Patti Davis wonders why there is so much fuss over her novel about an uptight First Family with a rebellious First Daughter.
"I've been reading all this stuff about my mother being so hurt about the book that she won't open it, which if you think that through doesn't make a lot of sense," the 33-year-old Davis said during an interview tonight after a whirlwind day. She was here to launch her book, "Home Front," about a girl growing up in the public eye as her father becomes governor of California, then president.
She was not unaware of reports that her mother and father, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, have been wounded by what many think is her intimate portrayal of them as the square, unresponsive parents of the book's heroine. For an instant, at least, she seemed a little hurt herself.
"What's so shocking -- what book did everybody read? It's as though I wrote some nonfiction expose' and told everybody's secrets. If I wanted to write a novel, do I write nothing about family at all?" she asked. "And if she Nancy Reagan is so hurt -- okay, let's say she's hurt -- but how else could I have written the mother, the character so she wouldn't be hurt?
"I wrote a mother. It could have been her, it could have been any number of women during the '60s and '70s." Davis is sipping wine, wearing a blue two-piece dress, tan boots and matching belt. Her long brown hair falls loosely about her shoulders.
Actually Davis thinks the book's mother is "a very sympathetic character, and very funny in the quirks she had trying to identify with her children through using their language and consistently getting it wrong." Davis moves from being a little hurt to being a little defensive.
"I used things from my life," she said, "and you do have a right to do something creative with your experiences if that is what your inclination was." She thinks that if the Reagans are hurt by this, then how could she ever have portrayed any fictional family?
"If I had reversed the conflicts . . . they would have been hurt by that. I feel they were very typical parents," Davis said. She displayed some of her theatrical talent on the subject of Anonymous Sources:
"I don't know where they find them," she said, going into a routine: "Hi, are you an anonymous insider? Would you give me a comment?"
She said stories that the Reagans are remote from their family are "valid only in the sense that I think that anybody with as large an ambition as the presidency is remote because it's an all-consuming job . . . some of the energy has to be taken from other things." And if the Reagans give the impression that there is no room in their lives for anybody else, Davis said, "a lot of it is age. At the point when my father got elected, we were all out of the house and living our own lives."
Late this afternoon, she remembered to send a card to her parents. Tomorrow is their 34th wedding anniversary.
Earlier, at a press conference, Davis deflected questions about family similarities by saying her book is autobiographical, but not an autobiography.
"It's true that I took out of myself an emotional conflict," Davis told reporters. "It's a unique experience to be the offspring of a politically visible person, particularly when he holds the office of president. I used those experiences and insights as a takeoff point. I fictionalized a lot."
"Fiction," in fact, is how President Reagan described the book after he read it a couple of weeks ago. That appraisal was echoed yesterday for Nancy Reagan by her press secretary, Elaine Crispen, who said the first lady had finally read it over the weekend at Camp David. She quoted Mrs. Reagan as saying: "As my husband said, it's a novel piece of fiction."
"Home Front" chronicles the coming of age of Beth Canfield, a young woman who discovers sex, dabbles in drugs, chafes under a rigid, image-conscious mother and opposes her father's beliefs on the Vietnam war. Davis said that while she was "too young to be in the full heat of the antiwar movement . . . obviously I drew on things from my life."
Those things, of course, include the political career of Ronald Reagan. To observations by critics that the book's Robert Canfield at times sounded as much like Ronald Reagan as Ronald Reagan himself, Davis said she took that as "a compliment."
"I have tape recordings of my father speaking. The dialogue was very much invented. If he sounds like my father -- he's the only father I have," she said.
Davis said her father told her recently that he thought the book " 'an interesting novel, interesting fiction,' which I think is pretty good since his taste in fiction usually runs to westerns."
Unlike her brother, Ronald Prescott Reagan, who unabashedly acknowledged to a recent "Saturday Night Live" audience that his appearance cashed in on the Reagan name, Davis, an aspiring actress who uses her mother's maiden name instead of her famous father's surname, said she doesn't think her book is cashing in on anything.
