The fake quote has surfaced before — my father saying, after shaking a young Donald Trump’s hand, that he felt he had just met a future president. It’s been debunked by everyone who ever knew my father, yet President Trump retweeted it recently with the message “Cute!” above it. Does that mean he knows it’s fake but likes it anyway, or he actually believes my father said that? Who knows.
Days before this, at a Fourth of July barbecue, a friend asked me what it’s like to see stories about my father that are often not true, and renditions of him offered up by people with their own agendas. My answer was, I’m used to it. I explained that a long time ago I figured out how to compartmentalize when it came to my father — to keep him with me in my memories and my heart, while still acknowledging that the world regards him as a piece of public property.
But when that fake quote was brandished again, I wondered whether what I said was the whole story. I was suddenly aware of winds buffeting the walls of what I’ve considered normalcy; maybe I’m not as accepting as I let on. These days, it’s sort of a constant drumbeat — people on social media who don’t like what I write and routinely tell me that I know nothing of what my father would think, that they know better than I who he was. What used to be an annoying aspect of politics now seems to have become a mainstream parlor game.
On May 3, 2007, the Republican candidates running for president had their first debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif. All of them, with the exception of John McCain, were contorting themselves to try to fit what they thought the mold of Ronald Reagan was. Afterward, I said to my mother, “Why didn’t they just all wear Reagan masks? Metaphorically speaking, that’s exactly what they were doing.” One way to steal a person is to try to fit him into your own image. It never works very well, but that doesn’t stop people from trying.
Recently, my brother Michael said to me, “For so much of our lives, people have tried to tell us who our father is.” He recalled that, long before politics crashed into our lives, our father used to write out checks every Christmas to the gas station where we always filled up, and to other neighborhood businesses we frequented. Then he drove to each place and hand-delivered the checks. That’s the man we knew, far away from the tendrils of politics. A man who was both simple and complicated, and who believed in kind gestures.
Everyone who has a famous parent, particularly a parent in the world of politics, goes through this. I think often of Meghan McCain, whose father is used by Trump for laugh lines and boos at rallies, and as the subject of mean-spirited tweets. Meghan knows too well how to walk that divide between her father as a public figure and the man she knew in ways that others who bandy his name about never will.
Here’s what you need to know about those of us in this club: We hold on fiercely to the person we knew, and the memories that are ours alone. False quotes, cruel tweets and verbal assaults sent out on social media can never truly cross the barrier that we’ve erected between our public and private lives. We may feel the sting of your words, and bristle at your efforts to steal our parent for your own use. But that parent lives within the boundaries of our hearts, and that’s a boundary no one else can cross. We own the joys, the tears, the fights, the distances and the whispered moments of closeness that were the seasons of our family life. We will grow with those memories, we will see them through different eyes as we get older, but we will never loosen our grip on them. For us, the world intrudes in ways it doesn’t for other people. We are tasked with finding the space between. But we claim as our home the place on the other side of the divide, the place the world can’t enter.
When people think of Ronald Reagan, they think of the man who ascended to the presidency and then they attach their own beliefs, opinions and agendas to him. When I think of him, I return to a wide, green pasture, the taste of dirt in my mouth after I fell off my horse, and my father standing over me, framed by sunlight, holding out his hand to help me up. “Gotta get back on,” he said, and then winked at me. “You don’t want your horse to think you’re afraid.”