Everywhere Ron Reagan
goes, people ask after his mother Nancy
in a way that suggests public opinion about the 89-year-old former first lady has softened considerably in the years since she was dismissed as a trivial, couture-wearing
woman, naively taken in by astrologers
and unfashionably adoring of her husband, who shopped for china
while schoolchildren ate ketchup as a vegetable. These days, as her son says, "she's warmly revered. But I'm not sure she's that aware of it. I tell her and she says, 'Really?' "
Really, Mrs. Reagan. And the reappraisal of her in academic circles has if anything been even more dramatic. "The general public softened toward her once the president's illness [Alzheimer's] was diagnosed," says historian Allida Black
, an Eleanor Roosevelt scholar who studies the role of first ladies in policy decisions. It wasn't only that, of course, though the uncommon devotion with which she tended Ronald Reagan during the last difficult decade of his life was hard to miss.
But the most significant development in Americans' reassessment of Nancy Reagan is being fueled by presidential scholars methodically going through Reagan's presidential papers. As more documents have become available, these academics have come to see her as having played a rather significant role in ending the Cold War by encouraging her husband to reconsider the U.S.-Soviet relationship. She's known to have helped pushed hardliners like national security adviser William Clark
out of the White House. And "the number of calls between her and [secretary of state] George Shultz
is amazing," says her biographer, James G. Benze Jr.
After poring over some 17,000 documents made available over the last decade, Allida Black says, "I will go to my grave believing she was the one who encouraged the president to say," at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, on June 12, 1987, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.
When asked about her involvement in the thaw that ended the Cold War in a PBS documentary
about her that will air Sunday, on what would have been Reagan's 100th birthday, Nancy herself acknowledges merely that -- and I encourage you to watch, if only to see the look on her face when she says this -- "I didn't just sit back; I was talking to people."
So complete was Black's turnaround on the subject of Nancy Reagan that she sent her a note of apology: "I had succumbed to my own versions of stereotypes" in writing her off as "aloof and guarded and defensive and privileged" -- and no, that's not what the note making nice said. "I wanted to tell her I was grateful for how well she served her husband and the nation."
Not that all of the early criticism was groundless; when Reagan became governor of California in 1967, she arrived in Sacramento unprepared for the give-and-take of politics -- and for the city's relative lack of culture and social life. When she refused to live in the dilapidated downtown governor's mansion she described as "a firetrap," some were offended -- and insulted, too, that she wouldn't have her hair done in Sacramento and preferred to shop in Beverly Hills. In her autobiography
, Nancy made it plain that she never forgot the slights aimed her way, or the nicknames she accrued: "Queen Nancy. The Iron Butterfly. The Belle of Rodeo Drive. Fancy Nancy . . . On the Tonight Show, Johnny Carson even joked that my favorite food was caviar."
" the former actress routinely radiated in her husband's direction arrived with her in Sacramento -- and was lampooned in a devastating Saturday Evening Post piece, "Pretty Nancy,"
written by Joan Didion
and her husband, the novelist John Gregory Dunne
. (Only Didion interviewed Nancy, whose smile she described as "a study in frozen insincerity.")
Lou Cannon, who covered Reagan and wrote "President Reagan: Role of a Lifetime
," which President Obama reportedly took with him to Hawaii
this past Christmas, said, "Nancy is so naïve when she becomes the governor's wife. She can't accept the political culture, can't abide these Democrats who are carving Reagan a new one up in the Legislature and then are all hail-fellow-well-met when they're all together in person." She had similar feelings about journalists: "Joan Didion made nice with her, then wrote this piece."
Still, Cannon says, she was such an able study that by the time her husband ran for president in 1976, she had become his top personal adviser, and during the 1980 primary season was responsible for bringing in campaign manager John Sears -- and later, for getting him fired.
"When the general election campaign starts to flounder, it's Nancy who asks the simple, essential question: 'Where's Stu?' " (Stu Spencer
, who had helped run the gubernatorial campaigns, was persona non grata
with most of the Reagan crowd at that point because he was with Gerald Ford, not Reagan, in 1976.) And when the 1980 campaign ends, Nancy continued to participate in key personnel decisions: "After Reagan wins the presidency, she and [Michael] Deaver
and Stu all conspire to get James A. Baker, Bush's campaign manager, appointed as White House chief of staff."