She did say that one particularly autobiographical moment in "Home Front" comes at the beginning, on Inauguration Day. The heroine is standing in the White House, looking at the people pressed against the gates.
"She thinks that they look like outsiders and she feels like the outsider. I think that is a very revealing part of myself," Davis said. "Someone once said when you write, you open a vein and write. I had a sense I really was doing that."
Asked if she still feels as if she is on "the outside," Davis said that in some ways she does. "It's not my world. It's a very overwhelming world. The White House and the presidency is big stuff. It's not really my interest."
Beth Canfield is seen as a potential "political liability" for her father, but Davis, who has spoken out for abortion rights and the nuclear freeze movement, said she never thought of herself as a liability to Reagan. And she shrugged off questions about whether she should have discussed her book plans with her parents before they learned of them through the news media.
"Well," she said, "you guys are really quick. You know I'd have to have a cellular phone everywhere I went and be quicker than you, and I guess I'm not."
Davis, whose identity crisis prompted her to adopt Nancy Reagan's maiden name in 1974 ("If you're always looked at in the shadow of somebody else, little things like that become important"), said she found there were therapeutic benefits to writing.
"Maybe the lesson in being given experiences like this is to do something creative and, hopefully, interesting. That's what I tried to do," she said. "I tried to show people something they hadn't seen before, maybe hadn't thought about."
Her heroine tries "to patch up things" with her parents. "It's a hard thing to do when people feel so passionately about their beliefs that it pulls them apart."
Even if her father knew how difficult it was for her growing up, she said she doubts he would -- or should -- have altered his own career course.
"No, I don't think you can expect that," she said. "I hope I'm mature and old enough now to know you can't say to somebody, 'Don't do what you want to do in your life because you'll change my life.' It's a very human tendency to do that, but you can't do that."
Davis said she thinks she and her parents are closer now than they were a year or two ago and described their relationship as "steadily growing." "With time, I think it's the same kind of realization of the character in the book," she said. "Your family is important, but you still have your beliefs. Maybe the only resolution is to try to make them both work."
Davis said she has not given up on her acting ambitions, but that she found life "very peaceful" while she was writing her book in collaboration with Maureen Strange Foster.
"I definitely don't want her to get lost in this process," she said of Foster and the book promotion. "She was a wonderful person to collaborate with. It's a tricky thing, collaboration, and has to be absolutely perfect to work. This was absolutely perfect."
Davis has a second novel, about political intrigue, under way, but will write it alone, she said. She also hopes that "Home Front" can become a television movie, starring her. "I think it would be the best acting role that's been offered to me yet," she said of the project, which she and her manager are attempting to produce.
She is married to yoga instructor Paul Grilley and was asked if she is meanwhile planning to have a family of her own. The question made her laugh.
"She's here," she said in a mock aside. "Let's ask her everything."
And then, straightening up, she said, "I'm not planning to next week or anything. It's not in the top five of my next things to do."
In her interview tonight, she put aside "Home Front" for a while. She said she hasn't lobbied for her beliefs as vigorously as she might have because, unlike Maureen Reagan, "I don't consider myself a political person." After arranging a meeting between President Reagan and Helen Caldicott, she decided against proposing any more meetings.
She doesn't consider the nuclear freeze issue political. "It's about humanity, about all of mankind. If the bombs fall, it's not going to hit just Republicans or Democrats. We're all going to go."
But, she added, "I had this whole roster of people I wanted into the White House, this series of meetings. I wanted to bring Daniel Ellsberg and others . But I felt there wouldn't be a meeting of the minds."
She said she is neither Republican nor Democrat and is registered as an independent. She declined to say whether she voted for her father, then grinned and added quickly, "Actually I wrote in Pee-wee Herman. I thought if Pat Paulsen can get written in for president, why not Pee-wee Herman?"