I have been planning to write this blog for some time. And then today, sadly, I learned of the passing of the former First Lady.
Nancy Reagan was more than a classy lady, a good dresser, a charming hostess, she was a very politically astute woman. Her husband’s image only grew after his own death and that was not as accidental as it seems. Nancy Reagan knew how to burnish that image and how to walk the tight rope of political-media issues.
What it took to get Ronald Reagan elected president, what it took for him to govern from the White House and what it took to establish a legacy afterward were three very different animals and no one understood that better than Nancy Reagan. She knew when to say yes, when to say no and how to protect her man, sometimes from himself.
My introduction to Nancy Reagan was in November, 1979, only days before he would announce his run for president. The Reagans were hosting a private dinner in their home in Pacific Palisades. The sun was setting on the Pacific Ocean down below. There was a fire in the fireplace. Pat Boone and other friends were there. Ronald Reagan, himself, would talk about that night long after.
From the conversations an idea of a Charity Awards was born. The Reagans envisioned an Academy Awards of Charity, a chance to honor volunteers and heroes from the private sector. When they were in the White House a year latter they made it happen, with Nancy as the driving force and the East Room as the venue. Three more times I would work with Nancy Reagan both in and outside the White House to host that event.
I have one other rather compelling image from that dinner long ago. In between courses at the dinner table, in a darkened hallway, I spotted political aide Michael Deaver alone with Nancy Reagan, whispering furtively. It was hard not to notice because the story was in the newspapers that Deaver was out, John Sears, the former Nixon staffer, was in. Sears would be running the coming presidential campaign and dumping Deaver was apparently one of the prerequisites.
This moment comes back to me often because others will say that Nancy Reagan was the person who would lay down the law and urge the good natured Ronald Reagan to fire a disloyal staffer. But Nancy was also the doorway in. And that was true for me and many others.
A few months later, I was with Ronald Reagan on the campaign trail in Florida. It was almost three in the morning. When I stepped into an elevator there was Michael Deaver. He was on his way to the basement. His hands were piled high with underwear. I suspect it was his and his boss’s as well. Later, when Deaver looked back at me from the cover of TIME magazine I remembered that moment. Nancy Reagan had good instincts about what loyalty was and who had it.
My last long conversation with the Reagans was in 1992. Ronald Reagan started talking about the Gipper, the Notre Dame football star, telling some stories we had all heard him tell before. And I spoke with Nancy about the research I was doing on children of presidents, which she found fascinating.
Since I was her dinner guest that night and the former president was on the other side of the podium, she picked up the conversation where we had left off in the room. She was very concerned about her own children and where they would go and what they would do. It was a touching moment. Always so perfectly poised and groomed and politically disciplined, it was a side of her I hadn’t seen. In that moment she was like any other mother.
It is hard for young people to remember, but Ronald Reagan was once vilified by the mainstream media. His idea of winning the Cold War was not only considered impossible it was considered dangerous. He was accused of being racist.
When I told my literary agent, Jed Mattes that I had an exclusive to write a Reagan biography, he got back to say that the publishing folks in New York don’t expect him to make it through Iowa.
“Well,” I said indignantly, “The polls show him neck and neck with Ambassador George Bush.”
Jed Mattes laughed. “You don’t understand,” he said. “They don’t think he will LIVE through Iowa. He is too old to make it to the White House.”
New York was wrong.
Both before and after the White House, Nancy Reagan threaded her way through political issues, often purposely taking a more moderate tack than her husband. It infuriated some of his more ideologically supporters but it provided a bridge to the media who eventually embraced him.
Not very often do journalists and pundits admit they are wrong about anything. But many today admit they were wrong about Ronald Reagan. And that is partly due to the political genius of his wife, Nancy, with the laughing face.