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.”