Unlike other presidential wives, Nancy Reagan didn’t testify before Congress about health care, celebrate controversial Supreme Court decisions or sit in on Cabinet meetings.
“She never emerged as a political player in her own right. Nor did she seek to,” says historian David Greenberg, the author of “Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.”
“On the other hand, neither did she confine herself to the domestic sphere. And by taking an active role in her husband’s business, she helped to reconcile conservatism to the reality of women’s changing roles. Her views may have been conservative, but her political involvement implied that it wasn’t improper for women to participate in what conservatives considered the man’s sphere.”
Reagan, who died Sunday at 94, wasn’t out to break the rules of being first lady. But she knew well how to work within them. Ronald Reagan had promised to champion conservative values when elected in 1980, and Nancy Reagan was in some ways a throwback to a more old-fashioned approach. Her immediate predecessor, Rosalynn Carter, had attended Cabinet meetings. Betty Ford had spoken candidly about gun control, premarital sex and her surgery for breast cancer and praised the ruling of Roe v. Wade, when the Supreme Court declared a constitutional right to abortion, as “the best thing in the world.” In the 1990s, Hillary Clinton would try (and fail) to overhaul the country’s health care system.
Nancy Reagan’s most public issue was more in line with expectations for first ladies: her “Just Say No” to drugs campaign, which she launched after a schoolgirl asked what to do if someone offered her drugs. The effectiveness of “Just Say No” remains in dispute, but it became a catchphrase (and punchline) for the 1980s and part of an effort that included drug-free zones and “zero tolerance” policies in schools. Reagan herself gave speeches and even made a cameo appearance on the NBC sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes.”
Reagan had other causes and in her post-Washington years openly broke with conservatives by advocating (and allying herself with the liberal Sen. Edward Kennedy) for embryonic stem cell research for Alzheimer’s, the disease which afflicted her husband. But while first lady, she stated most of her opinions in private. Often in tandem with such White House moderates as Chief of Staff James Baker and longtime adviser Michael Deaver, she favored better relations with the Soviet Union, opposed high military spending and urged the president to speak openly about AIDS.
Her prevailing ambition was to help her husband, and she did so in uncommonly forceful style.
“Ronald Reagan was a striver, but his striving was masked by his courteous, amiable manner and enduring fatalism,” biographer Lou Cannon wrote in “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime.” ”Hers (Nancy’s) was out in the open, all cards on the table, for anyone to see. With a directness unusual either in Hollywood or Washington, Nancy Reagan favored anyone who helped her husband or advanced his career and opposed anyone who was in his way. She put people off, while he put them at their ease.”
Nancy Reagan acknowledged the limits of her influence. In her memoir, “My Turn,” she wrote of her husband that “he often seems remote, and he doesn’t let anybody get too close. There’s a wall around him.” Sometimes, she added, “even I feel that barrier.” In his book, Cannon noted that the president ignored her advice on military spending and resisted her and many others before agreeing to fire Baker’s unpopular successor as chief of staff, Donald Regan.
Reagan biographer Edmund Morris, who spent three years around the Reagans while he was president, was dismissive of Nancy’s political influence. But he did cite her importance to him personally, as someone who managed his finances and other everyday details, and as a “street fighter” who protected her husband from “predators.” He likened her to Edith Roosevelt, wife of Theodore Roosevelt.
“Both Reagan and TR tended to like everybody and were easily taken advantage of,” Morris says. “And both of these women, Nancy and Edith, were good at keeping away these conniving, predatory people, whether they were office seekers or lobbyists.”
Greenberg says Nancy Reagan wasn’t “ideologically driven,” like many of his aides.
“For that reason, she should get credit, with James Baker and Michael Deaver, for helping him to avoid some of the pitfalls that a consistently hard-right presidency would have encountered,” Greenberg says. “Her protectiveness served him well overall.”