Remembering Nancy Reagan

She was a helpmeet and political partner who defended President Reagan with zeal—and sometimes fury.

First lady Nancy Reagan in the private quarters of the White House on Dec. 17, 1987.
AP Photo/Barry Thumma
Tom DeFrank
Add to Briefcase
Tom DeFrank
March 6, 2016, 3:03 p.m.

In the sum­mer of 1983, a Cali­for­nia friend paid a vis­it to Ron­ald and Nancy Re­agan at the White House fam­ily quar­ters. But it wasn’t a so­cial call—the old pal needed to know if Re­agan, then 72, was plan­ning to run for reelec­tion in 1984. The friend sug­ges­ted it was time to start or­gan­iz­ing a cam­paign.

“We haven’t de­cided yet,” Nancy Re­agan answered. The lead­er of the free world nod­ded ami­ably in agree­ment.

Such was the clout of Nancy Dav­is Re­agan—be­loved by many, feared by some, and—to those who knew Ron­ald Re­agan best—ad­mired as ar­gu­ably the most in­flu­en­tial and power­ful satel­lite in the Re­agan or­bit.

“He would nev­er have been pres­id­ent without her,” re­called Stu Spen­cer, who ran Re­agan’s first cam­paign for Cali­for­nia gov­ernor and was one of the Re­agans’ closest polit­ic­al al­lies for more than a half-cen­tury. “They were a team, and her job on the team was to take care of him. Nobody did that bet­ter than Nancy.”

Un­like Ros­a­lynn Carter, who fre­quently at­ten­ded Cab­in­et meet­ings, or Hil­lary Clin­ton, who kept an of­fice in the West Wing and was the ar­chi­tect of her hus­band’s failed health-care plan, Nancy Re­agan didn’t of­ten dabble in polit­ics. A rare ex­cep­tion was her strong be­hind-the-scenes push for a nuc­le­ar-arms deal with the So­viet Uni­on. She be­lieved that was the only thing stand­ing in the way of a No­bel Peace Prize for her Ron­nie.

Her first-among-equals role was White House gate­keep­er-in-chief—or “the ul­ti­mate body man,” in the words of a top pres­id­en­tial aide who frankly ad­mit­ted be­ing scared to death of her. She pro­tec­ted her hus­band with a zeal, and some­times fury, that caused many of the power­ful and ac­com­plished ad­visers around the pres­id­ent to stam­mer in her pres­ence and cower with fear when told she was on the phone.

“The safest thing for me,” a seni­or Re­agan aide once ob­served, “is if Nancy doesn’t know who I am. My odds of sur­viv­al are much bet­ter that way.”

Just ask Don Regan. The former Mer­rill Lynch chief ex­ec­ut­ive and Treas­ury sec­ret­ary swapped jobs with James Baker as White House chief of staff at the start of Re­agan’s second term. He quickly ran afoul of Nancy, who con­cluded that Regan didn’t real­ize that his new job was still “staff,” not “chief.”

Nancy com­plained when Regan as­sumed a high­er pro­file than she thought ap­pro­pri­ate. And she went bal­list­ic when Regan told journ­al­ists that an im­port­ant as­pect of his job was clean­ing up after Ron­ald Re­agan’s oc­ca­sion­al gaffes and bloop­ers. Sud­denly, an­onym­ous Nancy aco­lytes were whis­per­ing to re­port­ers that Regan was too big for his Wall Street britches.

Be­fore long, Regan was out of a job. Nancy so de­tested Regan that after a deal was struck for a dig­ni­fied de­par­ture the fol­low­ing week, she dir­ec­ted aides to leak word that Regan had in fact been sacked—prompt­ing Regan to storm out of the White House on the spot. The fact that Regan was a fel­low Ir­ish­man with a sim­il­ar last name to his boss was no match for Nancy Re­agan’s be­lief that he was mak­ing her hus­band look bad.

Sim­il­arly, Nancy dis­mayed many mem­bers of her hus­band’s kit­chen cab­in­et by en­gin­eer­ing the ap­point­ment of Baker as the new pres­id­ent’s chief of staff. It was a bomb­shell choice with the true-be­liev­er Cali­for­ni­ans who ques­tioned Baker’s com­mit­ment to the pres­id­ent. After all, he was George H. W. Bush’s close friend and polit­ic­al ally and had led Bush’s cam­paign to knock Re­agan off in the 1980 Re­pub­lic­an primar­ies.

The odds-on fa­vor­ite for the job was Ed­win Meese, Re­agan’s long­time policy coun­selor. But Nancy be­lieved Meese, though ut­terly loy­al to her hus­band and keep­er of the Re­agan leg­acy, was dis­or­gan­ized and would be an in­ef­fect­ive chief of staff. The Cali­for­ni­ans bit­terly com­plained that Baker was a dread “prag­mat­ist.” As it turned out, Nancy was the real prag­mat­ist.

