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Nancy Reagan:

The Reagans together on their Southern California ranch

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First lady, first friend

(CNN) -- Were it not for Nancy Reagan, it is possible that the death of Ronald Reagan would have been marked merely as the passing of a Hollywood star from another era. Instead, with Nancy always at his side, he went on to become governor of California and one of the most influential presidents in American history.

Depending on whom you ask, or when, the image of Nancy Reagan can range from a frivolous, controlling socialite to a savvy woman, loyal friend and steadfast helpmate without whom the Reagan Revolution would never have gotten off the ground. In either case, her role in the Reagan presidency cannot be understated.

Decidedly unpopular in the early years of her husband's presidency -- due in part to a flap over her purchase of new china for the White House during a deep recession -- the former first lady became a more sympathetic figure after leaving Washington. She stood beside her ailing husband during his struggle with Alzheimer's disease, and she devoted herself to shaping his legacy, which continued to grow in stature long after he left the White House.

Just Say No
Mrs. Reagan speaking at a "Just Say No" rally in Los Angeles in 1987  

Her destiny and identity have been linked with Ronald Reagan since the early 1950s, when Nancy Davis (born Anne Frances Robbins) was an obscure Hollywood starlet and he a star just beginning to fade. In the turbulent 1960s, they caught a conservative political wave and rode it to the California governorship and then on to the White House.

But while Nancy was never overtly political, like Hillary Clinton, and never became a leader in her own right, like Eleanor Roosevelt, people who served in the Reagan administration say the first lady was more influential than the public ever knew -- more influential than she wanted them to know.

Unofficial personnel director

In public, the first lady stuck to noncontroversial projects such as her "Just Say No" campaign against drug abuse and the Foster Grandparents program. But behind the scenes, Nancy served as unofficial personnel director, helping decide the winners and losers in power struggles among her husband's staff -- even who stayed and who went.

Former White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan learned that lesson for himself, when, as the story goes, he hung up on Nancy during a telephone call in 1987 -- and later turned to CNN to discover that he was being replaced. Regan got some measure of revenge in a tell-all book that revealed that Nancy consulted astrologers and sometimes rearranged her husband's scheduled based on their advice.

More significantly, Nancy encouraged her husband, who had once famously referred to the Soviet Union as an "evil empire," to begin a dialogue with Soviet leaders. The thaw led to a number of agreements to reduce nuclear tensions, and the "evil empire" disintegrated within two years after they left the White House.

Conservative hard-liners in the administration had opposed the peace initiative, but it was Nancy, not they, who had the president's ear.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan at their wedding, March 4, 1952  

Her influence was grounded in her intense and, by all accounts, loving bond with Ronald. For nearly five decades, they were inseparable. Indeed, Nancy has said that for her, "life began" when she met the man she affectionately called Ronnie.

She was his closest adviser, biggest fan -- and most zealous protector.

"If you've seen a picture of a bear rearing up on its hind legs when its mate or one of its cubs is in danger, you have a pretty good idea of how Nancy responds to someone whom she thinks is trying to hurt or betray one of hers," Ronald Reagan wrote in his autobiography, "An American Life."

A match made in Hollywood

The daughter of an actress and a used car salesman, Nancy Davis met her future husband by chance.

A drama major at prestigious Smith College, she appeared on Broadway and broke into Hollywood movies in 1949 with the help of Spencer Tracy, an old friend of her mother's.

Having been falsely identified as a purported communist, Nancy called the Screen Actors Guild for help in clearing her name. Ronald, who was then SAG president and divorced from Jane Wyman, agreed to meet with her briefly over dinner. They hit it off immediately.

The couple married in 1952 and had two children, Patty and Ron Jr. (Ronald Reagan also had two children, Maureen and Michael, from his first marriage.)

Nancy's relationship with her children wasn't always a smooth one. Patty wrote a scathing book about her parents in which she described Nancy as an impossibly overbearing mother addicted to prescription medication. Both Patty and Ron Jr., a journalist, made amends in the face of Ronald's Alzheimer's diagnosis.

Tagged with reputation

In 1967, when Ronald Reagan took office as governor of California after a surprisingly strong margin of victory, the family refused to move into the governor's mansion, saying it was too dilapidated and the location was unsafe for the children. They rented their own fashionable home instead, and Nancy began to lobby for donations for a new governor's mansion. She also redecorated her husband's office to give it more "dignity."

Thus began her reputation for imperious extravagance -- a rap that would follow the Reagans into the White House in 1981.

Governor and Mrs. Reagan in the 1970s  

There, Nancy raised private donations for an extensive White House renovation, estimated to cost more than $44 million. She also began a practice of borrowing expensive clothes from top designers. Then there was the china -- a 4,732-piece set, edged in red, her favorite color, for $209,000.

Though a private foundation, and not the public, paid the bill, the political damage was immense. By the end of 1981, polls showed that Nancy had the highest disapproval ratings of any modern first lady.

But Nancy began to turn opinion around, starting with her "Just Say No" campaign. Perhaps it helped that the 1980s became an era in which ostentation was celebrated, rather than scorned. Compared to "Dynasty's" Alexis Carrington, Nancy Reagan seemed downright understated.

Formulated 'social strategy'

The first lady also began to cultivate movers and shakers in the Washington establishment, then decidedly Democratic, though lunches, dinners and parties -- a process which has been dubbed the "social strategy." It helped pave the way for approval of her husband's political agenda, changing the Washington elite's image of him as a right-wing bomb thrower into that of an elder statesman.

During a surprise party for Reagan's 76th birthday, Nancy brings in the cake  

In the years since leaving the White House, the Reagans have kept a low public profile, though Nancy fired back at her critics -- on china, astrology and a host of other issues -- in a 1989 memoir, "My Turn."

After the former president disclosed in 1994 that he had Alzheimer's and virtually disappeared from public life, Nancy's protective inclinations became even more pronounced. She became the stand-in at ceremonies bestowing honors on him, such as the May 1998 opening of the giant Ronald Reagan Federal Building in Washington.

At the 1996 Republican National Convention, Nancy Reagan addressed the faithful on her husband's behalf.

"Ronnie's spirit, his optimism, his never-failing belief in the strength and goodness of America is still very strong," she said. "I can tell you with certainty that he still sees the shining city on the hill."

And in Ronald Reagan's shining city, Nancy was always there, at his side, looking upward with adoration at her Ronnie.

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