Private lives in political poses: Claire Messud on the tawdry antics laid bare in the 'public interest'

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Indy Lifestyle Online
SO PATTI DAVIS, the 42-year- old daughter of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, has bared all for Playboy. This physical unveiling is, of course, but a modest sequel to her autobiography, Family Secrets, in which the Reagans were (figuratively) stripped for public view and revealed as 'dysfunctional parents', inhumanly distant and drug-addicted respectively.

Since the 1992 autobiography - which itself followed on the heels of three thinly-veiled autobiographical novels about the horrors of growing up in the Reagan household - Ms Davis has continued to conduct her therapy in public. In February she visited Britain on a lecture tour to discuss the link between the poor parenting she received and the Reagans' treatment of the United States at large - to stress, in short, the unshakeable connection between the personal and the political.

Part of her message was that she had, at last, forgiven her parents: she no longer saw Nancy as 'abusive', but rather as 'frightened'; Ronald was 'emotionally shy' rather than selfish. Patti was cured, a woman liberated from her brutal upbringing. One wishes that her appearance in Playboy (accompanied by her own erotic fiction about John Wayne Bobbitt's severed penis) seemed like the act of a liberated individual.

Sadly, it gives the opposite impression: the world is interested in her antics only in so far as they relate to her parents and their moral rigidity. Her nudity, like her personality, has no intrinsic public value.

Ms Davis has claimed that her revelations about her family background are in the public interest. Yet this link, this insistence that the personal is political, seems an unfortunate and all too familiar degradation of one of feminism's central tenets. Bowdlerised, popularised, misconstrued, the slogan has come to imply that any relative - or lover - of a public person has, or should have, a public platform and a public significance.

In politics, attention to the personal, to psychological backgrounds and affective ties, increasingly takes precedence over the realm of issues, policies and public debate. And the 'personal' takes the form of public condemnation, often by women, of male politicians who have done badly by them in private.

Feminism has not put significantly more women in politics, but has rather spawned relatives and lovers who cling, whiningly, to the coat-tails of political men.

Patti Davis is not alone: with spectacular and cynical tawdriness, the Harkess family and Mrs Clark camp it up in the tabloids - as though, without Alan Clark, any of them would be of sufficient interest to merit a mention.

Making the personal public is, of course, much in vogue among television celebrities and the families of serial killers. Roseanne Arnold's miserable childhood got an airing in April, with the publication of her autobiography, as did Lionel Dahmer's experience of being father to serial-killer Jeffrey. Mikal Gilmore's book about the trials of being Gary's brother is to be published next month.

Is it churlish, or naive, to wish for different standards in the political sphere? Is it excessive to seek gravitas, that attribute traditionally deemed masculine, from men and women both?

When Jackie Kennedy Onassis died last month, the world mourned the loss of a heroine. What made her seem heroic, one tribute pointed out, was that 'somehow she managed to be genteel, gracious, dignified, even as she was shrewd and fierce.' Exceedingly reticent, she maintained an impressive public composure. Even though her first husband was famously adulterous, she exuded gravitas, and, at all times, dignity - a dignity that extends beyond the grave, as she has willed that her papers should remain private. It may have been an old-fashioned stance, but it was at least an admirable one.

She must have wondered about the dignity of the politicians' relatives (and mistresses) who succeeded her in American politics. In Patti Davis's lingo, she must have questioned their self-esteem: because these people seem, troublingly, to have none. It seems a sad feminising of politics when a woman is not President but is pictured naked and passive in a magazine because she is related to one.

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