She vowed that she’d nev­er for­give Spen­cer for de­fect­ing to Ger­ald Ford’s side in the 1976 primar­ies when Re­agan came with­in a few votes of deny­ing a sit­ting pres­id­ent the GOP nom­in­a­tion. But after Ford lost and Re­agan de­cided to run again in 1980, she quickly made her peace with Spen­cer. “By­gones are by­gones,” she told him. “We want to win.”

Her single-minded fe­ro­city in pro­tect­ing Ron­ald Re­agan’s flanks was all-en­com­passing. Around the White House, Nancy Re­agan was le­gendary for routinely de­mand­ing to re­view her hus­band’s pro­posed travel sched­ules weeks in ad­vance. She be­lieved he was fre­quently over­worked and let the polit­ic­al staff know when she thought—be­cause of them—that he was overly tired. She had de facto veto power over his cal­en­dar. If she didn’t think he needed to fly to Ohio on a week­end, for ex­ample, that trip quietly dis­ap­peared from the sched­ule.

No mat­ter was too small for her in­ter­ven­tion. At the 1983 White House Cor­res­pond­ents’ As­so­ci­ation din­ner, for ex­ample, Ron­ald Re­agan ap­peared to zone out and didn’t real­ize that a speak­er was try­ing to catch his at­ten­tion. She in­stantly came to the res­cue. She leaned across her din­ner part­ner and poked her hus­band on his right fore­arm twice. “Daddy, Daddy, he’s talk­ing to you,” she said. Al­ways an ex­pert at tak­ing dir­ec­tion, Re­agan perked up.

Dur­ing their pres­id­en­tial years, the Re­agans flew to Beverly Hills every Decem­ber be­fore spend­ing New Year’s Eve in Palm Springs at the Annen­berg es­tate. One year, however, a jew­el­er’s con­ven­tion had booked the pres­id­en­tial suite at the Cen­tury Plaza Hotel, so the Re­agans were bumped. En­raged, Nancy Re­agan summoned the hotel man­ager to ex­plain why a dia­mond deal­er out­ranked the pres­id­ent of the United States.

In the sum­mer of 1984, when Re­agan drew a blank when asked about So­viet-Amer­ic­an re­la­tions at his Santa Bar­bara ranch, she could be heard prompt­ing un­der her breath, “tell them we’re do­ing everything we can.” The pres­id­ent du­ti­fully re­spon­ded: “We’re do­ing everything we can.”

Her health had been fail­ing for some time. Re­agan loy­al­ists took it as a tell­tale sign in the fall when she didn’t at­tend the Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial primary de­bate at the Re­agan Lib­rary in Simi Val­ley, Cali­for­nia. A few months ago, she fell asleep dur­ing a tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion. Re­cently, she was chat­ting with a friend when she dropped the phone and couldn’t re­trieve it, prompt­ing a care­giver to end the call.  

The re­mark­able duo of Ron­nie and Nancy ended Sunday, when the love of his life he called “Mommy” died in her sleep. “All politi­cians are sur­roun­ded by a series of con­cent­ric circles,” a seni­or Re­agan aide once ob­served. “His in­ner circle only has one per­son in it; there wasn’t room for any­one else. Nobody is as de­voted to him as his Nancy.”

What We're Following See More »
Inspector General Report Found McCabe Lied To Investigators
11 hours ago

"The Justice Department inspector general referred its finding that former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe repeatedly misled investigators who were examining a media disclosure to the top federal prosecutor in D.C. to determine whether McCabe should be charged with a crime." The referral occurred "after the inspector general concluded McCabe had lied to investigators or his own boss, then-FBI Director James B. Comey, on four occasions, three of them under oath." The referral does "not necessarily mean McCabe will be charge with a crime ... although the report alleged that one of McCabe’s lies 'was done knowingly and intentionally.'"

Court Rules Against Policy Punishing Sanctuary Cities
11 hours ago

A federal appeals court in Chicago "upheld a nationwide injunction against making federal grant funding contingent on cooperation with immigration enforcement." The three Republican appointees ruled that the Trump administration "exceeded its legal authority in trying to implement the new conditions without approval from Congress ... One judge on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals panel, Reagan appointee Daniel Manion, said he would narrow the injunction solely to protect Chicago. However, the two other judges assigned to the case said the nationwide injunction appeared to be justified."

Nadler: Goodlatte Could Subpoena Rosenstein
1 days ago

"The top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee says Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., is poised to subpoena the Justice Department for former FBI Director James Comey’s memos, which the agency so far has failed to produce. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., warned such a move puts Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in jeopardy of being placed in contempt of Congress and the special counsel investigation of being shut down prematurely."

House Ag Committee Passes Farm Bill
1 days ago
"On a party-line vote, the House Agriculture Committee approved a five-year farm bill on Wednesday that tweaks the supports now in place—a promise of certainty, leaders said, during a period of low commodity prices and threats of a trade war with agriculture on the front line." The bill includes no new funding over the last farm bill.
Schneiderman Urges NY Lawmakers to Close “Double Jeopardy Loophole”
1 days ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.