Nancy Reagan’s Hidden Power

Nancy Reagan had an outsized role in protecting and shaping the Reagan presidency.

Nancy Reagan
Courtesy Reagan Library

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Reagan knew where he wanted to go, but she had a better sense of what he needed to do to get there.

—Lou Cannon
President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime

The second weekend of February 1983 found much of the Eastern Seaboard trapped by one of the biggest snowfalls of the century. Dubbed the Megalopolitan Blizzard, it caught forecasters off guard. The nation’s capital, notoriously ill-equipped for extreme weather, was paralyzed under a frozen blanket 17 inches deep. In suburban areas, the snow was twice as heavy, hitting new records. All of this meant the president and first lady had to cancel their plans to go to Camp David on Friday afternoon as they customarily did. But even though they were stuck in the White House for the duration, there were delights to be had as the most self-important city in the world bent to the will of Mother Nature. When the blinding storm yielded to brilliant sunshine, Washington took on the feel of an Alpine village.

Beyond the edge of the South Lawn, hundreds of people in parkas and wool caps were getting around on cross-country skis. George P. Shultz, only seven months into his tenure as secretary of state, had just returned the previous Thursday from a long trip to Asia, which included a stop in China. Coming back, he had barely beaten the storm. The first flakes were falling as his government plane touched down at Andrews Air Force Base. On Saturday afternoon, as Washington began digging out, Shultz got a call from Nancy Reagan. “Why don’t you and your wife come over and have supper with us?” she asked. There would be just the four of them, upstairs in the White House family quarters.

“So, we go over, and we’re having a nice time, and then all of a sudden the president and Nancy — both of them — are asking me about the Chinese leaders: What are they like as people? Do they have a sense of humor? Can you find their bottom line? Do they really have a bottom line?” Shultz recalled.

From there, the conversation moved on to the Soviet Union, and the president began to talk about his own ideas for engaging America’s superpower enemy. Shultz was struck by how much Ronald Reagan had thought about this; how self-confident he sounded about his abilities as a negotiator. And then suddenly the new secretary of state realized that the purpose of the evening was not entirely social. Nancy had planned it so that Shultz would begin to understand something important about her husband — something that had the potential to change history.

“I’m sitting there, and it’s dawning on me: This man has never had a real conversation with a big-time communist leader and is dying to have one. Nancy was dying for him to have one,” Shultz told me, still marveling at the moment more than 30 years later. Until that dinner, he had not really been sure that such a dialogue was possible. This, after all, was a president who had branded the Soviet Union as ruthless and immoral, and who was presiding over the biggest peacetime military buildup in U.S. history. The Reagan administration, except for a few figures like Shultz, was populated by hardliners who believed there could never be any such thing as a working relationship with Moscow. Did Ronald Reagan really see himself as the unlikely peacemaker who could lift the shadow of potential nuclear annihilation under which the entire planet had lived for nearly four decades? As Nancy Reagan would later put it: “For years, it had troubled me that my husband was always being portrayed by his opponents as a warmonger, simply because he believed, quite properly, in strengthening our defenses. The world had become too small for the two superpowers not to be on speaking terms, and unless that old perception about Ronnie could be revised, nothing positive was likely to happen.”

Shultz began to understand something else that night: He had found an invaluable ally in a first lady who understood her husband as no one else did — who was, in fact, the only person in the world to whom the president was truly close. In the years that followed, he would grow to appreciate more the unseen role that she played in protecting and shaping the Reagan presidency. Nancy rarely set foot in the West Wing, but her presence was felt by everyone who worked there. When she was displeased about something, they all knew it, and those who were not in her good graces tended not to last for long.

“She watched the people around, both in the White House and around in the Cabinet. She had a pretty good idea who was really serving himself or herself and who was working for the president,” Shultz said. “I always thought anybody with any brains would make a friend of the first lady.”

Ronald Reagan was endowed with enormous gifts: vision, ambition, optimism, and an ability to make the country believe in itself. He also enjoyed the benefit of being perpetually underestimated. But it was Nancy, wary by nature, who was the shrewder judge of people. Their son, Ron Reagan, described his mother as the skeptic — and the enforcer — that his ingenuous father needed to succeed in a business as cynical and opportunistic as politics. “My father was as good a man as you’ll find in politics, or life for that matter. Very easygoing, very easy with people, very trusting of people. He was almost entirely guileless. There was no cynicism in him whatsoever. He tended to assume that other people — certainly people who were working for him and professed similar sensibilities — were like that too,” Ron said. “My mother, on the other hand, understood that people had hidden agendas and that not everybody who talked a good game would back that up. She was unforgiving when she thought somebody had betrayed my father. When somebody needed to go, she was the one to know it first and, often as not, to make that happen.”

Stu Spencer, who served as Ronnie’s chief political strategist from the dawn of his career in California, described the Reagans as “an inseparable team politically and personally. He would never have been governor without her. He would never have been president without her.” Nor without her might he have survived in the Oval Office, much less departed with a renown that would continue to shape politics for more than a generation after he left. That she would be capable of filling this role was far from obvious in her early naive days as California’s first lady, but over the years, Nancy grew to understand her power and to use it with great effect. When Ronnie’s presidency was on the brink of collapsing under scandal during his second term, it was Nancy who remained clear-eyed enough to put together the rescue effort. She was relentless and ruthless in engineering the firing of Donald T. Regan, his autocratic White House chief of staff. “Her particular quality was she was street smart,” Reagan biographer Edmund Morris said. “She was aggressive and a street fighter, which Reagan was not. She handled all the nasty business.”

