his claim in an interview with The New York Times that he, as a self-professed atheist, admired the Buddhist teachings of "mindfulness and loving kindness and compassion." Buckley told him: "You proceed in a single interview to profane/deride the faith of your parents, which is not very mindful."
There was more than one interview. In his graveside eulogy, the son threw a dart at President Bush by saying his father never wore "his faith on his sleeve." That was just the beginning of attempts to dispel any notion that Bush was another Reagan. "My father did not know George W. Bush from Adam," he said on CNN, adding: "My father was a man -- that's the difference between him and Bush." As far as Republicans using the Reagan heritage, he said on MSNBC, "This is their war. If they can't stand on their own two feet, they're no Ronald Reagans."
This fit the desperate effort by Bush-bashers to keep the president from politically benefiting as a result of national grief over Reagan's passing. With publication in The New York Times Magazine of Ron Jr.'s interview with Deborah Solomon, Buckley wrote the son with a point-by-point response.
RR Jr.: The nude picture of his sister Patti in Playboy was "just something that is not too exciting."
WFB: "Why then was there so much excitement about it?"
RR Jr.: As for his father's reaction when he dropped out of Yale to join the ballet, "That was fine with him."
WFB: "It wasn't fine with him and he enlisted my aid in trying to persuade you to stay in college."
RR Jr.: Having three cats while being childless "is like having children." WFB: "No, it's not like having children."
RR Jr.: As to whether his mother helps him out financially, "Of course not. My father felt that children should make their own way."