Nancy Reagan, a larger-than-life first lady

Story highlights

  • Nancy Reagan encouraged peace efforts with the Soviet Union, protected her husband's image, writes Julian Zelizer
  • She was a force in the politics, as well as the style, of the White House, he says

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Nancy Reagan will be mourned all over the world. She was a huge figure in 1980s America, with many who revered her and many who did not. But everyone who lived through the era agreed that she was a major presence in the nation's history.

She has grown to be a beloved person over the past several decades after caring for her husband, Ronald Reagan, as he suffered from Alzheimer's disease and then crusading on behalf of research to cure the devastating disease.
    As we move deeper into the current campaign season, her legacy is a reminder of the many important roles that first ladies have played in the White House.
    Like many first ladies in U.S. history, she was at the center of many key aspects of her husband's presidency that went well beyond how the White House was decorated and that even helped shape some key moments in world history.
    Nancy Reagan dies at 94
    Nancy Reagan dies at 94

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    Nancy Reagan was always extremely cautious and concerned about how people perceived her husband. She was protective of the image he conveyed as president, as she had been when he was governor and a presidential candidate in 1976. When her husband was shot by a crazed assassin in 1981 she fiercely guarded the President from top aides so that he could rest and so that the severity of his wounds would be kept private.

    Style and substance

    Not unlike Jacqueline Kennedy (later Onassis), Nancy Reagan, who had also been an actor like her husband, wanted to bring glamor and glitz to Washington. Opponents of Ronald Reagan seized on her decisions to wear expensive clothing, renovate the White House and purchase hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of china (paid for by a private donation) in challenging economic times.
    But these trappings did serve another political purpose which helped to advance President Reagan's standing. Part of Reagan's appeal was his effort to restore the image of the presidency as something grander than a person who was considered corrupt (Richard Nixon), incompetent (Gerald Ford), or who thought presidents should just be average Americans (Jimmy Carter).
    In Nancy Reagan's mind, the presidency had been devalued and debased after a decade of poor leaders. She helped to create a White House and an image of the presidency, for better or worse, that made the institution larger than life.
    Nancy Reagan was also a policy advocate. Her most well-known cause was the war on drugs. She spent a good deal of her time after 1982 working as part of a national campaign to convince kids to "just say no" to drugs. She took her case to the public, to politicians and to the media, insisting that narcotics abstinence was possible. She would travel to 27 states and 44 cities to talk about this issue, and convened a major conference to address the problem.
    She even appeared on talk shows and popular entertainment shows like "Diff'rent Strokes" to promote her cause. Many critics dismissed her campaign as emblematic of why Reagan's policies were misguided. But she had a big role in shaping the national conversations and pushing her side of this debate.

    Politics in the White House

    She also loomed large in the daily life of White House politics.
    When she felt that John Sears was running a poor campaign in 1980 she had him replaced by William Casey. When the campaign stalled, she had Ronald bring in Stuart Spencer, who had worked for Ford in 1976, to bolster the operation.
    Most famously, Nancy Reagan was behind the resignation of Chief of Staff Don Regan in 1987. Nancy Reagan didn't think much of him. She had been critical of a number of decisions that he made, such as arranging a trip to Germany to visit a cemetery where Nazi guards were buried. She wanted the trip to be canceled.
    Nancy Reagan believed that Regan had created an environment that allowed the devastating Iran-Contra scandal to take place, at great cost to her husband's political standing. She orchestrated a series of meetings between the President and some high-powered players whom he respected to persuade her husband to let Regan go. "I thought I was chief of staff to the President, not his wife," he yelled after he learned of the decision in the Oval Office. Regan never forgave her. Some believed that this is why he included a discussion of her astrologer consultations in his memoirs.

    The Reagans and the Gorbachevs

    First ladies can also be vital players in diplomatic relations, and Nancy Reagan certainly was. Her rapport with Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachev was essential to nurturing the warm and productive relationship that the President developed with the Soviet leader between 1985 and 1987.
    The President would praise her for helping to calm relations between the two superpowers, pushing him to abandon the blistering rhetoric of his first term, where he blasted the Soviets as an "evil empire."
    Her role in fostering their personal relationships during the summits that occurred in those years helped to create the environment at the summits that culminated with a breakthrough on arms negotiations in 1987.
    During the negotiations she aggressively pushed back against more conservative advisers and politicians who were warning the President that this was a mistake.
    Nancy Reagan was at times a controversial first lady, but her life also offers powerful evidence of the role that a spouse can play in shaping the legacy of a White House. Although during presidential campaigns like 2016 we are logically focused on the people who are asking for our vote, Nancy Reagan's passing is a reminder that the other person in the couple will be a pivotal player in any presidency to come.