A few years ago, actress Bonnie Hunt was a guest on David Letterman's show, and was asked how a family gathering had gone. She replied that it was great, everybody was glad to see each other ... but then that thing got said. "What thing?" Letterman queried. "Oh you know," Hunt continued, "that thing that always gets said at family functions, where finally somebody says something that you have to say, 'What's THAT supposed to mean?'" Letterman and the audience began to snicker.
Of course, we all know what she was talking about. There are always those at family gatherings that can't seem to help themselves. They just always have to stir up a controversy or say something untoward. Sometimes the offensive behavior or comments vary as to who strikes the first blow...but in most families, there are always the usual suspects.
This brings me to our recent American family gathering, the funeral of Ronald Reagan. While praying for the soul of President Reagan, I also prayed for appropriate behavior from siblings Ronald Prescott Reagan and Patti Davis. With justified concern; as my own sibling and oldest sister reflected, "They haven't ever given us reason to trust them." What is that supposed to mean?
Patti and Ron can just never be appropriate. It somehow is always about them. These two adult children of President Reagan continually demonstrated their narcissism as they publicly pouted for the eight years their father was in the White House and in general most of his political public life.
In an interview with Tom Brokaw from 1996 that aired recently, Patti admitted her regret at the angry way she expressed her views. Yet, I'm puzzled as to why she didn't want to have this interview air until after her father died. Might a public acknowledgement of her juvenile behavior have been even more appropriate eight years ago?
And now even though Patti was on fairly good behavior during most of the funeral proceedings, it still must be noted that on the first day of tributes, for her she wore a miniskirt! God knows what Nancy Reagan thought? But the poor woman had just lost the love of her life and she has had 52 years to adjust to her daughter's poor choices.
Still, it is incredible that at the first official day of mourning, Patti wore an outfit that made her look like one of the cast of "Sex and The City." Now, if I'd shown up like that at anyone's funeral, much less my father's, my mother would have declared "What the hell are you wearing? Change it NOW!" (My mom has been dead for three years, but believe me I'd still make tracks!")
Then after the initial skirt fiasco, her choices in attire improved and finally I sighed in relief after Patti's rather sweet eulogy to her dad. She didn't -- as I feared she might -- choose that precise moment to make an impassioned speech about stem-cell research. But my prayers for no controversy ended too soon. Her kid brother, Ron Reagan spoke next. Now, afterward Chris Matthews and other liberal commentators positively cooed over the eloquence of the younger Reagan's eulogy. Well, sure, because what mattered most to Matthews and the others is that not so young Ron took a not so subtle swipe at President Bush in his remarks at his father's last service in Simi Valley.
The baby of the Reagan family apparently can't stomach folks who wear their religion on their sleeve, so he immaturely chose his father's funeral service to make his contempt known.
While wearing his own smugness on his sleeve, young Ron preached to us all that though his father believed God had a plan for him, his dad was certainly not like other politicians regarding religion. Ron assured us that "there is a difference!" That was the moment when I recalled Bonnie Hunt's line about "What's that supposed to mean?"
Yet, everyone knew that Ron Reagan didn't mean Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton. No, it was clearly a slam at President Bush, even though he had been most gracious in his own remarks to young Ron and his family, earlier that day. So, Ron's timing was both ungracious and unnecessary to say the least. I felt like his dad must have felt at that last 1980 campaign stop when soon-to-be President Reagan snapped at a persistent heckler" OH SHUT UP!"
Within a week of his father's funeral, Ron was on the talk show circuit to expound on his anti-Bush sentiments. Certainly, both the Reagan children have a right to their behavior and opinions. But due to their always self-involved and somewhat petulant manner, they've never have quite seemed like grown-ups, no matter how old they get.
President Reagan's other son, Michael said that his father never made him feel like an adopted child, or an outsider. Ironically, it seemed that Ronald Reagan's genetic children always prided themselves on acting like outsiders.
Michael Reagan talked about the hugs he and his father shared, while Ron, in his eulogy, chose to be dismissive of his father's reliance on a heavenly father in order to make digs at the current president. Would Ronald Reagan approve of his youngest son's unkind tone? Another presidential father might not think so.
Earlier in the day, 80-year-old George Herbert Walker Bush spoke about learning kindness from Ronald Reagan. Kindness can be learned, but it can't always be inherited. Young Ron's arrogance seems to have rendered him immune to kindness. But former President Bush's son seems to have inherited that particular virtue even if the Gipper's own son apparently has not.
Whether is was in George W Bush's moving words at the National Cathedral funeral service or in his graciousness later toward Bill Clinton, at the unveiling ceremony for Clinton's White House portrait, this other presidential son was most kind.
It seems to me that he could be another adopted child of President Reagan because of his kindness alone, though Michael Reagan and George W. Bush also share Ronald Reagan's conservative values. Which, by the way, young Ron never has.
My guess is that young Ron may be disapproving of his adopted brother, Michael, who also wears his religion on his sleeve. Yet, through the mists of Alzheimer's, President Reagan knew which man gave him hugs. When the great communicator could no longer communicate a pair of open arms and faith mattered. I'm sure that Ron had warm moments with his dad, too, but we wouldn't know about that, because Ron needs us to know more that he disapproves of George W. Bush!
Patti Davis just needs a stylist and an adult wardrobe. All right, I know I'm being catty, but hey: then she at least can look dignified when she bashes President Bush. Ron however seems to be in the lead in auditioning for that spot as he rages on about "anybody but Bush" for Chris Matthews and Larry King. And Patti did reflect that maybe her behavior towards her father wasn't the greatest but that wouldn't extend to Bush. Who knows maybe John Kerry will ask them BOTH to be his running mates?
Look, I'm glad for their mother if these two came back into the fold to help her during their dad's illness. But, the fact remains that Nancy's children have always been political opportunists, often grandstanding their opposition against most causes their father fought for. People like Matthews and King wouldn't give them or their ideas a platform otherwise. However, it is old news and neither of these Reagan puppies can ever seem to learn new tricks.
What's that suppose to mean? Having class can be defined by many things --but mostly it is understanding the concept of appropriateness. But there will always be those usual suspects at otherwise lovely family reunions who never get that. That's what that's supposed to mean.
(Cheryl F. Rhoads is a writer and actress who lives in Hollywood.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)