The Reagans together on their Southern California ranch
First lady, first friend
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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