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Patti Davis on Hunter Biden, addiction, and the pressure of the public spotlight

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Legally, Hunter Biden has just been convicted of felony firearms charges dating back to a period of drug addiction. Personally, the very public trial saw his exes, his daughter, even his own memoir resurface painful details of his drug abuse. Those details may resonate with many Americans whose lives have also been upended by addiction. There are a lot of Hunter Bidens in the world, writes Patti Davis in The New York Times. Davis is an actor and author who has written about her own struggles with addiction and who knows something about the public scrutiny that comes with being the child of a president as the daughter of President Ronald Reagan. Patti Davis joins me live. Welcome.

PATTI DAVIS: Thank you so much.

KELLY: What was it like for you watching Hunter Biden's trial as someone who has dealt with addiction?

DAVIS: I mean, it was very sad. And the reason I wrote this piece in The New York Times is I hope that other people see the story for the sad tale that it is. And I think, as you said, there are, you know, many people - and as I wrote - many people are dealing with this and are familiar with it, if not in their own personal lives, then with people they know.

KELLY: Yeah. Yeah. Your own history, I want people to know, includes being addicted to amphetamines as a teenager and then into your 20s. Yeah. And you wrote in the Times about getting behind the wheel of a car after taking cocaine. Would you tell that story...

DAVIS: Yeah.

KELLY: ...And why it came to mind as you were watching Hunter Biden's trial?

DAVIS: Well, I mean, addicts do stupid things. And addicts do really reckless things. And you don't think about the consequences. You don't think about other people. And I started taking amphetamines when I was 15 years old. I started taking diet pills. There were something called rainbow pills at the time. And, you know, my preference was prescription diet pills. So I would go into doctors' offices and lie to get these pills. I'd say I had modeling jobs or something, which was ridiculous. I didn't.

And then second there, I kind of sort of got off that but then fell back into cocaine because my addiction was speed. And yeah, there were a couple of nights that I drove back up a winding canyon road to home having snorted cocaine and chased it with shots of tequila. So it's like, you know, I was speeding and probably drunk, too. And, you know, miraculously, nothing happened, but it could have.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, you write, I'm going to hazard a guess here and say that people testifying in Hunter Biden's trial were probably describing things he does not even remember, it sounds like.

DAVIS: Yeah, I said that in my piece. Absolutely. I'm sure that they were, you know, because people - you know, I'm sure people remember things about me that I don't even remember.

KELLY: Oh. I mean, you've said you are not qualified to weigh in on the legal aspects of this case and the decision that came down, but that you are an authority on life in the spotlight, with a dad who was governor of California and then, of course, president of the United States. What was that like? Did it make it harder to deal with your illness?

DAVIS: Well, I mean, I did stop doing drugs before my father was president. So, you know, this was mostly when he was governor and also the time in between when he wasn't in office, before he ran for president. That's when the whole cocaine thing happened.

KELLY: Yeah. Although, the fact that I know about it and we're talking about it now is because he did go into the White House.

DAVIS: Right, because I've, you know, talked about it. But, you know, I didn't give a lot of thought to how it would impact my parents in the '70s when I was, you know, strung out on amphetamines. I just didn't, you know? Part of being an addict is you live in a very insular world. It's about you. It's about you and the substance that you're addicted to, and you don't think too much beyond that.

And, you know, once you - I think an important point is, once you stop doing whatever it is you are addicted to, you don't automatically become a different person. You don't automatically go, oh, I'm going to think about other people now. You know, that takes work. And that takes really dedicating yourself to changing your way of thinking because you've lived in this kind of self-consumed space.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, you write, and I quote, "it might sound naive in these scathingly partisan times, but it would be nice if the rest of us - or even most of us - could look at how sad this story is."

DAVIS: Yeah.

KELLY: You're calling, you know, as the daughter of a Republican - calling on people to say, look, yes, there are politics that follow the son of a president, of course. This is also a human. This is a family in pain.

DAVIS: Yeah, it is. And, you know, the other thing that I wrote about in this piece is that the spotlight that is on him, just like the spotlight that was on me, is this glaring political spotlight. And it is the most unforgiving spotlight, and it has a shelf life of forever. You know, no one is ever going to let Hunter Biden forget about - not that he would forget, but they're never going to stop talking about this ever. It's going to follow him forever.

You know, my political activism 40 years ago still follows me sometimes. There are still people who go, oh, you know, Patti Davis, who rebelled against her father and was an activist. And it was 40 years ago, (laughter) right? It's never going to let up on him. And he's going to have to live with that and cope with that.

KELLY: To the people listening who may have zero sympathy for Hunter Biden, who would say this was a guy who had every advantage - nobody forced him to smoke crack every 20 minutes. That was testimony that came out in the trial. He has been sober for years now. Do you worry this will further stigmatize substance abuse, or do you wonder if some good might come from a public conversation?

DAVIS: Well, I hope that Hunter Biden decides to do some substantive interview with somebody and talks more about addiction. I think we need people to talk more about addiction. And the people who say, oh, well, he had a choice - you know, he didn't have to do that - don't know anything at all about addiction. And maybe they should learn something about it before they mouth off, because that's just a stupid thing to say, you know?

KELLY: If you could say one thing today to Hunter Biden or to his father, may I ask what it would be?

DAVIS: I think I would say that I'm so happy for them that they are a close family and that they have each other because that really matters.

KELLY: Yeah. Last thing - to the further point you made about how a man with a loving, supportive family, every advantage, opportunity, still fell into, as you put it, the roiling abyss of drug addiction, you're calling on people to see a human and a family in pain. And I guess, you know, in the 30 seconds or so we have left, you know, what is your parting message as this trial has wrapped up?

DAVIS: Just that - just to look at this as a human story and to realize that, you know, addiction doesn't come about because of class or because of opportunity.

KELLY: Yeah.

DAVIS: It's something that lives in someone.

KELLY: Patti Davis - her most recent book is "Dear Mom And Dad: A Letter About Family, Memory, And The America We Once Knew" - thank you.

DAVIS: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.