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Behind every great man

By Michael M. Bates
web posted February 25, 2008

Former first lady Nancy Reagan took a fall recently.  She reportedly is doing well and I hope her recovery is swift and complete.

Nancy Reagan's central role in the history of this country can't be discounted.  It's possible, perhaps likely, that Ronald Reagan would never have been president were it not for his wife.

Their son Ron believes that's the case: "I don't think he would've gotten to where he got to (without her).  Because I think she has more ambition than he does.  I think if left to his own devices, he might've ended up hosting Unsolved Mysteries on TV or something ... I think that she saw in him the stuff that could be president, and she kept pushing."

Ronald and Nancy ReaganShe kept pushing.  And staring.  Listening again and again to her husband's speeches, when he was a private citizen, then as California governor, then as activist, then as president, she stared in rapt attention, as though never hearing the words before.

It became known as "the gaze."  At least one very close friend claimed that it was never phony; Mrs. Reagan truly was fascinated by what Mr. Reagan had to say, no matter how many times he said it.

Known for his congeniality and good humored optimism, Ronald Reagan disliked personal confrontation.  Nancy had no such compunctions.In his 1977 book, PR as in President, author Vic Gold tells a tale of Reagan's 1976 battle with incumbent President Jerry Ford for the Republican nomination:

. . . (A strategist) is explaining a complicated delegate strategy which entails a degree of cooperation with Ford forces.

"We have to do it," says Keene, "though, personally, I'd rather sail in and kick the **** out of ‘em."

"Now that," exclaims Nancy, eyes gleaming, is the kind of talk I like to hear."

Moving into the White House, Nancy's desire to protect her husband and his image didn't diminish.  She was widely criticized for exerting too much influence in his administration.

A major detractor was the late Donald Regan, who scathingly derided her days as first lady in his 1998 book, "For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington."  Serving as both Treasury secretary and White House chief of staff, Mr. Regan was an insider, at least until he incurred the wrath of Mrs. Reagan.

Mr. Regan was appalled by Mrs. Reagan's interference in matters he didn't see as any of her business.  He particularly disdained her use of an astrologer to help determine President Reagan's travel schedule.  After the 1981 attempted assassination of her husband, Mrs. Reagan wrote she felt panicky every time he left the White House.  She sought an astrologer's assistance in fixing what dates would be safest for travel.

One anecdote Mr. Regan included concerned a lengthy and doctrinaire monologue delivered by Raisa Gorbachev, wife of Soviet leader Mikhail, at a 1985 dinner with the Reagans.  After the Gorbachevs left, Nancy reasonably asked, "Who does that dame think she is?"  A wonderful word, dame.  Don't hear it much anymore.

The Reagans' affection for and devotion to one another were extraordinary.  Their marriage wasn't perfect, of course, but their commitment to it might border on a fairy tale to some people, despite the evidence of its authenticity.

He doted on her, treasured her, cherished her.  In return, she provided an unwavering support that surely must have comforted him in the darkest hours.  She saw him through political defeats, an assassination attempt, cancer and Alzheimer's disease.  The partnership saw him go from a B-movie actor to a dominant figure on the world's stage.  Would Ronald Reagan have been the Ronald Reagan we knew without her nurturing love?

The President, both privately and publicly, never tired of expressing his appreciation for Nancy.  He spoke of her in a 1985 Saturday morning radio address:

"First Ladies aren't elected, and they don't receive a salary.  They've mostly been private persons forced to live public lives.  And in my book, they've all been heroes.  Abigail Adams helped invent America.  Dolly Madison helped protect it.  Eleanor Roosevelt was F.D.R.'s eyes and ears. And Nancy Reagan is my everything. When I look back on these days, Nancy, I'll remember your radiance and your strength, your support, and for taking part in the business in this nation.  I say for myself, but also on behalf of the Nation, thank you, partner, thanks for everything.  By the way, are you doing anything this evening?"

The President is gone now, but the love of his life perseveres, sweetly, attentively, working on his legacy.  That Nancy is some dame. ESR

This Michael Bates column appeared in the February 21, 2008 Reporter Newspapers.


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