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Advice from a first kid

As the Bush twins turn 21, a former presidential daughter shares some tips on facing the spotlight's intense glare.

November 24, 2002|Patti Davis | Special to The Times

OnMonday, Barbara and Jenna Bush will turn 21. And on that day, one thing is certain: They will no longer be afforded any mercy or consideration for their age by the press. They will become fair game to the country's preoccupation with the private lives of public people.

I had already passed the marker of my 21st birthday when my father was elected president, so I was afforded no honeymoon period. I probably wouldn't have benefited from it anyway. It was in my nature at that time to be my own version of Attila the Hun; I should have worn a T-shirt that said, "Make War, Not Peace," but that would have required a sense of humor, which I hadn't yet discovered in myself.

There aren't that many of us who have lived under the glare of first family fame, who have tried in vain to squint past it. So maybe amid all the voices giving advice on this momentous birthday, mine will be worth adding.

While it's certainly true that I could have had an easier time of it if I had been quieter, less public, less opinionated, less controversial, it's also true that the media and the public would have clawed their way in no matter what I did. You're a sitting target. There is no dimmer switch on the spotlight that blazes around you until another president is elected.

But there is a you that the spotlight can't get to, that is out of reach of the public's greedy hands. I didn't realize that then, but I do now.

Of all my regrets, this is the biggest one: I wish I had listened more -- not to others, but to the quiet voice inside me. The thing about being a first daughter or a first son is that it's so noisy. Everyone everywhere has an opinion about what you should do, what you should think, who you should be. It's hard to hear that inside voice, the one that is authentically, resolutely you -- it just gets drowned out.

I think some of that chatter fades into background noise when you remember a few important truisms about human nature. No matter what people say, there isn't anyone alive who really believes he or she could live under the first family spotlight and not blow it sometimes. The reporters who indict you in print, the letter writers who scold you, the clusters of people who gather in coffee shops and living rooms and dissect you -- they are all secretly relieved that their fathers never decided to run for president.

If they think about it -- and they do at times -- they cherish the moments when no one knows who they are and no one pays attention to what they're doing. They don't know how they would handle it if people were always spying on their lives; they don't know how you do.

We all, at times, stare into the mirror and wonder who we are. Sometimes we try to find ourselves in the mirror of other people's eyes, compose ourselves like paint-by-number drawings according to someone else's vision. The risky thing when you're in the first family is that there are so many people holding up mirrors and telling you to fit into theirs, that you can end up splintered beyond recognition.

You end up living your life from the outside in, and it might work for a while, but, eventually, it won't. Because when something big and cumbersome and painful happens -- a loss, a death, an illness, an avalanche of grief -- the inside is all that's going to pull you through.

Works in progress

When anyone turns 21, there are the obligatory words and phrases that come with the territory: "responsibility," "appropriate behavior," "maturity." When you're a member of the first family, the words are said by a greater number of people and hurled at you with more velocity. I don't really think anyone knows what those words mean; it's just a habit that's been around for a long time.

This is my birthday message: Remember that anyone who tries to draw you is merely a sketch artist -- the real painter is you. Remember that there are no rules, no codes, for being a member of the first family -- even the founding fathers didn't tackle that one. Remember, everyone is a work in progress.

And remember what Elie Wiesel said: "When you die and go to heaven, our maker is not going to ask, 'Why didn't you discover the cure for such and such? Why didn't you become the messiah?' The only question we will be asked in that precious moment is, 'Why didn't you become you?' "

I have only one other piece of advice, a specific one: Don't do any interviews. You don't have to explain yourself to the public. And if I ever come knocking for an interview myself, politely decline and remind me that I told you to.


Patti Davis is former President Ronald Reagan's youngest daughter.

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