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Home Front by Patti Davis, with Maureen Strange Foster (Crown: $15.95; 231 pp.)

March 30, 1986|Jean Vallely | Vallely is West Coast editor of Gentleman's Quarterly. and

The very least one should expect from a book by the daughter of the former governor of California and current President of the United States--a novel about being the daughter of a former governor of California and current President of the United States--is a sense of what it's really like.

But there is so little information in Patti Davis' novel, "Home Front" (written with Maureen Strange Foster), that I could have written this book, and my father is in the construction business.

It is the late '60s, and while Beth Canfield (a.k.a. Patti Davis) is demonstrating against the war raging in Southeast Asia, her father, Gov. Robert Canfield (a.k.a. Ronald Reagan) is mobilizing the National Guard to crush the student protesters. And to add to the conflict, Beth has fallen in love with a gung ho Marine and is embarrassed to tell her militant friends.

Davis has been quoted as saying that "almost everything in 'Home Front' is based on the kernel of some real incident," but it sure doesn't feel that way. Nothing about this book rings true.

Certainly the bits about Beth's life between Bel-Air and Sacramento do not. (She has no fun and whines about how embarrassing the ubiquitous limousines are.) Nor do the bits about her relationship with her father. Ronald Reagan is not called the Great Communicator for nothing, but Robert Canfield is an inarticulate, one-dimensional, stereotypic right winger ("You're being duped by outside agitators--members of the communist party").

All the characters in "Home Front"--Greg, Beth's black activist friend Alicia, her poetry teacher Wilder--are cardboard cutouts. But it is Harriet Canfield (a.k.a. Nancy Reagan) who really takes a beating. Portrayed as a woman with perfect hair, perfect makeup and red outfits, Harriet is deeply superficial and given to statements like, "There's so much history here (the White House)! Imagine all the people who have been within these walls. But, good grief, I just can't wait to redecorate," and dispensing advice to her daughter, like "never order soup on the first date."

If I were Nancy Reagan, I'd never speak to Patti again.

And even though Davis saves all the good liberal lines for Beth--e.g., "this is an immoral war and we're dedicated to proving that"--she too ends up a pathetic caricature. Imagine moving in with your poetry teacher (I forgot to mention that Beth is a poet), never consummating the affair, and never discussing it. Remember, this is 1969, a time when all anyone ever talked about was orgasms. The poetry teacher could have blamed his impotence on his anguish over the war--and gotten away with it.

And that's the other part that doesn't ring true. I, like Beth, was demonstrating on a college campus in 1969 and, like Beth, loved a Marine fighting in Vietnam. I remember vividly the day the students were killed at Kent State, the invasion of Cambodia, the Moratorium in Washington. "Home Front" conveys none of the passion, the excitement, the fear, the sense of camaraderie, the feeling, however naive, that we were on some sort of cutting edge. Nor does "Home Front" deal with the guilt and the torment of feeling that, in protesting the war, you were being disloyal to someone you loved.

"Home Front" is worse than bad, it is mean-spirited. And, finally, sad. Patti Davis is clearly embarrassed to be the daughter of the First Lady and the President, and she may indeed have good reasons. But at least they have never trashed her publicly, and let's face it, if Patti Davis were not the daughter of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, this would-be poet, would-be songwriter, would-be singer, would-be actress, would-be novelist, would be--would most certainly be--waiting on tables.

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