Patti Davis on Life as a 'First Child'

I am part of a small group of people who, no matter how old we grow or what we accomplish in our lifetimes, will always be known as First Children. Because with an election—always a historic event—each of our fathers became president of the United States, so by extension, we became part of history too. It's a strange label—as if the world at large is never going to really let us grow up.

If I die at 90, they'll still be saying former First Daughter … as if I never grew beyond the length of the umbilical cord that came to define me when my father, Ronald Reagan, was in the White House.

For anyone who's thinking, “Hey cool, I'd love to be in the First Family,” let me just throw a few things at you. There are heavily armed men (and occasionally a few women) following you everywhere. They know where you go—in fact, they would like to know where you plan to go before you actually head in that direction, so say goodbye to spontaneity. If you're of a certain age, they know who you're sleeping with, who you're breaking up with, who you're cheating with, or on. And because there are people with cameras everywhere, the press knows too. Private life is virtually extinct in that environment. Still think it's cool?

Whenever we near an election—and we're already nearing it far in advance this time around—I'm haunted by a vague existential anxiety about the offspring of everyone who is running. I often find myself thinking more about the sons and daughters than I do about the candidates. Because the offspring are the ones swept up in a tide not of their own making. If they're older, they'll try to make sense of it, rationalize the pros and cons. But I promise you, in the dead of night, when there are no cameras and no people staring and judging, they will wonder, how do I do this? Who am I supposed to be and who am I really?

If the candidates' children are very young—like those of John Edwards and Barack Obama—I linger over the fact that, if one of their parents wins, the youngsters will never know a childhood free of the world's encroachment. It's a murky thing, the melding together of a public and private life. Somewhere down the line, you have to pry the two apart if you are to survive as an individual. You can't do it as a child, and you probably can't as a teenager.

I couldn't even do it in my 20s. I was 28 when my father was elected president, but I was 14 when he became governor of California. So I was already deep in those dark waters. As First Daughter, I talked to the public as I might talk to a close friend—everything, warts and all, was thrown out in the open. I didn't know any other way. I would have to learn over many painful years to draw boundary lines that had not been there in the life I'd lived up to that point.

Given all that, I understood Andrew Giuliani's public comments about the strain between him and his father. I wish he hadn't said it—my first reaction was, Uh-oh—but I understood. He's 21 now; he was 7 when he made us all laugh by cavorting around on stage as Rudy Giuliani became mayor of New York. He probably doesn't even remember life before the public spotlight shone down on his family. Twenty-one is still young, still the age range when a lot of things need to be worked out.

But what about those who aren't that young and should know a few things about life's learning curve? Democrat Howard Dean, for example, who has already pounced on Giuliani's family strife by saying his “personal life is a serious problem.” You know what? Howard Dean should know better. True, he didn't mention Andrew Giuliani by name—and Dean may even have been referring to Giuliani's unpleasant divorce—but it seems obvious that the son's arrow aimed at his father was bound to be picked up by others and used in the war of political marksmanship. Sadly, the younger Giuliani's comment is going to follow him around for decades even if his father loses the election. That's just the brutality of politics—no one lets you forget or wash off the debris of your mistakes.

Chelsea Clinton is the only First Offspring to have come out unscathed, at least in my opinion. Somehow she understood the value of silence, the grace of staying just out of reach, even at a young age. I've long suspected that if we could do an accurate past-life regression on her, we'd learn that she was a Zen master in some other incarnation. Which is especially lucky now. If Hillary gets elected, Chelsea will be the first First Daughter to do it all over again. And you know what? She'll be fine.

As for all the other candidates' children: if I could wave a magic wand, I'd make it impossible for anyone to exploit, tease or criticize them. I'd give everyone a blinding flash of memory … to who they were at 21 or 25 or 9. I'd have them hear again their own voices, their own words, at vulnerable times when age hadn't yet edited what they chose to say.

And then I'd give them time to be deeply grateful that the world wasn't watching them at those moments.