What Would Dad Do?

04.05.13

Patti Davis and Michael Reagan 'Feud' Over Gay Marriage

Patti Davis thinks her dad would support gay marriage, and her brother Michael Reagan insists he wouldn’t. After their spat blew up into a cable-news circus, Lloyd Grove talks to both sides.

“What would Ronald Reagan do?”—the crucial question Republican true believers endlessly ask themselves—is finally being brought to bear on same-sex marriage, courtesy of two of the 40th president’s children.

Patti Davis, the conservative icon’s daughter with former first lady Nancy Reagan, insists her father, who died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2004 at age 93, would definitely have supported the right of gays and lesbians to sanctify committed relationships with officially recognized marriage vows.

Michael Reagan, the adopted son from Reagan’s previous marriage to actress Jane Wyman, is equally insistent that his father would not have.

“My father was raised in the Disciples of Christ and was a truly believing Christian,” Reagan, 68, told me by way of answering the eternal “WWRRD” question. “Do I believe he would have supported gay marriage? No. What my father would have done is what he always did. He would have pulled both sides in and found the common ground of what everybody was looking for. He would have protected marriage between one man and one woman, but he would have looked at the gay issue and said, ‘I understand what you’re saying about rights, and let’s do something about making sure you have those rights.’ ”

Davis, 60—whose new novel, Till Human Voices Wake Us spotlights a lesbian love affair—is just as sure her dad would have approved.

“He was obviously a straight man. He was old-fashioned,” she told me. “Would he have emotionally understood two men loving each other? No, of course not. But I do not believe he would have thought that government should intrude on two people’s desire to make a commitment to one another because they love each other. He was well known for wanting less government. He would truly be baffled at what the problem is. We’re not talking about something that affects anybody else’s life.”

‘He was well-known for wanting less government. He would truly be baffled at what the problem is.’

The Patti vs. Michael debate comes as Republican politicians are increasingly backing same-sex marriage, notably Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Mark Kirk of Illinois, and the U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to rule on the constitutionality of two laws denying the rights of matrimony to gay people. The federal Defense of Marriage Act (signed by a now-regretful Bill Clinton in 1996) forbids government marital benefits for gay couples, and California’s Proposition 8 (passed by popular referendum in 2008) overturned the state legislature’s vote to legalize same-sex marriage.

The Davis-Reagan dispute came to a head this week when Patti gave a YouTube interview speculating on her dad’s hypothetical gay-marriage position, and Michael wrote a column exhorting American clergymen to express “moral outrage” by “leading their congregations through the streets in mass protest” of same-sex marriage.

Michael has been taking particular heat for a line in his column that many have interpreted as setting up a false equivalence between gay marriage and serious crimes: “There is also a very slippery slope leading to other alternative relationships and the unconstitutionality of any law based on morality,” he wrote. “Think about polygamy, bestiality, and perhaps even murder.”

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Same-sex marriage supporters demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court on March 27 in Washington, D.C. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty)

“Gosh! Everybody’s going nuts!” Michael said, the morning after he appeared on CNN’s Piers Morgan Live and the British host administered a severe bollocking over Reagan’s alleged anti-gay bigotry. “The questions I posed in the article about polygamy, bestiality, and even murder were basically the words that came out of the mouths of judges. When those questions have been posed in a court of law, there was no outcry.”

Patti, for one, wasn't buying explanations such as her brother's, and said their father wouldn't have either. “I think he would have seen it as ugly, as any reasonable person would,” she said. “Are we putting gay people in the same category as people who have sex with donkeys?”

Patti and her younger brother Ron, with whom she now enjoys a close relationship after years of not speaking, grew up in a family atmosphere in which gay people were welcomed, she said. Many of her parents’ friends were gay, particularly her mother’s, and Patti said Nancy was especially close to a lesbian couple, Patti’s “aunts,” who occasionally babysat the Reagan kids. The two women even slept together in the Reagans’ master bedroom in their Pacific Palisades home when Ronald and Nancy took a week’s vacation in Hawaii. (Ron Reagan, 54, a radio host and political commentator, is a strong backer of legalized same-sex marriage; unlike former first lady Laura Bush, another supporter, Nancy Reagan, 91, has not publicly stated her position and couldn’t be reached for comment.)

As for her father’s attitude toward gay people, “It didn’t bear any deep discussion, it was just accepted,” Patti told me. She recalled that when she was a preteen girl, “My father and I were in the den of the Palisades house, sitting there watching Pillow Talk. I remember when Rock Hudson was kissing Doris Day, I said, ‘That looks weird!’ And my father got very interested and asked me, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. He just looks weird kissing her.’ And my father said, ‘That’s because he doesn’t want to be kissing her. He wants to be kissing another fella.’ He just told me that some men loved other men, some women loved other women, and that was it. I just went, ‘Oh. OK.’”

On Thursday, various practitioners of the dark arts of cable television were gleefully characterizing Patti and Michael’s difference of opinion as yet another Reagan family feud.

“This is the problem in America today,” Michael complained. “Everybody wants to create a fight where there isn’t one, and then argue about it. There’s no feud.”

Patti could at least agree on that point. “Look, we’ve always had different opinions,” she said. “I certainly have no control of what Michael says. We’re cordial.”