Nancy Reagan: Devoted wife, savvy tactician

Nancy Reagan smiles in 1988, wife of U.S. President Ronald Reagan. (AP Photo)
Nancy Reagan smiles in 1988, wife of U.S. President Ronald Reagan. (AP Photo)

WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) – Nancy Reagan loathed the press, but even Mrs. Reagan realized, with one East Wing kerfuffle after another, that her standing with the press in 1982 was flailing. So, she donned bag-lady clothes and took to the Gridiron Dinner stage in Washington in a skit called Second Hand Clothes, a takeoff of Second Hand Rose. It took down the house. No doubt Mrs. Reagan, the former actress, performed the ditty with clenched teeth, but did so because if her standing with the press impacted her husband, she would play in a potato sack if need be.

First lady Nancy Reagan gets ready to greet performer Gene Kelly during her visit to a taping of the PBS show “In Performance at the White House” in the East Room of the White House, Washington on March 7, 1982. Kelly introduced seven performers representing classic, jazz and modern dance for the show that can be seen Sunday night. (AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi)
First lady Nancy Reagan gets ready to greet performer Gene Kelly during her visit to a taping of the PBS show “In Performance at the White House” in the East Room of the White House, Washington on March 7, 1982. (AP Photo/Charles Tasnadi)

The legacy of Nancy Reagan can’t be mentioned without also mentioning her husband. She once said her life began when she married Ronald Reagan — a statement which may elicit eye rolls from millennial women today. But underneath the designer dresses she wore at White House state dinners and beyond her attention to the high-priced china, Nancy Reagan was a political force of her own. It all happened behind the curtain, out of public view. Mrs. Reagan was known to sit on a couch in the White House residence with a telephone at her side. No doubt one that she actually had to dial. It’s in those calls to friends in California and other confidants in and out of Washington that she gathered intel on who was a friend of her husband and who was trying to politically do him in. After she became convinced in 1987 that Chief of Staff Donald Regan was, in part, responsible for her husband tumbling in the public opinion polls, she worked behind the curtain to push him out. And, out he went.

Many of President Reagan’s adversaries tried to paint Mrs. Reagan as a Stepford Wife. They pointed to the loving gaze Mrs. Reagan often gave the president. That conclusion was a fun house mirror exaggeration. Mrs. Reagan was no happy housewife having teas. She had a hand in nudging her husband to make deals with then House Speaker Tip O’Neill. And she engineered, behind the curtain, to make sure the right advisers had the president’s ear to work to help end the Cold War. It was known in the West and East Wings, Nancy Reagan was tougher than her husband when it came to doing the dirty work, such as firing top aides. Mr. Reagan didn’t have the heart to do it many times. Mrs. Reagan pushed him to do so when she thought it was necessary to protect his presidency. Just ask Don Regan.

March 30, 1981 made Mrs. Reagan even more protective of her husband. Ronald Reagan and his Press Secretary Jim Brady were shot by a would-be assassin outside the Washington Hilton. Brady survived but spent his life severely disabled with limited speech. Ronald Reagan, as we know, survived as well, but Nancy Reagan later said the nation never knew how close she, and we, came to losing him on that March 1981 day. After that day, Mrs. Reagan took a stranglehold on President Reagan’s schedule. She questioned where the president would be and what the security would be and how strained would the president be by an event. Mrs. Reagan even consulted an astrologer about when her husband should or should not travel. That turned into a national punch line, but it revealed just how worried Mrs. Reagan was about the safety of her husband. The astrologer’s advice to Mrs. Reagan became public thanks to Don Regan, who paid Nancy Reagan back in his tell-all book.

Former first lady Nancy Reagan visits the grave site of her husband, President Ronald Reagan, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Thursday, June 5, 2014, in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Former first lady Nancy Reagan visits the grave site of her husband, President Ronald Reagan, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Thursday, June 5, 2014, in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Nancy Reagan was a complex figure. Sometimes, in death, we lionize the dead. There is no doubt Nancy Reagan helped a nation talk about drug use with her “Just Say No” campaign and had significant influence in getting her husband to start talks with the Soviets. And, there is no doubt Mrs. Reagan could wield a sharp knife and had a stiff backbone. It’s said even the toughest of President Reagan’s aides would quake when told Nancy Reagan was on the line.

Jim Baker, Reagan’s former chief of staff, said Sunday on CNN, “She was a remarkable woman. She was dedicated and committed.”

And, how she lived her life may be summed up by what Mrs. Reagan once said, “You come to realize more than ever that we’re all here for a certain space of time, and, then it’s going to be over, and you better make this count.” Indeed.

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