Family  /  Book Review

For Years, the Reagans' Daughter Regretted Some Things She Wrote. Now She's at Peace.

Patti Davis has spent a lifetime chronicling her life with parents Ronald and Nancy Reagan. In a new book, 'Dear Mom and Dad,' she reckons with them as people.

Picturing her mother, for instance, as a 3-year-old “dumped at relatives,’” or her father having to help his own drunken father off the lawn and into the house, allowed her to see her parents more clearly and provided a larger context for their own actions as parents.

And, in a few cases, as president and first lady.

“I didn’t want to get into politics but I did want to get into the AIDS thing,” she said, “which the [Reagan] library doesn’t even want to deal with. I had to be honest in this book, and a lot went wrong. As I say there, for someone with really good timing, his timing was so off every step of the way.”

Her father, she insists, was not homophobic. “He had people in his administration who were homophobic, who believed AIDS was God’s punishment. He wasn’t one of them, but one of his character flaws was that he delegated things and believed something was being done, and he didn’t really follow up and ask. And most of that is the child of an alcoholic. If you want to understand my father, you have to understand that pretty much everything goes back to being a child of an alcoholic.”

Many would disagree with such a sympathetic take on what is now widely understood as a profound failure of leadership, just as many people, including my own father, believed that the policies enacted during Reagan’s presidency made it impossible to consider him a “nice” man.

But “Dear Mom and Dad” is not an analysis of the Reagan era or even his impact on the political landscape, although Davis makes it clear that he would have deplored Donald Trump’s incitement of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and, as the victim of a shooting, this nation’s inability to pass meaningful gun legislation.

It is, instead, a daughter’s attempt to reconcile her own conflicting emotions about the people who were her parents, to be at peace with her own past.

Predictably, early coverage of “Dear Mom and Dad” focused almost exclusively on the “revelation” that the Reagans’ marriage had been prompted by Nancy’s discovery that she was pregnant with Davis, an “unplanned” event Davis finds difficult to reconcile with her mother’s level of self-control and attention to detail.

But the epistolary style of the book is used not to dish dirt or list grievances. It’s to acknowledge that Davis’ personal pain and joy were part of a larger narrative that includes many things she can never truly know. And in that, “Dear Mom and Dad” offers a more universal experience — even through the more mature lens of experience (Davis is 71), many aspects of our parents remain unknowable.