She wasn’t a first lady in the way Hillary Clinton or Eleanor Roosevelt was or, for that matter, in the way that Bess Truman or Pat Nixon was. Nancy Reagan had her own ideas about her role and, as anyone who remembers the 1980s knows, she expertly worked her considerable influence through her devotion to – and fierce protection of – the man she called Ronnie.
Nancy Reagan died Sunday in her Los Angeles home of congestive heart failure. She was 94, and outlived the husband she adored by 12 years.
Forget politics for a moment and consider, just on a human level, their connection. Everyone should be lucky enough to have a spouse as committed as Mrs. Reagan was to the former film and television actor who became governor of California and a much-admired president of the United States.
How important was she to her husband and, thus, the country? The late Michael K. Deaver, an adviser to the president, once flatly observed that “Without Nancy, there would have been no Governor Reagan, no President Reagan.” Anyone who approved of the Reagan presidency has Nancy to thank for it.
Mrs. Reagan took on public causes as first lady, including the anti-drug effort known as “Just Say No.” After leaving Washington, she advocated for stem-cell research because of its potential benefits for preventing or treating Alzheimer’s disease. That’s the illness that ravaged her husband’s memory between the end of his presidency in 1989 and his death in 2004.
Mrs. Reagan, unsurprisingly, withdrew from the public eye after her eight years as first lady, but images of her during her husband’s final years showed the strain that his deterioration was taking on her. She was paying a price for her devotion, and still, it never wavered.
Most first ladies, it is safe to presume, have a pronounced influence on their husbands, but even by spousal standards, Mrs. Reagan seems to occupy a special place in the nation’s history. If she wasn’t as overt in expressing her opinions as Eleanor Roosevelt was, she was fearless in offering her advice to President Reagan, and even comical in how she described the privilege.
“I make no apologies for telling (the president) what I thought,” she wrote in her memoir, “My Turn,” published the year the Reagans left the White House.
“For eight years, I was sleeping with the president, and if that doesn’t give you special access, I don’t know what does!”
She paid a price for that, too, but that is often the lot of this nation’s first ladies. Though they lack official influence, they become easy targets for their husbands’ critics and adversaries. It’s not a position for the faint of heart, and if there’s something Nancy Reagan wasn’t, it’s that.
It was a remarkable life for a former actress who was born in Queens to a car salesman father and an actress mother. She played her roles well, not flawlessly, but with enough stylish grit and focus to win the country’s affection. More than a quarter century after leaving the White House, that affection endures.