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."
WFB: "I know, and you know that I know, something about that question. But to say that 'of course' your mother does not help you out suggests she will not do so even if there were a need. Are you saying she would not acknowledge you in her will?"
RR Jr.: As to the Abu Ghraib prison abuses, "How can Christians tolerate it?"
WFB: "I don't know of any Christians who 'tolerate it.' The perpetrators are reviled."
RR Jr.: In an answer to a question, he said he did not vote for Bush in the last election.
WFB: "Odd that you should permit this invasion of privacy whose only purpose is to remark the political infidelity of the son of Ronald Reagan."
RR Jr.: His father "worked hard to impress upon his children the value of kindness."
WFB: "If he did, he was manifestly unsuccessful."
This is more than a wayward son, at age 46 with a career seemingly going nowhere, seeking 15 minutes of fame. He has signed with MSNBC as a "contributor" for the 2004 campaign. It is a windfall for Democratic operatives to quote the son of Ronald Reagan saying of Republicans: "I couldn't join a party that, frankly, tolerates members who are bigots for one thing, homophobes, racists."
Buckley and his National Review magazine were in the forefront of early Reagan supporters. In his newly published "Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography," he paints a picture of a Ronald Reagan who "was zestfully concerned for the comfort of others." Nobody has better credentials than Bill Buckley to deliver a point-by-point rebuttal to the errant offspring. Those who know Nancy Reagan say she fully agrees with her old friend.