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
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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.”

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