As she prepares for her father's 100th birthday commemoration, Ronald Reagan's daughter talks to Lloyd Grove about why her father would have been aghast that Sarah Palin will be a keynote speaker at his celebration, the feud splintering her brothers—and how she's more fit now than when she posed for Playboy.
It has been a surreal week for Patti Davis, the 58-year-old daughter of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
Like her younger brother, Ron, and her older brother, Michael (the adopted son of Ronald Reagan and his first wife, Jane Wyman), she has been basking in an outpouring of affection during the various centennial celebrations for the 40th president of the United States, who would have turned 100 this Sunday.
She has also been a little perplexed by the spectacle of acolytes and opportunists attempting to claim the Reagan mojo while worshiping at the altar of an icon she barely recognizes.
"This centennial thing—and this Republican thing of people trying to put on Ronald Reagan masks—it's a little puzzling," she says. "Usually when you give a birthday party for someone, they're still here. And I think that my father would find it so confusing that people want to imitate him. Not because he didn't have confidence in who he was, but because he never imitated anybody. He was his own person."
When I tell her that Sarah Palin will be headlining one of the Reagan birthday celebrations, as keynote speaker of a lavish dinner at the former family ranch, Davis exclaims. "Are you kidding me?" She adds, "As far as Sarah Palin is concerned, I think he would be completely baffled at her fondness for shooting animals."
Along with her 89-year-old mother Nancy, the former first daughter will be an honored guest at Sunday's official birthday extravaganza at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California—an event featuring a 21-gun salute and a fighter jet flyover.
And yet, Davis could also find herself once again in the middle of a family squabble.
"I'm not sure if Michael is coming or not, but if there's a fistfight between Ron and Michael, I'll know about it. Wouldn't that be fun!" Davis tells me—a facetious reference to the public insults her siblings have been trading over Ron's speculation in a new book that their dad might have had Alzheimer's disease in the White House. "Mike has a temper. It would certainly be newsworthy, wouldn't it?" Davis says. "And my father would be up in heaven, going, 'Oy vey!' "
"I think that my father would find it so confusing that people want to imitate him. Not because he didn't have confidence in who he was, but because he never imitated anybody. He was his own person."
Not that Dutch Reagan ever used that Yiddishism.
"No," Davis concedes. "I just think sometimes you have to say 'Oy vey.' " (She refuses to enter the Alzheimer's fray, except to say: "I think it is unfortunate that this subject was introduced at this time. I think that's as careful and as eloquent as I can be about it.")
Davis, it turns out, is apparently not speaking to either brother these days, though she declines to say why. "I'm not going to go there," she says, adding that she's at a loss to explain the Reagan family's dysfunction.
"Oh boy," she sighs. "I don't know. Some day, when I'm a very, very old person, I'm going to write one more nonfiction book and maybe I'll be able to figure this out." Davis is author of eight published books, including several novels and The Long Goodbye, a memoir of her father's descent into dementia that she adapted into a never-produced screenplay for Lifetime. "Maybe I'll never figure it out."
Davis continues: "It's an interesting family, you know. There is a lot of sadness in this family. I'll answer it this way: A friend of mine who is a therapist—who I impose on sometimes—said something very wise to me. She said every family has a particular homeostasis—a particular balance point that they're used to as a sort of status quo—and if what they're used to is breakage, they're always going to try to get back to that point…. Then during the times when they come together, they will always go back to breakage—because that's what they're used to."
When she was a drama and writing student at the University of Southern California, she substituted her mom's maiden name for "Reagan" and embraced liberal politics, carving out an independent identity from her dad, then the conservative governor.
Davis, who got in touch with me last week in order to correct some misimpressions in my recent Daily Beast interview with Ron, is charming, thoughtful, and has a self-deprecating sense of humor. She lives in Los Angeles, where she says she has lunch with the former first lady every Sunday, and earns her keep as a writer.
"Trying to!" she confides, noting that she just finished her fifth novel—about the racially fraught friendship between two teenage girls in L.A.—and has started pitching it to publishers while commencing work on a sixth. "It used to be a lot easier to get a book deal. It used to be that I could fill in the gaps with journalistic work"—notably columns for womens magazines and Newsweek Online— "and get paid a lot better than I'm getting paid now….It's really, really hard."
Davis, who overcame drug abuse and troubled relationships with a rock musician and a yoga instructor (to whom she was married for four years), says she long ago gave up dreams of showbiz—a field her dad had famously enjoyed, and with which she flirted in the 1980s. "I really just wanted to be a writer, but people tell you, you should have a backup career, so I thought, OK, I'll act." She laughs. "That was the foolishness of my vision for my life—that my backup career would be completely undependable."
Davis posed nude for Playboy in 1994, appearing on the cover, with her breasts cupped by male hands and the headline "Ronald Reagan's Renegade Daughter."
"I'm very, very proud of that," she tells me. "You know, my father was out of office by then, and had been for a number of years, so I think I might have still gotten a little bit of heat, but it wouldn't have been looked at as, 'Oh my God, this so in-your-face rebellious, da-da-da-da!'... I'm 58 years old, and I'm actually in better shape now, in terms of my muscularity and all that, than I was when I posed for Playboy at 42."
Davis goes on: "I don't think of myself as 'hot.' I have raging insecurities. I came from many, many years of drug addiction. I am proof that it's not that easy to die, because I'm telling you I was working on it. And I was a drug addict from the time I was 15 well into my 20s. So for me to be fit enough and strong-looking enough to pose for Playboy in the way that I did—and the way they allowed me to do—was so therapeutic for me. It wasn't about, 'Here, Mommy and Daddy! You take that!' It was so far removed from that. I almost didn't care what heat I took for it."
In the meantime, Davis is watching the current political scene with a mixture of fascination and horror. Of right-wing superstars Palin and Michele Bachmann, who constantly invoke Reagan as their political love-object, "my father was a Rhodes Scholar compared to them."
She adds: "I think people ultimately reveal themselves to everybody. I think that's the case with Sarah Palin's conduct, particularly after the Tucson shooting, I think she's sort of digging herself into a hole. I hope—I really hope."
Her views of President Obama, for whom she voted enthusiastically and who in recent weeks has been compared to the Great Communicator, have evolved over time. "I've been disappointed with him, and I think many people have," she says. "I think maybe we fell in love too fast."
• Lloyd Grove: Reagan Gets the HBO TreatmentShe was especially disturbed after Obama initially seemed disengaged during last summer's BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. "I thought, this is a disaster! Where are you? And who in the world is letting you out on the damn golf course?" Davis says. "While the entire Gulf Coast is drowning in oil? Birds, dolphins are dying? Get off the golf course! This is ridiculous! I hope that he's come back to the realization that we as a nation need a president who can shoulder our grief and be a parent to us when we need one."
By contrast, Davis says she was bowled over by Obama's performance after the massacre in Tucson. "With that speech he gave, I was sitting there in tears," she says. "He rose to the eloquence, the sincerity, and the loftiness that he is capable of. That's why all of us who voted for him voted for him. And, by the way, I thought his State of the Union speech was wonderful."
For the moment, she's hopeful, but reserving judgment. "I'm watching him, as everybody is. I want him to be that president."
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.