Once in Washington in 1981, she was pilloried for an inaugural celebration that was considered especially imperial in comparison to the scaled-back one put on by their predecessors, the parsimonious Carters. A period of deep recession was not, her critics felt, the ideal moment for bringing elegance back to the White House, and her purchase of 4,370 pieces of Lenox china ringed with her favorite color, scarlet, only cemented her reputation for being out of touch with ordinary Americans -- though in fact it was paid for with private donations she'd raised.
The White House press corps, meanwhile, mostly saw her as thin-skinned, meddlesome, and hard on presidential aides. (When Politics Daily's Bruce Drake, then covering Reagan for the New York Daily News, once asked White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, "What is the state of your anxiety level when they tell you Nancy's on the phone?'' he laughingly insisted that "the First Lady HAS AN EXCELLENT PERSPECTIVE ON THE ISSUES AND I APPRECIATE ANY ADVICE SHE CAN GIVE ME.'' Then Fitzwater begged Bruce not to quote him for fear he'd be punished for even joking about it.)
The first step in rehabilitating her image was to disarm the press by donning a Salvation Army-inspired hodge-podge of an outfit at a 1982 Gridiron Club dinner -- and singing "Second-Hand Clothes
" to the tune of "Second-Hand Rose." "It demonstrated to the press her ability to make fun of herself,'' said Benze, "and people were absolutely astounded because no one knew she could do that or was so self-aware."
Her "Just Say No
" anti-drug campaign was discouraged by White House aides -- too negative, they thought -- and ridiculed over doubts about its efficacy. But it did result in images of Nancy talking to and hugging kids from all backgrounds, and showed a more down-to-earth side to the woman whose white beaded asymmetrical Galanos sheath of an inaugural ball gown makes some of the other first ladies' frocks
on display in the National Museum of American History look like bathrobes by comparison.
The makeover of her public image not only continued but accelerated after the Reagans retired to California and he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Her subsequent advocacy for stem cell research
"made many people on the left" rethink their view of her, her son said in an interview. "That was a turning point."
Are those who see her as having moderated her husband's positions correct? "She's not a very political person," Ron answered. "Her thing was protecting and nurturing my father and he was conservative so she was down with the program."
No spouse could have been more attentive during his long decline: "The '90s were personally very hard on her, but very good for her image," her biographer Benze said, as "she does a lot of tending to him herself. President Reagan stayed at home -- a big home, but still a home -- because Nancy wanted him with her, and he was."
And their son Ron's description of his father's 2004 death at the end of his lovely book, "My Father at 100,
" ought to permanently retire any lingering nonsense about "The Gaze":
"Just as it seemed the breath was about to leave his body for good, he opened his eyes. I do not mean to say they merely fluttered or took on a fixed stare. No, there was both intensity and intention behind them, eyes that all at once appeared vividly blue, bluer by far than the twilight hazel in my memory. He lifted his head from his pillow, turning and straining toward the sound of his wife's voice. In his gaze was a fierceness that seemed to reflect the desperate exertion necessary for this final expenditure of life force. Early in my parents' marriage, my father had told his bride she was the first thing he wanted to see upon waking each morning and the last thing he ever wanted to see. Now, in the critical moment, calling on some deep reservoir of strength hidden away in his ravaged mind, he was somehow willing himself to fulfill that desire.
"His eyes found the face of the woman who, for more than half a century, had formed the core of his private world. 'I love you, honey, I love you' was all she could say -- was all she needed to say. Sometimes eternity is compressed into an instant, the celestial wheel seems to catch and hold -- but only for an instant. The blue flame guttered and extinguished. His eyes dimmed. With a quiet exhalation, my father settled back onto his pillow and died."
The funeral plans his wife had prepared were detailed in a document that ran 300 pages. Now, she tends his library and his legacy. (She's also "very taken" with the current first couple, her son said, and "watches the cable shows; she likes Chris Matthews.")
The most remarkable thing about Nancy Reagan, according to Lou Cannon, is her ability to keep learning, even now: "She got better every year Reagan was in office. She got better every campaign. She continued to get better after leaving the White House. She learned all this stuff about stem cell research. She has never, to this day, stopped. She understands that history never stops. She's remade Reagan Museum. She went in there one day and said: 'The museum looks like a museum.' She's constantly tinkering. She's going to be 90 and she's never stopped; that's the point."
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