Ronald and Nancy Reagan did not just bring style to their eight years in the White House. They brought shared values about America.
When you step back and look at Nancy Reagan’s story now, you see it was as American as her husband’s. She was a child of this city and eventually came out of Hollywood the same as Ronald Reagan would, before they became one of the enduring love stories in the history of American politics, one that continued for her after he was gone, and until she was finally gone on Sunday, at 94.
She came out of small parts in the movies until, as she would say much later in her life, she found the “role she wanted to play,” as Ronald Reagan’s wife. And as much as people tried to occasionally turn her into some kind of punch line, wanted to mock her for the campaign that told kids to “Just Say No” to drugs — even for the influence her astrologer was said to have with her — she will be remembered for the grace she brought to another role, that of First Lady.
You should also know she brought more muscle to her husband’s administration than anybody in Washington ever saw coming.
The kind of influence that Hillary Clinton wants you to think that she had during her own husband’s two terms? Nancy Reagan actually had that kind of influence, and power. When you add it all up, she was probably the most influential First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt. It doesn’t mean that Ronald Reagan was weak. Just that his wife was strong, and sometimes seemed to understand what the country needed from him, and who he was supposed to be, better than he did.
You better believe that when she decided that Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff, Donald Regan, had lost his way, she went after him. Before you knew it, Regan was out of a job. She did not just wait to protect her husband’s legacy after that fact.
Now when you see what politics has become since her husband’s passing — and as much as his name is constantly invoked by these candidates — you see how sorely we miss this kind of grace now in American politics.
You look at all these tough guys on the stage, and Hillary, and remember how tough Nancy Reagan was, even after she was off the stage herself, and had begun to care for her husband through the quiet and lingering sadness of his Alzheimer’s.
Sometimes this didn’t just feel like a Hollywood story, but one out of another America, the one in which both she and Ronald Reagan grew up, the one where he could come out of his childhood and Illinois and his own movie career, and she could come out of her own experience, and finally end up in the White House as the most famous couple in the world.
“You learn something out of everything, and you come to realize more than ever that we’re all here for a certain space of time, and, and then it’s going to be over, and you better make this count,” Nancy Reagan once said.
She made her time count. This isn’t about what you thought of her politics, or her husband’s. This isn’t simply the flowery rhetoric of death. Ronald and Nancy Reagan did not just bring style to their eight years in the White House. They brought shared values about America.
Nancy Reagan was probably the most influential First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt.
Even when he was gone, she devoted so much of her time and energy to his memory, to the Reagan Library, even to embryonic stem cell research, one last honorable cause. To the end, she was aware of the responsibilities of her name; to the magic the name still held even in a Republican Party that has turned into this kind of sideshow, or peep show. If she watched any of this campaign at the very end of her life, you wonder what she thought, and if she wanted to tell them all to leave her husband out of it.
There was a time when Bryant Gumbel interviewed her on the “Today” show and asked about the power she supposedly wielded, sometimes like a club, in her husband’s White House.
Gumbel: “It annoys the President, clearly, when it’s suggested, as it often is, that you are the power behind the throne.”
When they reached the White House, Ronald and Nancy Reagan ended up as the most famous couple in the world.
Nancy Reagan: “It not only annoys him. It annoys me.”
Gumbel: “Well you tell us. How much influence DO you have?”
Reagan: “I am not the power behind the throne, but I’ve gotten to the point now where, I think I can say it just so often, and if people are going to keep on saying it, there’s nothing I can do about it. But it’s not true.”
She was being modest. It was another example of the grace she brought to it all. It is a rare thing in politics these days, once you get past the President and current First Lady. Nancy Reagan had it once in the White House. You wonder if any of those in this campaign, including an ex-First Lady like Hillary Clinton, will ever come close.