Nancy exercised an influence unlike any first lady before or since. She was not the conscience of her husband’s presidency, as Eleanor Roosevelt had been to FDR. She claimed no policy portfolio, as Hillary Clinton did — disastrously, on healthcare — during Bill Clinton’s first term in the Oval Office. Nor was Nancy secretly running the government in her husband’s stead, though some critics compared her with Edith Wilson, who essentially assumed President Woodrow Wilson’s duties for the last year and a half of his second term after he suffered a near-fatal stroke in 1919.

Hers was the power that comes with intimacy. The first lady was the essential disinterested observer of the ideological battles and power struggles that went on in the White House, because she had but one preoccupation: Ronald Reagan’s well-being and success. She knew what he needed — rest, time to himself, encouragement — to be able to perform at his best, and she made sure he got it. Nancy also recognized that, unless he had the right set of people advising him, he could be led astray by his trusting nature and tendency to delegate. Her instincts, time would show, were usually right. “She was the guardian,” said James A. Baker III, who was the president’s first chief of staff and later his Treasury secretary. “She had a terrific political antenna, much better than his, in my view.”

And yet, though she was hypervigilant in tending to her husband’s image, Nancy was confoundingly clueless about managing her own. He was called the Teflon President because nothing bad ever seemed to stick to him. If that was the case, she was the Velcro First Lady. She made many missteps, and the damage from them adhered. Terrified for Ronnie’s safety after he was nearly killed by a would-be assassin just two months after he took office, she turned to an astrologer to determine when and how he should travel and make public appearances. Her purchase of more than $200,000 worth of White House china created a headache for her husband amid a recession during which the Reagan administration was cutting poverty programs. She “borrowed” designer clothes and did not give them back.

Ronald and Nancy Reagan in the White House Oval Office
Stand by your man: Nancy “was aggressive and a street fighter, which Reagan was not,” said Reagan biographer Edmund Morris. (Courtesy Reagan Library)

Feminists held a particular kind of scorn for a first lady who gazed at her husband as if in rapture and who proclaimed over and over again that her life did not begin until she met Ronnie. Betty Friedan, a mother of the modern women’s equality movement, had been a year ahead of Nancy at Smith College. Friedan declared the first lady to be “an anachronism” who would deny “the reality of American women today — what they want to be and what they need to be.” Just a few of the names that Nancy was called: The Iron Butterfly. The Belle of Rodeo Drive. Fancy Nancy. The Cutout Doll. The Evita of Bel-Air. Mommie Dearest. The Hairdo with Anxiety. The Ice Queen. Attila the Hen.

Nancy was complicated, and just about everyone who dealt with her found her difficult at times. But while she had the image of a haughty socialite, the first lady in person could be charming and, truth be told, more engaging company than her husband. Nancy was worldly, an excellent listener, an eager gossip. She had at the ready a deep, disarming laugh. It was the opposite with Ronnie. For all his affability, there was a remoteness to his nature. He was at heart a loner who liked people but didn’t need them.

“He doesn’t let anybody get too close,” Nancy acknowledged. “There’s a wall around him. He lets me come closer than anyone else, but there are times when even I feel that barrier.” She understood that Ronnie’s penchant for self-isolation developed as a survival skill. He was the child of an alcoholic father who led his family from one uncertain situation into another. The collapse of Ronnie’s first marriage devastated him. Nancy learned to grapple with and ultimately overcome his emotional inaccessibility during their frustrating, on-again-off-again courtship. “You can get just so far to Ronnie, and then something happens,” she recollected. “It took him a long time, I think, to feel that he could really trust me.”

Nancy too had a precarious early life. She was the product of a broken marriage, estranged from her birth father and left for a time with relatives by her mother. The trauma left her forever insecure and anxious, but also fearless when she discerned threats to the happiness and wholeness that she and Ronnie finally realized in each other.

“Every marriage finds its own balance,” she wrote. “It’s part of Ronnie’s character not to confront certain problems, so I’m usually the one who brings up the tough subjects — which often makes me seem like the bad guy.” The couple filled in the voids of each other’s personalities so completely that there wasn’t much room left for anyone else — including their four children, two from his first marriage and two they had together. A dysfunctional family was the collateral heartbreak that accompanied the Reagans’ epic love.

The final, sad chapter of the Reagans’ lives together would bring another reassessment of Nancy. Even her harshest critics were moved by the stoicism and devotion she showed during the last decade of her husband’s life, as he descended deeper and deeper into Alzheimer’s disease. For the acclaim and sympathy that finally came her way, Nancy paid the highest price imaginable. Theirs had been a monumental story, and she was left to write the ending alone. “Not being able to share memories is an awful thing,” she said.

If there were ever to be an epitaph that finally solved the riddle that was Nancy Reagan, it might be the words with which she once admonished a biographer, Bob Colacello: “Don’t say I was tough. I was strong. I had to be, because Ronnie liked everybody and sometimes didn’t see or refused to see what the people around him were really up to. But everything I did, I did for Ronnie. I did for love. Remember, Bob, the most important word is love.”

From The Triumph of Nancy Reagan by Karen Tumulty. Copyright © 2021 by Karen Tumulty. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

This article is featured in the May/June 2022 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: Courtesy Reagan Library

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