Nancy Reagan Documentary: Assessing the First Lady

Long derided as a lackluster first lady, a new documentary takes a second look at Nancy Reagan and finds a key player at critical junctures of her husband's presidency.

She was never as popular as her husband, but with Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday kicking off a wave of nostalgia and reflection about the former president, Nancy Reagan’s eight years as first lady are also meriting a second look.

A new PBS documentary portrays her as a powerful behind-the-scenes figure in making personnel decisions and influencing policy. These forays were seen as Queen Nancy meddling, not the needed ministrations of a devoted wife looking after her husband’s interests and introducing reality into the president’s overly optimistic view of events and people.

As a reporter covering the Reagan White House, I was among those who thought Nancy—with her focus on lavish entertaining—represented a setback for women. Her predecessor, Betty Ford, a feminist, had testified before Congress in support of the Equal Rights Amendment, which Nancy, who lived in the shadow of her husband, of course opposed. Over the years, I came to understand what she contributed, and after she left the White House, I wrote an op-ed saying that from my perspective she was a force for good in a White House that was always torn between Reagan’s conservative ideals and more pragmatic policies. I ended the piece saying she was without doubt an effective first lady “and she may yet win our hearts.”

I received a handwritten note from the former first lady, saying, “I don’t really know how to say this, but when something very nice comes from an unexpected source, it’s really appreciated.” She then said, “I can only hope one day to win the heart.”

The Reagans ushered in an era of opulence; they held 34 state dinners in his first term (the Obamas have had two.) “They were fun,” she says. “You could invite just about anyone and they would come.” Late-night talk show hosts joked that when the Reagans relaxed, they would dress down from white tie to black tie. Nancy’s taste for designer clothes and fine china made headlines while her husband cut the welfare rolls.

To counter negative press, Nancy donned secondhand clothes for a musical spoof at a Gridiron dinner and insisted, “I never wear a crown; it messes up your hair.” Her “just say no” campaign against drug use got mocked as ineffectual, and when the Reagans left the White House to return to California, Nancy ranked next to last among first ladies in a poll among historians. (Mary Todd Lincoln, who went on buying sprees and held séances in the White House to reach her dead sons, took the bottom spot.)

Following a recent preview of Nancy Reagan: Role of a Lifetime, which airs February 6, a panel of two historians and Reagan biographer Lou Cannon gave Nancy much higher marks. Allida Black, who has studied and written extensively about Eleanor Roosevelt, said, “I put her up there with Eleanor and Hillary.” In a 2008 poll among historians, Nancy came in at 15, “a huge jump in people’s perceptions of her as first lady,” says James Benze, a professor at Washington and Jefferson College, who has just completed a biography of Nancy. He attributes the rise in her rating to an appreciation for how difficult it was to care for her husband, and the grace she displayed as he became bedridden with Alzheimer’s disease. “People saw the scope of her heart and it gave them a fuller picture of Nancy.”

“Nancy rescued Reagan’s presidency at this critical juncture...She is a very, very important figure in American history.”

Cannon said she told him that Alzheimer's gave her a “crash course in patience,” and while she rarely left her husband’s side, overseeing every detail of his care, she didn’t retreat from the world. She stood up for stem cell research, opposing the president of her own party (George W. Bush) and working directly with Ted Kennedy to win support in Congress. “I just don’t see how we can turn our backs on this,” she said.

The way she has operated in the post-White House years is an extension of her role in the White House, where she always favored people who were more moderate and preferred to work backstage through emissaries, her favorite being the late Michael Deaver. “I never would have been in the Reagan White House if not for Nancy,” former Chief of Staff James Baker says. He credits her with overcoming conservative resistance in the White House to meeting with the Soviets. The principal opponent was Reagan’s rancher friend, William Clark, who served as national security adviser. Nancy Reagan wanted Clark fired, and with the help of Baker and Secretary of State George Schultz, Clark was out.

Schultz in his memoir recalls the numerous conversations he had with Nancy, prompting this observation in the PBS documentary: “Can you imagine Kissinger calling on Pat Nixon or Betty Ford?” Asked about her determination to have her husband reach out to the Soviets, Nancy says without guile, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, “I felt there had to be a breakthrough and I didn’t just sit back.”

In the second term, with Reagan visibly slowing, Nancy helped push Chief of Staff Don Regan out of the White House, telling friends, “He likes the sound of chief but not staff.” She thought the former CEO of Merrill Lynch wasn’t deferential enough to her Ronnie, or to her for that matter. When the Iran-Contra scandal engulfed the White House, it was Nancy who finally convinced a disbelieving Reagan to accept responsibility and give the speech where he concedes “my heart and my best intentions” told him that arms were not illegally traded for hostages “but the facts and the evidence” say otherwise. Reagan’s poll ratings recovered. “Nancy rescued Reagan’s presidency at this critical juncture,” says Cannon. “She is a very, very important figure in American history.”

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No assessment of Nancy would be complete without recounting the assassination attempt on Reagan. She recalls a Secret Service agent trying to restrain her at the White House, saying the president was all right. “You either find me a car or I’ll walk,” she said. Arriving at the hospital only minutes after Reagan, she found Deaver waiting. “He’s been hit,” he said.

“I’ve never seen anybody so white—really white,” Nancy recalled after seeing her husband. “That’s when he said, ‘Honey, I forgot to duck.’” Aides quickly put out the line, assuring a shaken country that if the president is cracking jokes, he must be OK.

“He wasn’t OK,” Nancy continues. “I almost lost him.” The shooting happened on the 69th day of Reagan’s presidency, and from then on, every time he left the confines of the White House, Nancy didn’t breathe easy until he got back. Already too thin and always a chronic worrier, photos show the first lady visibly smaller in the months after the shooting.

In an attempt to find some peace of mind, she turned to astrology, altering the president’s schedule, sometimes at the last minute, according to how the stars were aligned. She and Reagan had always consulted their horoscopes over their morning coffee in Hollywood. Indeed, Reagan had been sworn in for his second term as governor at nine minutes after midnight because that was the astrologically optimal time. The sudden shifts in White House scheduling were mystifying, and it wasn’t until the spring of Reagan’s last year in office that Nancy’s obsession became public. Don Regan, angry at being forced out, revealed in his memoir how she relied on astrological advice, a parting shot that trivialized her role and reinforced the caricature of a first lady who was out of step with the real world.

The truth is quite the opposite, and now, nearing the age of 90, she is using the centennial year of her husband’s birth to advance a more positive legacy for herself, and deservedly so.

Eleanor Clift is a contributing editor for Newsweek.