Dear Mom and Dad: A Letter About Family, Memory, and the America We Once Knew

Image of Dear Mom and Dad: A Letter About Family, Memory, and the America We Once Knew
Release Date: 
February 6, 2024
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This is, depending on how you look at the oeuvre, Patti Davis’ fifth book about her parents, the Reagans, though you only learn about one of the others from the “Also by Patti Davis” page. Conveniently left out of the list are The Way I See It, an autobiography from 1992; Homefront, a thinly veiled 1987 novel; and A House of Secrets (1991). They’re left out because, as she admits in this new book, she’s ashamed of at least two of them and the hurt they caused her parents—who were still living at the time.

If Davis wants healing, though, it’s sad to say that Dear Mom and Dad inflicts new wounds on the elder Reagans’ reputations—or twists the knife in the same old ones. Nancy is still angry, cold and unavailable, and Ron is warm and, well, unavailable. Both were, she says, intent on maintaining the façade of the perfect family, at least until the cameras were off.

Patti Davis, who changed her name from Reagan early on, was the family rebel, smoking lots of pot (despite her “Just Say No” mother) and fully embracing the counterculture. She is forever circling her childhood, which was no longer idyllic after she stopped smiling for the cameras. By the time Dad became governor of California she was out of the inner circle. “I entered USC as the governor’s daughter in name only,” she said. “I was the rebellious child, the wannabe hippie, so it wasn’t like anyone wanted me at official events or asked me to play the role of governor’s daughter, whatever that might mean.”

The book is in the form of a letter to her parents, but it’s not always clear whether the “you” refers to Mom or Dad. Her younger brother, Ron Jr., a liberal like her, is barely mentioned, though her half-sister Maureen gets some (negative) attention. Half-brother Michael is treated better.

Both Patti (and Ron, Jr., separately) think Dad would have hated Trump, apparently still in office when she wrote the book. “I wonder now how you would feel about where America has come to,” she writes. “The Presidency you so revered has been sullied by a man incapable of truth or empathy. . . . If you are looking in, you must be heavy with grief.”

It’s very likely that Ronald Reagan would have disliked Trump on many levels, but their policies weren’t that different. Davis writes movingly about appreciative nature tours with Dad on his ranch—his embrace of the circle of life is straight out of The Lion King—but fails to mention that Reagan, like Trump and like another Trump-hater, George W. Bush, appointed anti-environmental crusaders to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Reagan was an anomaly. He personally abhorred racism, even spending political capital in 1982 to visit a Black family in Maryland who’d had a cross burned on their lawn. But as Davis writes, “Moments like that stand in stark contrast to an agenda of cutting programs that had been designed to help poor families.”

The best section of Davis’ book deals with the AIDS crisis and her efforts to get Dad to pay attention.  Though she quotes her Dad as being personally accepting of LGBTQ people, his administration dismissed AIDS as “the gay disease” in 1981 and refused to provide federal assistance.

“I was shocked that people in your administration often made jokes about AIDS,” Davis writes. “I know it wasn’t something you would have done, or sanctioned, but it happened on your watch . . .” This would be the place for Davis to point out that Dad was an inattentive president who couldn’t stay awake in meetings, but it doesn’t happen. When Reagan finally spoke at an AIDS fundraiser—at the insistence of Nancy—it was 1987, and many people had already died.

Davis also tried to get Reagan to embrace the nuclear freeze, and managed to bring the activist Dr. Helen Caldicott into the White House for a meeting, but Reagan smelled a Russian plot and nothing happened. Given this, it seems odd that when Reagan finally did embrace a degree of disarmament, in 1987 as part of his détente with Russia, Davis didn’t even congratulate him. “I should have. It was just so easy in this family to fall back into a stalemate of silence,” she says. That sounds like a weak excuse if she cared about the issue so much.

The latter part of the book is mainly about Davis trying, and failing, to connect with her remote mother. It’s a twice-told tale, not worth rehashing. Suffice it to say Hilary Clinton took flak for saying, “You know, I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies,” but she was far more motherly than Nancy Reagan apparently was.

Dear Mom and Dad is fairly well written, but it’s all over the place and inconsistent in what it’s trying to say. Patti Davis doesn’t add much here that wasn’t also aired in her other books. “For almost a decade, Patti Davis has earned a living by parlaying her troubled home life into a cottage industry,” the Los Angeles Times wrote back in 1994. It seems Mom and Dad, flawed and arms-length as they were, are always going to be her subjects.